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Anhua, secret or hidden decoration

Qianjiang decoration on porcelain. The vase which is dated in the inscription to 1882 is painted in the style of Ni Yun Lin who was one of the four Yuan Qianjiang Masters. The box is dated 1940. Of these examples the plaque is the most typical.
Photo: Simon Ng, 2003

Qianjiang means literally "light umber" and is a Yuan Dynasty literati painting on paper style where the landscapes are outlined with ink and complemented by strokes of pale umber to designate the lit areas of the landscape. Qianjiang enamels was applied directly on the white glazed porcelain surface, giving the decoration the appearance of watercolor painting on silk or paper.

The decorations are pale in coloration and delicate in feeling, in sharp contrast to the richly almost gaudily painted porcelain of the time.

Qianjiang painting on porcelain flourished in the latter half of the 19th century up to the early Republic Period around 1910. Objects decorated in this style includes brush pots, tea wares, bowls, hat stands etc where a significant proportions being flat porcelain plaques made to be fitted into screens or furniture.

When the style was introduced on porcelains it was used mainly for landscapes with mountains (Shan) and waters (Shui) in a particular color scheme: ink for mass, tree trunks and areas in the shade, and a reddish brown for foliage, water and elements in the light. Eventually when the style got popular and more artist adopted the idea of copying traditional paintings onto porcelain, the decorations fetched their inspiration from more styles than qianjiang however the name has been kept to encompass all styles.

The pioneers and most famous qianjiang painters on porcelain in the Tongzhi (1862-1874) and Guangxu (1875-1908) periods were Wang Shaowei, Jin Pinqing and Chen Men.

On this literati style of decorations the enamels seems to have been mixed by the artists themselves to arrive at the right look and feel they wanted, maybe disregarding some of the technical wisdom needed for the durability of the enamels. This has led to that many of the earlier pieces are left with little or none of the original enamels left.

Qianjiang is a term used to describe a type of over-glaze enameled ware that was very popular during the Late Qing/Early Republican Period. The term Qianjiang cai (enamels) or Qianjiang porcelain was only coined in the 1950s. Prior to that, annals or commentaries in the late Qing and Republican periods did not classify it as a new distinctive type of over-glaze enamel decorative technique on porcelain. The term was initially used to describe a distinct style of landscape painting by the Yuan master Huang Gongwang. It is typified by the use of a particular color scheme: varying ink tones for outlines and reddish-brown for other aspects such as foliage, flowing water, mountain shades etc. The term was subsequently used to describe a porcelain painting style that used similar techniques but with additional colors such as aquamarine, moss green, pale blue, red and light pink.

The relationship between qianjiang and fencai painting has caused quite a bit of confusion. In terms of the decorating medium, qianjiang utilizes fencai enamels. The main difference is actually the source of inspiration for the painting because the Qianjiang school draws its inspiration from the Chinese literati style, whereas the typical fencai work is more akin to gongbi painting.

For fencai painting, the areas within the outlines of the motif are first applied with an arsenic-based opaque white pigment. The deeper and lighter tones are then obtained by mixing the enamels with different amounts of this opaque substance. For Qianjiang, the enamels are applied directly without the opaque white pigment. Hence, the enamels are thin and lack tonal gradations, especially on the early qianjiang works.

See also: Jin Pinqing (artist)