The decoration of ceramics with colourful patterns in China dates back to sancai or ‘three-colour’ wares developed during the Tang period (618–907). During the late Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, porcelains decorated in red, green and yellow with outlines of underglaze blue called wucai (‘five-colours’) became the most widely produced wares. Depending on the prominence of certain colours, they were known in Europe by names such as famille verte (‘green family’) and famille rose (‘rose family’), after terms used by the French Jesuit Albert Jacquemart in 1873.
Colours were added to porcelain by applying enamels (powdered glass mixed with pigments) either to unglazed clay which had been through one firing or to glazed ceramics, sometimes with underglaze decoration applied beforehand. The enamels were then fused to the surface through a second firing at approximately 900˚C. Major advancements in the production of polychrome porcelain were achieved in the early eighteenth century, driven by the support of the Kangxi emperor (r. 1662–1722)—a patron of the arts who encouraged experimentation at the imperial kilns—and by the arrival of European Jesuits at court who brought with them knowledge of Western chemistry.
Vast quantities of colourful porcelains were purchased by the Dutch and British East India companies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, their appearance changing in step with European tastes. At times, consumers favoured designs that depicted an exotic East, while at others Western patterns with prominent armorial crests or landscapes and figures taken from prints were preferred. European designs were transmitted via a well-established trading network which carried models to China, where they were copied onto special services.
This trade was briefly interrupted when the Qing dynasty cut off the export of porcelain from 1644 to 1684, at which point traders turned to kilns in Japan. The brightly coloured objects they produced proved so popular that, when Chinese exports resumed, Chinese makers were forced to imitate Japanese styles. European manufactories later produced their own synthesised versions, combining features found on export ceramics from both countries.