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The Chinese Ginger Jar

If you think about Asian or Chinese porcelain or pots, you probably have a certain image in mind of a round vase covered with a domed lid or a round blue-white decorated pot with a small mouth. Chinese ceramics comes in many forms and many colours so how come we associate Chinese pots with these mental images?

The classical ginger jar

Big blue white ginger jar with Chinese character that means ‘good luck’
Big blue white ginger jar with Chinese character that means ‘good luck’

First of all, these pots you see in your mind’s eye are called ginger jars in the West. In China, they are called ‘hu’ which just means ‘jar’.

A classical ginger jar has high shoulders, a rounded, ovoid shape (sometimes tall, sometimes squat), no handles and a smooth, domed lid. They were used for centuries in China to store herbs and spices (hence the name) at homes or pharmacies. Besides utilitarian jars, more beautiful jars were often presented in pairs as gifts.

A yellow ginger jar was designed as a gift to the Emperor as yellow was the imperial colour. A white (with blue designs) ginger jar was mainly used as wedding gifts. Dragons and phoenixes (representing bride and groom) or Chinese characters for fertility and happiness are common motifs. A red coloured jar represented prosperity. Other jars are often decorated with symbols for long life, good health or double happiness. These gifts were meant to last a lifetime and it was considerate very inappropriate to give them away again.

Porcelain ginger jars come in many styles. The most famous are the traditional blue-white jars that became the most sought-after jars for collectors and let to the famous imitation delftware. Other famous styles are Imari ware (multicoloured jars made for export) and Famille Vert and Rose ware (green or pink enamel glazed jars).

The ginger jar in the west

Apple blossoms in a turquoise ginger jar - Oil on canvas painting by Frans David Oerder (South African 1867-1944)
Apple blossoms in a turquoise ginger jar - Oil on canvas painting by Frans David Oerder (South African 1867-1944)

Ginger jars became suddenly popular in the West as decorative objects during the 18th century.

This century saw an immense flourishing of trade between the East and the West which had a major impact of artistic traditions. Westerners became obsessed with the beautiful porcelain wares from China and commissioned many pieces to be used as decorations in their homes. Chinoiserie, or imitation and evocation of Chinese motifs in Western art, became popular in many interiors. This let to mass-produced Chinese porcelain wares made for the Western markets (with what the Chinese artists assumed were Western looking images) and the rise of imitation manufacturers in European countries. The Medici porcelain manufacturers in Italy were the first to reach the technical sophistication of Chinese porcelain during the late 16th century while the Dutch popularized blue-white delftware decoration half a century later.

Ginger jars in modern interiors

After the rococo art style ended, chinoiserie became less popular. But in the 1960s, interior and product designer started to take interest in the blue-white porcelain pieces again. We can find very elaborate pieces in musea and private collections, but many ginger jars also turn up in modern living rooms! Aesthetically speaking, these jars can be so versatile that they will never go out of style!

Turquoise ginger pot Turquoise ginger pot

It is rare nowadays to find antique blue-white ginger jars with their original lid, because aged porcelain is very fragile. It is even more difficult to find elaborately designed Chinese ginger jars with their matching domed lid. Collectors often pay a steep price for a ginger jar in exceptional condition with lid!

We love simple, unadorned ginger jars as accent pieces in interiors, but their squat shape and low center of gravity also make them perfect pots to make lamps out of. Due to their glazing they also make great flower pots. They can look great in a cluster on a dressoir. How would you like to integrate a ginger jar in your interior?

  • April 07, 2017
  • Margret Ressang

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