Ginger jars – Chinese high-shouldered, ovoid, lidded, utilitarian porcelain vessels – were long used to store and transport oil, wine, salt, and spices. Decorative ones, however, date from the Ming Dynasty era (1368–1644). Created in mineral-rich Jingdezhen-area kilns, such jars were produced for domestic use, bestowed at festive ceremonies, or destined for the Chinese Imperial court. Large quantities of ginger jars were also exported to Europe.
Many ginger jars feature underglaze cobalt blue images of scrolling foliage, warriors, phoenix birds, or sinuous dragons set against milk-white grounds. Others, known as “three-color,” or sancai jars, display deep violet, yellow, and turquoise floral motifs defined by cloisonne-like raised lines. Eye-catching five-color wucai jars have underglaze blue designs enhanced with bold, overglazed yellow, green, and red enamel detail.
During the decline of the Ming Dynasty, the Jingdezhen kilns not only lost Imperial support, but were largely destroyed. However, they and other private kilns regained artistic and technical distinction under the auspices of Kangxi (1661-1722), an early Qing Dynasty emperor. As the demand for porcelains increased, production evolved into specialized, more efficient subsets – e.g., mining, mixing, and shaping. Firing at extremely high temperatures created pieces that were glossier and brighter than those of the Ming era.
With the expansion of Chinese maritime trade, merchants protected delicate exports, such as silks and tea leaves, by lining ship holds with rows of sturdy, waterproof porcelain jars. These commonly held precious spices, including ginger, a staple of Chinese medicine and cuisine. Because the British associated these vessels with treats such as ginger beer, ginger biscuits and gingerbread, they commonly called them “ginger jars.” Due to the fact that they were obviously finer than locally produced porcelain, they became valued more for their beauty than their contents.
Once ginger jars had become coveted decorative items, Chinese potteries exported them by the millions. Those depicting traditional blue-and-white figures, florals, or landscapes are not only most common, but remain the most desirable—especially if they still have their original lids.
Antique ginger jars are often classified according to their dominant color palette. Those featuring vibrant shades of green, a type that emerged during the Ming dynasty, are known as famille verte. Ginger jars featuring famille verte elements against a ground of yellow, a hue reserved for high-ranking Qing officials, are known as famille jaune. Famille rose, another ornamental jar type, features motifs such as birds, peonies, prunus, or chrysanthemums in pale pink to ruby-red tones.
From the mid-1700s, China began flooding the European market with their lucrative ginger jars – dubbed “Chinese Imari” vessels – which were inspired by exceptionally fine porcelain items that had long been popular in Japan. These highly glazed pieces typically feature blue underglaze oriental motifs adorned with overglaze fauna, flora, and figures in vivid shades of green, yellow, red, and black.
Because porcelain ginger jars associated with particular historical eras frequently were copied by subsequent generations of ceramicists, they may prove difficult to date. Some bearing Kangxi reign marks, for instance, were actually produced centuries later to honor that vibrant artistic era.
Following an ages-old tradition, Chinese craftsmen also decorated ginger jars with highly detailed three-dimensional designs carved in red-orange cinnabar, a sap derived from the Chinese lacquer tree. Numerous examples depict opulent peony blossoms amid scrolling leaves, vines, or bamboo branches. Others portray charming images of villagers in popular pursuits set against lush Chinese landscapes. But those featuring auspicious five-clawed dragons or raised bat motifs against finely wrought so-called “diaper” or geometric latticework grounds may be most desirable of all.
Today, antique ginger jars, whatever their style, are not restricted to private collections and museums. Whether gracing entrance halls and mantelpieces or repurposed as vases or centerpieces, they lend an air of classic Chinese elegance to any interior design.