Lot 2248. A massive blue and white 'Daoist Immortals' jar, guan, Jiajing six-character mark within double circles and of the period (1522-1566), 20 1/2 in. (52.5 cm.) high. Estimate HKD 1,500,000 - HKD 2,000,000. Price realised HKD 1,950,000. © Christie's Images Ltd 2013
The jar is strongly potted with tapering sides rising to a broad shoulder. It is decorated in vivid tones of cobalt blue depicting a gathering of Daoist Immortals centred upon Shoulao seated on a rocky outcrop in a craggy landscape setting scattered with auspicious animals including a deer, a fox, a crane and a turtle. The God of longevity is shown holding a ruyi sceptre and flanked by attendants and immortals bearing their respective attributes and auspicious gifts. Two of the immortals are carrying vessels emitting vapour and a third is shown with a vaporous cloud emerging from his finger enclosing a coiled five-clawed dragon. Clouds envelop the celestial scene and enclose a further representation of Shoulao and Xiwangmu seated on the back of cranes at the shoulder. Ruyi-shaped borders frame the scene beneath a band of lingzhi scroll encircling the neck. The bi-shaped base is unglazed, with a reign mark reserved to the centre.
Emperor Shizong, who ruled China as the Jiajing Emperor (1522-66) was unusual amongst the emperors of the Ming dynasty in that he was a fervent proponent of Daoism. Such was his devotion to Daoism that he poured huge sums of money into the construction of Daoist temples and the performance of Daoist rituals, while he ordered the destruction of Buddhist images in 1536 and forbade the display of images in Confucian temples. He developed into an adherent of alchemical Daoism and his overriding concern became the quest for immortality. Unsurprisingly the court arts of his reign frequently bore themes associated with Daoism and longevity.
In its size and shape the current spectacular jar provided the ceramic artist with an ideal 'canvas' on which to depict a large gathering of Daoist figures. Foremost amongst these is the Star God of Longevity, Shoulao, who is depicted seated on a flat-topped rock, holding a ruyi sceptre - symbolising 'everything as you wish' - and surveying the activities of the other figures. An attendant behind Shoulao offers lingzhi (fungus of immortality), while one of the Eight Daoist Immortals - Lü Dongbin, who can be identified by the sword he carries across his back - offers a tray containing the peaches of longevity. The others from the group of Eight Daoist Immortals, are also incorporated into the design. Each can be identified by what he or she carries. In front of Shoulao's rock are Han Xiangzi playing his flute and Zhangguo Lao with a bamboo drum and sticks. Further around the jar Zhongli Quan is depicted carrying a fan, He Xiangu carries a lotus, Lan Caihe has castanets, while Li Tiegui leans on the iron crutch, which gives him his name and carries a gourd from which magic vapours rise. A number of other well-known Daoist figures are also included, such as the two figures probably representing the Hehe Erxian - the Immortals of Harmony and Union. One of the other figures may be intended to represent Laozi himself, while a further figure with a fishing rod may be Jiang Taigong Wang, a military strategist who, disillusioned by the behaviour of the last Shang king, retired to fish by the river, but was found and recruited by King Wen of Zhou. Overtime his story became to symbolise the wise ruler seeking able ministers. Two more immortals are shown flying down through the clouds on the backs of phoenixes. It is likely that the overall scene is intended to depict Daoist immortals coming to celebrate the birthday of the God of Longevity. Some of them carry scrolls on which their birthday felicitations would be written, and it is significant that one of the immortals is conjuring up an imperial five-clawed dragon, suggesting that the emperor himself is present on this auspicious occasion.
