Lot 3201. A rare Ge-type glazed mallet-form vase, Yongzheng six-character seal mark and of the period (1723-1735); 6 1/2 in. (16.6 cm.) high. Estimate HKD 1,000,000 - HKD 1,500,000. Price realised HKD 2,440,000. © Christie's Images Ltd 2013.
The vase is finely potted with angled shoulders rising to a cylindrical neck, covered overall with a thick pale grey glaze suffused with dark crackles, stopping neatly above the foot rim applied with a dark-brown dressing.
Provenance: The Wu Family Collection, sold at Sotheby's New York, 17 October 2001, lot 162.
Note: The shape of the current vase is inspired by mallet-form vases from the Song dynasty, such as a Ding example in the Percival David Foundation illustrated by S. Pierson and S.F.M. McCausland, Song Ceramics: Objects of Admiration, London, 2003, pp. 20-21, no. 1; and a Guan example in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Sung Dynasty Kuan Ware, Taipei, 1989, p. 66, pl. 24.
A very similar Yongzheng marked example is illustrated by Bo Gyllensvard, Chinese Ceramics in the Carl Kempe Collection, Stockholm, 1964, p. 75, no. 194, later sold at Sotheby's Paris, 12 June 2008, lot 97. Two further examples were sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 26 November 1980, lot 368; 20 November 1985, lot 201. A similar Yongzheng example with a lipped rim from the Meiyintang Collection was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 5 October 2011, lot 1. For a Yongzheng hu-shaped example with animal masks, see the example sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8 April 2007, lot 718.
A Fine Ge-Type Bottle Vase. Seal Mark and Period of Yongzheng (1723-1735); 16.8 cm., 6 5/8 in. Sold for 4,940,000 HKD at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 5 October 2011, lot 1. Photo Sotheby's
Some Influences on Imperial Porcelain
Rosemary Scott - International Academic Director, Asian Art
The porcelains made for the Chinese Imperial court during the Ming and Qing dynasties have been prized by connoisseurs for centuries for their high level of artistry and the diversity of their forms and decoration. Research on the pieces in the current sale has stimulated consideration of various influences which shaped that diversity, especially in glazes and decoration. Some of these influences can be seen at work during the apogees of both Ming and Qing dynasties, others were specific to certain periods, and in some cases to the reigns of individual emperors.
The admiration of imperial white-glazed porcelains reached a peak in the reign of the Ming dynasty Yongle Emperor (1403-24), when his admiration for white may have inspired the tianbai or 'sweet white' glaze, seen on the pear-shaped vase in the current sale (lot 3211). More than 90 percent of the porcelains excavated from the Yongle strata at the site of the imperial kilns are white wares, and most have the specific type of white glaze known as tianbai or 'sweet white', which appears to have been developed during the Yongle reign. This glaze was made almost entirely from glaze stone with little or no glaze ash. The glaze was lower in calcium oxide than previous white glazes, and higher in potassium oxide. The body of tianbai wares had a higher proportion of aluminium oxide than previous wares and required a higher firing temperature. The result was a whiter body covered with a whiter glaze than had previously been achieved, while the glaze had a silky, unctuous texture.
White was a colour linked to Buddhism and specific rituals. Tibetan Buddhism was important to the Yongle emperor for diplomatic reasons, and also for personal devotion. He was an adherent of Lamaism before he ascended the throne, and as emperor his support for Buddhism was evident, for example, in the number of Buddhist texts which were produced under his auspices. Yongle invited important Tibetan hierarch to come to his capital and ordered large quantities of sacrificial vessels to be made at the imperial kilns for the ceremonies conducted by them, particularly those undertaken by Halima in honour of the emperor's deceased parents in 1407.
The high proportion of white porcelain found in the Yongle strata was also probably a response to the emperor's personal fondness for white vessels. Fine white porcelain with tianbai glaze bears a notable resemblance to fine white jade and it is possible that this was the intention, since it is recorded that on one occasion the emperor returned all the elaborate and costly gifts presented to him, keeping only those made of plain white jade. However, he may even have preferred white porcelain over jade, since in the 10th month of the 4th year of his reign (AD 1406) Yongle received a tribute of jade bowls from the Muslim ruler of a Western state. The emperor commanded that the tribute should be returned together with a monetary gift, saying: 'The Chinese porcelain that I use everyday is pure and translucent, and it pleases me greatly. There is no need to use jade bowls.'
