A fine and rare early Ming anhua-decorated tianbai stem bowl, Yongle impressed four-character seal mark and of the period (1403-1425)


Lot 3221. A fine and rare early Ming anhua-decorated tianbai stem bowl, Yongle impressed four-character seal mark and of the period (1403-1425). Estimate HK$800,000 – HK$1,200,000 (US$103,475 - $155,213). Photo Christie's Image Ltd 2016.

 The stem bowl is thinly potted with deep rounded sides rising to a flared rim, supported on a tall slightly spreading hollow foot, covered overall with a creamy-white tianbai glaze and finely decorated in anhua on the interior with the Eight Buddhist Emblems encircling the seal mark inside a ring of radiating lotus petals. 6 in. (15 cm.) diam., box

ProvenanceSold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 24 November 1987, lot 40 
Sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 30 November 2011, lot 2922

Notes: The present stem bowl has the beautifully balanced profile characteristic of the early 15th century, and is covered in the soft lustrous white glaze, which is called tianbai or 'sweet white' in Chinese. This glaze was developed in the Yongle reign and appears to have been a particular favourite of the emperor. More than ninety percent of the porcelains from this period, which were found at the site of the imperial kilns, were white wares. This reflects the aesthetic preference of the emperor, who demonstrated a special appreciation of plain white items, such as white jades. It is also a reflection of his adherence to Lamaist Buddhism. The anhua, or 'secret decoration' around the sides of this stem bowl depicts the Eight Buddhist Emblems.

The Yongle Emperor invited several important abbots from Tibetan monasteries to come to the Chinese capital at Nanjing, and received them with great ceremony. White porcelains of this type would have been made for use in the rituals performed during those visits, in particular those conducted by Halima in memory of the emperor's deceased parents in 1407. Porcelains of this type were also sent by the emperor as gifts to the abbots of important Tibetan monasteries, where some of them have been preserved to the present day. 

This stem bowl also belongs to one of the earliest groups of porcelains to bear the reign mark of the ruling emperor. On the interior of the stem bowl is a four-character reign mark reading Yong le nian zhi, 'Made in the Yongle reign', which is written in a style of calligraphy based on that of the emperor's favourite calligrapher, Shen Du. The reign of the Yongle Emperor was the first in which reign marks regularly appeared on porcelains made for the Chinese court. 

There are very few examples of Yongle-marked stem bowls with anhua-decorated Eight Buddhist Emblems. Another example but with the reign mark surrounded by waves was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 20 November 1984, lot 349. A more common pattern is 'dragons' on the well, as can be seen on one in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated by Liu Liang-yu, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics - 4 - Ming Official Wares, Taipei, 1991, p. 35.