During the reign of the Jiajing emperor, huge numbers of porcelains were commissioned for the court and even with the Imperial kilns working at full capacity, it became necessary to outsource some of the imperial orders to selected private kilns of superior standard in order to meet the voracious demand for pieces commissioned for the court and for Daoist ceremonies held in the temples within the Imperial palace. This system of outsourcing was termed Guan da min shao, 'By imperial command', fired in the people's kilns'. The finest blue and white porcelains made for the court in the Jiajing reign are, nevertheless, renowned for the beauty their blue, which has a jewel-like quality. The Jiangxi dazhi section on ceramics notes that there were three types of blue pigment used on Jiajing porcelains. One was Pitang blue from Leping in Jiangxi, another was shizi (stone) blue, which came from various sites in Ruizhou, and the last, most precious, was the so-called 'Mohammedan' blue from the West, which entered China through Turfan. This last type of blue would have been very expensive and would probably have been used only for imperial wares. It had a slight tendency to run in the glaze during firing, and so was sometimes mixed with a small amount of shizi blue to counteract this problem. It is likely that this combination of blue pigments was used to paint the current jar, which displays vibrant colour combined with excellent control. The detail of the fine outlines painted in deep blue tones effectively contrasted with the range of juxtaposed washes contained within. The glossy lustrous glaze on the jar is also characteristic of the very finest imperial wares produced during the reign, described as 'almost wet-looking' by R. Scott and R. Kerr in the 'Introduction' to the Percival David Foundation and Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition catalogue Ceramic Evolution in the Middle Ming, London, September 1994-February 1995, p. 8.
A small number of related jars is decorated with a similar panoply of Daoist figures is published. A Jiajing-marked jar and cover, now in the Capital Museum, Beijing with an almost identical encircling scene and decorative borders was excavated in 1955 at Baiwanzhuang, in the Haidian district of Beijing and is illustrated in the Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China, Vol. 1 - Beijing, Beijing, 2008, no. 157. It is notable that both the current jar and that in the collection of the Capital Museum have scrolls of lingzhi fungus around the mouth, reinforcing the wish for immortality. The excavated jar from the Capital Museum also shares with the current jar the unusual ruyi border around the foot. Three further jars of similar size and decorative scheme appear to have been published. One, formerly in the Stephen Bushell Collection was illustrated by W.C. Monkhouse in A History and Description of Chinese Porcelain, London, 1901, colour plate III, another was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in November 1988, lot 139, and a third example from the Idemitsu Collection is illustrated in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, Tokyo, 1987, no. 701. All these jars share not only the same size and main decoration, but also the same borders as the current jar. It seems probable that they were commissioned at the same time, possibly for the celebration of an imperial birthday.
A slightly smaller jar, with somewhat less tapering lower body was offered by Christie's Hong Kong, 30 May, 2012, lot 4059. This jar also shares a similar arrangement of the figures and similar borders with the current jar and those detailed above. Another significantly smaller jar, with less pronounced shoulders, decorated with a similar theme but with variations in the choice and placement of the immortals, and is in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (II), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Vol. 35, Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 104-105, no. 97. This publication calls the scene Baxian zhu Shou (The Eight Immortals offer prayers to Shoulao). Unlike the larger jars, such as the current example, the Beijing jar has a classic scroll around the neck, a ruyi band around the shoulders and a petal band around the foot. It seems probable that while the Palace Museum jar was produced in the middle of the Jiajing reign, the larger jars, such as the current example, were produced earlier in the period. The deterioration in the political situation in the latter part of the Jiajing reign, combined with the inordinately high demands placed on the Jingdezhen potters, inevitably resulted in declining standards. These jars would appear to have been made before any such decline took place.
*Similar themes of the Eight Immortals gathering to greet Shoulao are seen on 16th century fahua-decorated jars, such as the example sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 1 December 2010, lot 3118. The designs on both the blue and white and fahua examples are clearly developed from those seen on jars dated to the Tianshun and Chenghua periods decorated with figural scenes, often taken from traditional literature and popular drama, which were, in turn, based on earlier guan jars from the Yuan dynasty. The scrolling clouds punctuating the scene on the current jar can be observed on examples from the Chenghua reign, such as the blue and white jar depicting scholars in a garden, in the collection of the Palace Museum, illustrated Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (II), op. cit., pp. 4-5, no. 3. The scene on the current, and related, jars is, however, distinctive both for the complexity of its design and for the fact that Shoulao dominates the scene, while other figures are all depicted on a smaller scale. This emphasis on Shoulao as the most significant figure highlights the purpose of this motif in stressing wishes for longevity [of the emperor].
The painting on the current jar is both dramatic and evocative, while the shape and size of the vessel give it real presence. Its high quality combined with the themes of Daoism and immortality would have made it most appropriate for the celebration of the birthday of an emperor who was a devout Daoist and whose overwhelming aim was to achieve long life.
Christie's. Imperial Sale; Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, 29 May 2013, Hong Kong, HKCEC Grand Hall