There is another reason why he may have been drawn to the colour white. In 1382 Zhu Di, who would later become the Yongle Emperor, met a Buddhist monk called Dao Yan (Dl) who had arrived in Beiping to become abbot of the Qingshou (Celebrating Longevity) monastery. During a discussion Dao Yan predicted that Zhu Di would put a white hat on his rank. This was a play on the composition of Chinese written characters. If the character for white bai is placed on top of the character for princewang, it forms another character, huang meaning emperor. This was therefore a prediction that Zhu Di would become emperor. It is therefore possible that as emperor Yongle retained a superstitious attachment to white. Finally it is significant that when Zhu Di, as a prince, took up his fiefdom in Beiping, he was essentially entering the old Mongol capital. Many Mongol customs were still prevalent in Beiping, and the Mongol language and script were used alongside Chinese. Zhu Di's residence was the former Mongol imperial palace with Mongol servants, and since white was an important and greatly favoured colour for the Mongols, and it is probable that Zhu Di absorbed a taste for the colour during his time there.
The influence of illustrated printed books is usually identified on porcelains of the Yuan and on porcelains made for the literati in the later Ming dynasty. However, in the early Ming period certain imperial porcelains reflected an interest in illustrated books on plants. Although flowers had been a popular source of decorative motifs for centuries, the regular inclusion of fruit on the branch was a more recent phenomenon in the early Ming. Melons, grapes and gourds had been included in the landscape element designs on some large Yuan dynasty vessels, but depictions of other fruit on branch or stem were rare on pre-Ming porcelains. However in the Yongle reign both imperial blue and white porcelains, and those monochrome white wares with tianbai glaze bearing incised designs were regularly decorated with fruiting sprays, as is the case on the current pear-shaped vase. Sprays of fruit on the branch became a very popular decorative theme on both open and vertical forms among the imperial wares in both the Yongle and Xuande (1426-35) reigns.
The sprays often have the feature of a naturalistic break at the end of the twig - as if each spray had been torn off the branch. This naturalistic approach was a new one on early 15th century blue and white wares, and it is probable that this and the frequent depiction of both flowers and fruit on the same branch, as well as occasionally details of plant roots, were influenced by the woodblock illustrations in materia medica - pharmaceutical literature dealing with plants for their medicinal properties. The study of plants was well enough established for specific mention to be made of foreign plants being brought into China in records dating to the Han dynasty in about 128 BC, but it was during the Song (960-1279) and Jin (1115-1234) dynasties that there was a huge increase in new and extensive publications on the subject of plants, such as the Chongxiu Zhenghe Jingshi Zhenglei Beiyong Bencao (New Revision of the Classified and Consolidated Armamentarium Pharmocopoeia of the Zhenghe Reign) by Tang Shenwei and Kou Zongshi and revised by Zhang Cunhui, published in 1249. Interest in such publications flourished once again in the Ming dynasty.
As well as any botanical or medicinal interest they might have, the fruit - like the flowers - included in the designs on imperial porcelains would have been chosen with care for their significance and symbolic meaning. The fruit on the Yongle pear-shaped vase are pomegranates, and the pomegranate is one of the san duo or Three Abundances, and represents the wish for abundant progeny or many sons. The importance of iconography can also be seen on the large Wanli (1573-1619) blue and white jar (lot 3212), which bears a design of many cranes flying amongst clouds. Cranes are associated with peace and longevity, and have thus been a particularly popular motif on porcelain - especially during the 16th century. They came to prominence as a decorative motif on imperial porcelain during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (1522-1566). The Chinese word for crane is he, which is a homophone for the word for harmony, and thus cranes also represent peace. Their long legs were described as resonating with the harmonies of nature and Heaven. Cranes are also known to live for many years and thus have become associated with long life, and indeed are often depicted as the familiars of the Star God of Longevity, Shoulao. As early as the 12th century, the Chinese Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-25) painted a flock of cranes, which were seen flying above the palace in AD 1112, in order to record such an auspicious event, and they have been a popular subject in the arts ever since. Their rise to particular prominence in the Jiajing reign was undoubtedly due to the Emperor's obsession with long life, which resulted in a plethora of symbols of longevity appearing on items made for his court. However, the long life of the emperor was always an artistic inspiration, and the depiction of cranes on imperial porcelains continued into the reigns of the Longqing Emperor (1567-72) and Wanli Emperor, and, indeed, can be seen on porcelains of the Qing dynasty. Interestingly, the technique of reserving the white motif against a blue ground was also one that was revived in the Jiajing reign and continued into the Wanli period, as can be seen on the current jar. It was an extravagant technique, since it required both more of the expensive cobalt, and also more hours of the decorator's time.
The most powerful symbol of imperial majesty was the five-clawed dragon, which on the decorative arts was often complemented by the phoenix, symbol of the empress. The powerful five-clawed imperial dragon with horns was the symbol of the emperor, and appears in many forms on the Chinese decorative arts. In ceramics the dragon may be painted under or over the glaze, as on the jars decorated in iron-red enamel in the current sale ((lot 3213), incised, carved, as on the large Kangxi (1662-1722) celadon-glazed fish bowl in the current sale ((lot 3210), or carved, like the creature which writhes over the surface of the Qianlong (1736-1795) green lantern vase in the current sale ((lot 3207). The Chinese dragon, unlike his European counterpart, is a beneficent creature. He is not only the essence of the yang (positive/male) properties, but is also a bringer of rain. The dragon was supposed to rise from winter hibernation among the waves at the Spring Equinox to bring the rain necessary to water the crops, which is why he is so often depicted rising from the waves on ceramics like the green Qianlong vase. The dragon is also one of the si ling - creatures of the four quarters - the green dragon representing the east. The west is represented by the white tiger, the south by the red bird, while the symbol of the north is the so-called dark warrior - usually depicted as a tortoise and snake combined.
