Discover the exotic history of the Chinese ginger jar

Chinese ginger jars are beautiful, elegant and undeniably charming. Here, we explore their rich and exotic 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
This pair of 19th-century Chinese blue-and-white ginger jars (with original covers) on wood stands costs £3,800 from Kevin Page Oriental Art.

In fine form

‘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 a jar to suit every budget and taste.

Centre of Design

Jingdezhen, China

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
Painting 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
Adding detail to a large vase at a Jingdezhen ceramic museum

Palettes – Collectable colourways

Imari

19th century pair of Imari vases

Jars are also found in the richly pigmented Imari style, such as this 1800s jar at Vinterior, £1,450 for a pair.

Cinnabar

Red GingerJar

For bold colour, choose cinnabar-finished jars like this one, est £100-£200, McTear’s Auctioneers.

Famille verte

Famille Verte Ginger Jars

This jar is a fine example of the luscious green hue that blossomed in the 1600s. Pair sold in 2018 for £22,500, Bonhams.

Famille rose

Famille rose ginger jars

The opaque pink hues seen on this famille rose jar flourished in the 1700s. Pair sold in 2018 for $10,625 at Christie’s.

Famille noire

Famille noir ginger jars

Intensely black with a hint of green, this 19th-century jar is a prime example of the palette. £POA, Kevin Page.

4 ways to style

1

Blue and white

Blue and White feature shot on location
Image: Philip Sowels

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.

2

Shape shifting

Chinese Ginger jar styled next to painting
Image: Simon Upton

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.

3

Go with the grain

Ginger jars on wooden furniture
Image: Andreas von Einsiedel

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.

4

Pile it high

Shenlong Lidded Jar, OKA

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. Chinese porcelain jars, from £255, Oka.

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Shop the look

Kangxi blue-and-white lidded ovoid jar, £2,950 a pair, Catherine Hunt Oriental Antiques.

Kangxi blue-and-white lidded ovoid jar, £2,950 a pair, Catherine Hunt Oriental Antiques.

Lions ginger jar table lamp base, £217, with Indigo Wave lampshade, £89, The Ginger Jar Lamp Co. 

Lions ginger jar table lamp base, £217, with Indigo Wave lampshade, £89, The Ginger Jar Lamp Co.

 Antique Chinese ginger pots, £726 for three, Pamono. 

Antique Chinese ginger pots, £726 for three, Pamono.

 Chinese blue-and-white Kangxi ‘Ladies’ jar and cover, £POA, Anita Gray

Chinese blue-and-white Kangxi ‘Ladies’ jar and cover, £POA, Anita Gray

Buying advice

Shopping for Chinese ginger jars

  1. The key factors in identifying a jar’s value are its age, colour, rarity, condition – and a lid. ‘The original lid makes a real difference to the price,’ advises Kevin Page.
  2. 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.’
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.’ 
  5. 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.’