Lot 631. A large and fine blue and white 'Western Chamber' bowl, Qing dynasty, Kangxi period (1662-1722). Diameter 14 1/2 in., 36.8 cm. Estimate 30,000 — 50,000. © Sotheby's
the deep rounded sides rising from a straight foot to a flaring rim, the interior painted with carp leaping from crested waves within the central medallion, a border of flowering prunus branches and birds around the interior rim, the exterior with two registers illustrating twelve courtship scenes from Romance of the Western Chamber (Xixiang ji) all beneath a band of phoenix and peony blossoms at the rim, coll. no. 233.
The Jie Rui Tang Collection.
Provenance: Berwald Oriental Art, London, 2000.
Exhibited: Embracing Classic Chinese Culture: Kangxi Porcelains from the Jie Rui Tang Collection, Sotheby’s, New York, 2014, cat. no. 17..
Note: Widely acknowledged as one of the most popular love stories in Chinese literature, Romance of the Western Chamber first appeared in the Tang dynasty in a short story by Yuan Zhen ‘The Story of Yingying’. It continued to be retold and elaborated upon reaching a more definitive form in the 13th century in the version written by Wang Shifu. The play, set in the Tang dynasty, relates the travails of love that beset a young aristocratic beauty, Yingying, and an aspiring scholar, Zhang Sheng. Contemporary chronicles and imagery produced in different media attest the play's enduring popularity. Romance of the Western Chamber was so famous that series of woodblock prints were created in the late Ming dynasty reproducing key dramatic moments from the play. These prints proved to be a very useful resource to the artisans at Jingdezhen providing a template that allowed them to more readily satisfy the demand for the subject matter whether destined for the imperial household or for mass consumption.
The present bowl is among the best examples of a graphic style of storytelling, a technique which reached unprecedented heights in the Kangxi period. Finely painted in varying tones of underglaze cobalt blue, the bowl illustrates twelve identifiable episodes from the famous play. Among the scenes depicted are, ‘The Repudiation of the Billet-Doux’ in which the overly eager Zhang, summoned by Yingying, leaps over a wall into a garden only to be spurned for his inappropriate haste; ‘Hongniang in the Dock’ showing Yingying’s loyal maid kneeling apologetically before Yingying’s furious mother who has learned about the affair between her daughter and Zhang; and ‘Zhang Departs for the Capital’ when the lovers sorrowfully part as the young scholar sets out to take the imperial examinations.
In style of composition and painting the present bowl relates quite closely to a large cylindrical vase in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London illustrated in Stacey Pierson, Chinese Ceramics, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2009, pl. 95 (fig. 1). The vase depicts twenty-four scenes from the drama which are clearly defined within linear borders. In an article on the subject (cited below), Hsu Wen-Chin notes that the vase in the Victoria and Albert Museum, similar to the present bowl, does not include the marriage scene and suggests that the Kangxi era ushered in changes of taste. The play had taken on a more tragic aspect, ending not in a happy union but rather enigmatically with a dream sequence.
A large blue and white rouleau vase with scenes from Xi Xiang Ji, Qing dynasty, Kangxi period, 1690-1700. Height: 75.0 cm, Diameter: 22.4 cm. Salting Bequest, C.859-1910 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
A related bowl and stand of similarly large proportions but decorated in famille-verte enamels and depicting twenty-four scenes within shaped reserves on a stippled green ground is in the Groningen Museum and illustrated in Christiaan J. A. Jörg. Famille Verte: Chinese Porcelain in Green Enamels, Groninger Museum, Groningen, 2011, pl. 94. For further reading on the subject see Hsu Wen-Chin, 'Illustration of ‘Romance of the Western Chamber’ on Chinese Porcelains: Iconography, Style and Development', Ars Orientalis, Vol. 40, 2011, pp 39-107, and Yibin Ni, 'The Shunzhi Emperor and the Popularity of Scenes from the ‘Romance of the Western Chamber’ on Porcelain', Shunzhi Porcelain, Treasures from an Unknown Reign, Alexandria, Virginia, 2002, pp 68-81.
Sotheby's. KANGXI: The Jie Rui Tang Collection, New York, 20 March 2018, 11:00 AM