Porcelain and Painting
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Interest in Porcelain Painting

From 1908 to 1911, the last years of the Qing dynasty, the founders of the Lingnan School, Gao Jianfu and Gao Qifeng, established the Art Object Traders’ Association in Guangzhou in an area south of the Pearl River. Their apparent aim was to “promote Chinese ceramic production for the salvation of the country” and study and produce porcelain ware with painted decoration (enamelled ware) [Note 5] to sell. Under this cover, they made gunpowder in the kiln factory and raised money for the revolutionary activities led by Sun Yat-sen and the Tongmenghui, his Alliance for Democracy.

Typical Canton enamel ware, popularly known as Guangcai, includes rich and glamorous decorations. The Lingnan artists who produced paintings on porcelain injected a fresh painterly style into the products, since they transferred their eclectic, East-West style of working on paper directly onto the porcelain. This style was derived directly from the Lingnan School of painting which included both Western and Chinese elements, as well as some elements of Japanese styles. It won the praise of the contemporaries and these products were exported. However, very few examples survived in Mainland museums.

On display is a work by Gao Jianfu, Dish with Mantises Design in Fencai Enamels, which bears the mark of the Art Object Traders’ Association of Guangdong. The other, a vase painted with peonies in fencai enamels, has no mark, but was probably a work that Gao created in the same period. [Note 6]

Apart from the two early works of painted porcelain described above, the rest of the porcelain wares on display in this exhibition were painted by Chao Shao-an and Yang Shanshen in the Yuet Tung China Works in Hong Kong. Some of the works were presented as gifts to the manager of the Works, Tso Wing Shui, while others were kept by the artists. The Yuet Tung China Works was founded in Guangzhou by Tso Lu Song, father of Tso Wing Shui, in the early Republican period (turn of the 20th Century). The white porcelain bodies were imported from Jiangxi Province and hand-painted in Guangzhou for sale to the affluent locals and for export. Threatened by political instability, Tso Lu Song moved to Hong Kong in 1928 with his team of skilled decorators and established the first ceramic factory on Kak Hang Tsun Road in Kowloon City. After relocating a number of times during the Sino-Japanese War, the factory finally moved to Kowloon Bay Industrial Centre, its current address. In the 1960s and 1970s, many workshops producing ceramics mushroomed in Hong Kong due to the high demand. The 1980s and 1990s saw the height of the industry, when royalty and large families from overseas came to Hong Kong to order tableware with their names or emblems.

Tso Wing Shui, the second generation manager of the Works, originally worked in the rice trade in Guangzhou prior to 1954. He was a generous man and organised gatherings for a cultured circle, making friends with artists who later became very famous. When he came to Hong Kong to attend to the business of the Yuet Tung China Works, he was frequently in communication with C. K. Tang’s Department Store in Singapore; this led to his making friends with artists there and the start of his collection of their art, many being presents to him.

Chao and Yang made their acquaintance with Tso during this period, and it was at this time that the Yuet Tung factory had to be relocated on the slope of Tai Wo Ping on Lung Cheung Road in Shum Shui Po. The two artists would bring their students there to paint on porcelain. Tso said that he reserved 12-inch porcelain dishes and rectangular plaques imported from Japan for them to paint, rather than the more commonly used porcelain from Jiangxi Province. These white Japanese porcelain wares of the 1960s and 1970s were produced in Nagoya, and the white ware carried a greyish tinge. After firing, the porcelain became very hard and of such a fine texture that it would clink when tapped. Tso Wing Shui’s son, Tso Chi Hung, succeeded him as the third generation manager. The latter recalls seeing Chao painting on porcelain at the Works:

Chao tested a few times, and he understood that the glossy surface of the porcelain is non-absorbent, and that the colour enamels with certain water content would flow on the surface of the dish. On mastering the characteristics of the colour enamels, he was soon painting on the dishes. He used a large brush with black to outline the branches, and the ‘water and powder infusion technique’ to make gradations, using a goat-hair brush saturated with water to achieve effects of wash in the blank areas, and a fine wolf-hair brush to paint fine details such as flowers (roses), magpie, beetle, praying mantis, cicada, lychee and pomegranate in rich colours. When the painting was completed, he usually signed his name in ink, and drew in the seal mark using red pigment. Students and friends who came with him would urge him to do a painting for them and inscribe their names on each of the works. Chao would keep some good ones for himself, and each time he would give one or two to my father as a souvenir”. [Note 7]

Exhibits The Scent of Peony, Pomegranate, Mantis and Cicada in Autumn are examples of works that Chao gave to Tso Wing Shui and his wife as souvenirs.

