Discover the history of the Chinese ginger jar

Chinese ginger jars are beautiful, elegant and undeniably charming. Here, we explore their rich past

Blue and white Chinese Ginger Jar

Picture a sitting room in a classic English stately home – you’re likely to see two Chinese ginger jars flanking the fireplace, their beautiful blue-and-white forms adding symmetry and elegance. But how and why did these evocatively Eastern pieces, with their ovoid forms, high shoulders and delicate detailing, become a staple feature of our traditional interiors scheme? The answer is in the quality…

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19th century Chinese blue-and-white ginger jars on wood stand
A pair of 19th-century Chinese blue-and-white ginger jars  on wood stands from Kevin Page Oriental Art.

When were the first Chinese ginger jars made?

‘The earliest ginger jars as we know them date from the Ming period (1368-1644), and they were made for exporting salt, spices, oil, and so on, to the West,’ says BADA dealer Kevin Page. The Europeans couldn’t help but be impressed by these cargo containers – the jars were far more refined than any porcelain being produced in the West at the time. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, the jars became highly coveted as luxurious accessories for the home, not only for their fine quality, but also their aesthetic appeal. ‘The variety of designs is wide but always very decorative,’ says Kevin. ‘You often see cherry blossoms, as well as figures, landscapes and animals.’

With such a range of patterns and colours (there are far more than just the classic blue and white) it’s small wonder porcelain collectors and interiors enthusiasts alike rank these high-shouldered beauties greatly. And, with prices ranging from £20 to £500,000 and beyond, there’s an antique jar to suit every budget and taste.

Where in China are Chinese ginger jars made?

For many centuries, ginger jars were made on a vast scale to keep up with demand but, despite being ‘mass produced’, these were still handmade products of exceptional quality. Thrown by master potters and painted by skilled artists, the production process was  a testament to China’s ancient porcelain traditions. One city famous for creating perhaps the finest export wares is Jingdezhen in south-east China, which remains a mecca for ceramicists to this day. 

Painting porcelain in Jingdezhen
A skilled artist decorating porcelain in Jingdezhen.

The city’s porcelain heritage is thought to date back as far as the sixth century BC. By the time of the Ming dynasty, when ginger jars were rising in popularity, this porcelain hub was producing wares for the government and the imperial household, as well as exporting to Europe on a scale never seen before. It is even thought that the English word ‘china’ comes from Western attempts to pronounce Jingdezhen’s earlier name, Changnan.

Adding detail to a large vase at a Jingdezhen ceramic museum
An artist adds detail to a large vase at a Jingdezhen ceramic museum.
Collecting Chinese ginger jars. Image: Phil Sowels

What colour are Chinese ginger jars?

Though blue and white ginger jars are the most common, they were crafted in a range of decorative colour palettes.

Imari – Jars are also found in the richly pigmented Imari style, which features a blue underglaze with shades of red, black and gold on top. This pair of 1800s jars from Vinterior illustrates the style.

19th century pair of Imari vases

Cinnabar carved lacquer – For bold colour, choose cinnabar-finished jars like this one which sold at McTear’s Auctioneers. Carved lacquered jars usually have a base of turned wood which are then decorated with the sap of a tree (lacquer) which hardens when exposed to the air. The red cinnabar colouring is made using powdered mercury sulphide.

Red GingerJar

Famille verte – This jar is a fine example of the luscious green hue that blossomed in the 1600s. Pair sold in 2018 for £22,500, Bonhams. Literally translating to ‘green family’ the term refers to ceramics which were predominantly green in colour.

Famille Verte Ginger Jars

Famille rose – The opaque pink hues seen on this famille rose jar flourished in the 1700s. Pair sold in 2018 for $10,625 at Christie’s. Similar to the above, famille rose refers to ceramics which are predominantly pink in colour.

Famille rose ginger jars

Famille noire – Intensely black with a hint of green, this 19th-century jar is a prime example of the predominantly dark colour palette. These striking jars are from Kevin Page.

Famille noir ginger jars

How to identify and buy a Chinese ginger jar

What to look out for when shopping for an authentic antique Chinese ginger jar…

  • The key factors in identifying a jar’s value are its age, colour, rarity, condition – and a lid. ‘The original lid makes a real differe nce to the price,’ advises Kevin Page.
  • There are a few signs that suggest a ginger jar is of good quality: ‘It should be porcelain, complete and have painting of good quality,’ says Kevin. ‘If you are not worried about restoration or damage, you may be able to get a very old jar for a great price.’
  • And key signs that reveal the quality might not be so good? ‘The painting will be crude and rushed with large brushstrokes.’ Fakes are a problem – make sure your jar is genuine by buying from a reputable dealer or auction house.
  • Almost all jars have reign marks on the base that tell you which dynasty and emperor the jar was made under. However, this can be misleading, as Kevin explains: ‘Potters sometimes replicated the styles of previous reigns and would use the appropriate mark for the style they were imitating. This was not deception though, as these jars were not sold as being older than they were. These are not fakes so much as a homage to past craftsmen.’
  • Ready to buy? ‘For the best variety,’ says Kevin, ‘head to specialist  oriental dealers. Or visit reputable auctions where age and condition will be guaranteed. You also see jars at antiques fairs, often on a specialist dealer’s stand.’
Pops of pattern and texture inject colour and character into a room and can be added by using antique ceramics and paintings as well as rugs, as in Penny Morrison’s inviting hallway. Image: ©CreditMikeGarlickPhotography

How to display Chinese ginger jars in your own home

Cluster together blue and white ceramics of different ages and styles for an eclectic look

In a striking medley of blue-and-white china, a ginger jar deserves centre stage. Line your mantelpiece with monochromatic classics and place a ginger jar in the middle, using it as a vase for fresh, summery yellow flowers.

Blue and White feature shot on location
Blue and white china lines the mantelpiece and sideboard in this eclectic home. Image: Philip Sowels

Make a statement by playing around with shape and form in your home

Position a classic blue-and-white ginger jar, with its soft, flowing curves, next to more rigid forms such as a boxed model, to accentuate the lines of each. Add interest above with a gilt-framed painting.

Chinese Ginger jar styled next to painting
A shapely Chinese ginger jar makes a statement alongside a geometric frame and display box. Image: Simon Upton

Create a traditional look by pairing with classic brown furniture

Ginger jars sit beautifully with wooden furniture – but don’t feel restricted to pieces that are as refined and ornate as the porcelain. Here, the simplicity of the chest of drawers allows your eye to appreciate the jar’s detail.

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Ginger jars on wooden furniture
A ginger jar sits beautifully atop a traditional wooden chest of drawers. Image: Andreas von Einsiedel

Draw the eye upwards by positioning a ginger jar atop a tall shelving unit or bookcase

Sometimes the top of a bookcase or dresser calls out for a finishing touch and, as seen here in a look by Oka, a collection of ginger and temple jars can be just what the stylist ordered.

Shenlong Lidded Jar, OKA
Chinese porcelain jars, from £255, Oka.