When Yang came to paint for the first time, he was not accustomed to the runniness of the pigments on the porcelain. After several attempts, he came to understand the method. First, he painted a bamboo leaf in red, and then added a black beetle. It took only a few brushstrokes, but it had a natural appeal. Then, there were a number of plaques and round dishes which were joint works of the two masters. Yang would usually depict the branches and flowers in outlines, while Chao would add the insects and inscriptions. These rare works are mostly in private collections. Currently two works are displayed in the Hong Kong Heritage Museum, inside the Chao Shao-an Gallery, and these are replicas of two works in 1962. The originals are in the Yuet Tung China Works”. [Note 8]

Examples of joint work with Chao and Yang include Insect in Moonlight, Cicada and Bamboo and Bamboo and Insect, while Red Bamboo is painted by Yang and inscribed by Chao. In addition, Yang made gifts of his painted porcelain dishes to Chao Shao-an and his wife, including Prawn, Two Goldfishes and Fish. These works have been kept in the Chao family collection all these years, a testament to their deep friendship.

Tso Chi Hung further described the activities of Chao and Yang thus:

Professor Chao came to paint on porcelain every two to three years, very often together with Yang. Master Yang also visited every two years. He would walk up the hill, bringing his students and practicing his painting on porcelain. Yang usually gave all his works to students and friends, and hardly kept any for himself. His works in his later artistic period included goldfishes, flowers and calligraphy written in small characters. His students’ favourite was a rooster in white feathers in the 1980s. His painting made use of the negative space of the dish as the fluffy feathers of the rooster. With a few strokes of red for the comb, black for the feet, round eyes and the pointed beak, the white rooster comes alive. Sadly, there were no photographs to record these works, and it’s all in my memory. The majority of Yang’s works were simple and concise compositions but very effective”. [Note 9]

Rooster is one of the souvenirs that Yang gave to Chao; it is depicted with a red comb, white feathers and a black tail. It is an example of those swift and concise compositions that Tso described as very effective. Other porcelain works include Dragonflies in the Grass and The Court Lady, which are also evidence of the superb command of line used for various subjects.

From a technical perspective, painting on porcelain is very different from painting on paper. The white porcelain ground, whether dishes or brush holders, are three-dimensional with some degree of curvature. More importantly, they offer a glossy surface which does not absorb water as Chinese xuan paper does. This makes it imperative that the painter adjust the weight of the brushstrokes and control the amount of water when painting on porcelain. The colour pigments used consist of minerals, silica (glass) and copper ground down to powder form and then mixed with water. The proportion of each is determined by a specific formula. In painting on paper, the colour pigments are mainly derived from plants. There is also a difference in the application of the colours. In painting on a porcelain surface, the colours cannot overlap. The thickness of pigment matters greatly: if it is applied too thinly, it will peel off after firing; and if it is applied too thickly, it will crackle when fired.

These works were entirely different in subject and in style from the usual Guangcai Canton enamel ware produced by the Works. Those traditional products employed rich colours and gilding and were densely packed with decorative designs to give the sense of glamorous beauty. They incorporated subjects from historical episodes and popular customs. The decorative motifs were often densely packed, such as “A Hundred Butterflies around a Flower”, “Dragon and Phoenix” and the “All Birds Design”. In contrast, the porcelain wares painted by Chao and Yang were pure works of artistic expression, with subjects such as birds, flowers, animals, other creatures and historical figures. The style was similar to ink paintings on paper; being sparse and spacious, they were created for artistic appreciation rather than any functional purpose.


5 Guangcai is the popular term for enameled and gilded porcelain produced in Guangzhou. The biscuits were imported from Jingdezhen while painted decoration were hand painted and kiln-fired a second time. These were the main type of Chinese export wares for over three hundred years, and highly sought after in the West.

6 Kao Mayching, ‘Gao Jianfu and Modern Chinese Ceramic Industry’ in Wong Wingyin, Wendy (ed.), Footsteps of the Master: In Commemoration of the 120th Birthday of Gao Jianfu (Hong Kong: Fareast Culture & Arts Exchange Centre, 2000), pp. 26-35.

7 Tso Chi Hung, ‘A Concise History of Enameled Wares in Hong Kong’, in A Century of Change – Guangcai wares since the 19th century from Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau, Guangdong Folk Arts Museum (Guangzhou: Lingnan Meishu Chubanshe, 2008), pp. 36-37.

8 Tso Chi Hung, ‘A Concise History of Enameled Wares in Hong Kong’, in A Century of Change – Guangcai wares since the 19th century from Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau, Guangdong Folk Arts Museum (Guangzhou: Lingnan Meishu Chubanshe, 2008), p. 37.

9 Tso Chi Hung, ‘A Concise History of Enameled Wares in Hong Kong’, in A Century of Change – Guangcai wares since the 19th century from Guangdong, Hong Kong and Macau, Guangdong Folk Arts Museum (Guangzhou: Lingnan Meishu Chubanshe, 2008), p. 37.


  • Dish with Mantises Design in Fencai Enamels (1)

  • Vase with Peony Design in Fencai Enamels

  • The Scent of Peony

  • Pomegranate