The symbol of the empress is the phoenix, which is also a symbol of female beauty, is seen on the iron-red enamelled jars in the current sale (lot 3213). The phoenix is often shown amongst floral scrolls - frequently lotus scrolls. This combines the idea of feminine beauty, represented by the phoenix, with that of purity, which is represented by the lotus. In early times the phoenix was also associated with the red bird, which, because it represents the south, is seen as having an auspicious alignment with the sun. Interestingly, in the same way that the characters for phoenix in Chinese combine the characters for male and female phoenix (fenghuang), when two phoenixes are depicted on materials such as porcelain, they are usually shown as a male and a female, distinguished by their different tail feathers . A pair of phoenixes was also believed to symbolize happiness in marriage.
One of the first glazes to receive imperial approbation in China was a celadon green glaze on Yue stonewares, which found favour with the ruling houses of the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). The popularity of this glaze laid the foundations for the appreciation of celadon glazes in succeeding dynasties. In the 18th century the Jingdezhen imperial kilns devoted considerable research and development to the production of celadon glazes applied to a white porcelain body. Although the Longquan kilns continued to produce fine celadon-glazed wares into the Ming dynasty, and celadon-type glazes, coloured with small quantities of iron, applied to a porcelain body were produced at Jingdezhen in the early Ming period, it was the Qing dynasty potters of the Kangxi reign who perfected a particularly delicate version applied to very white body, as on the fine Kangxi celadon fish jar in the current sale ((lot 3210). The delicate celadon glaze was coloured using only about half the amount of iron found in typical Longquan celadons, and was further modified in the Yongzheng period (1723-1735) to produce an even more finely textured and slightly bluer pale celadon glaze, like that seen on the exquisite Yongzheng bowl in the current sale ((lot 3208). These celadons and the others created with minute variations in tone and texture have been much admired by Chinese connoisseurs and have been given names such as douqing (bean green) and dongqing (eastern green) in the Kangxi reign, dongqing (winter green) and fenqing (soft green) in the Yongzheng reign.
In addition to the new celadon glazes, deliberate copies of Song crackled glazes were also developed at the Qing imperial kilns in response to the emperors' admiration for these early wares. The three great Qing emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong were all keen antiquarians, who collected and studied material from earlier dynasties. Copies of Song dynasty crackled wares had been made at the imperial kilns of the 15th century, but the Qing examples are even more impressive in the accuracy with which they reproduce the appearance of the Song dynasty stoneware glazes on Jingdezhen white porcelain. The Yongzheng emperor is recorded to have specifically required that good copies of Song glazes be produced at Jingdezhen, and fortunately the successful copying of these Song dynasty stoneware glazes on Qing dynasty imperial porcelains was something for which the famous kiln director Tang Ying became well known. The current sale includes two vessels which demonstrate the success of the Yongzheng kilns in fulfilling the emperor's wishes - a mallet vase with Ge-type glaze (lot 3201) and a large jar with a Ru-type glaze ((lot 3204).
An added spur to the production of monochrome-glazed porcelains was the fact that the Qing dynasty emperors continued the tradition, first formulated in the early Ming period, of using porcelains for imperial sacrifices and ascribing certain colours to particular altars - red for the Altar of the Sun; blue for the Altar of Heaven; yellow for the Altar of Earth; and white for the Altar of the Moon. On the 22nd day of the 2nd month of the 10th year of Yongzheng (1732), the emperor sent an order to the imperial kiln director commanding him to: 'Make a number of stem cups in each of the following colours: sacrificial red, sacrificial blue, yellow and white.' Spectacular cobalt blue monochromes were made in the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns, as can be seen from the Yongzheng meiping ((lot 3203) and pair of Yongzheng bowls ((lot 3202) in the current sale. These glazes benefited from having the best quality cobalt, prepared to the highest standard, which enabled the potters to produce glazes of jewel-like brilliance. The main colourant in all these glazes is cobalt, but it is worth noting that cobalt ores found in different locations contained small amounts of different elements such as iron, manganese, nickel or copper, which affected the final colour of the glaze. In addition glazes where the pigments were high in alumina tended to develop cobalt aluminates in firing and produce cooler blues, while those containing more silica produced cobalt silicates which gave warmer, more purplish, blues, like that seen on the Yongzheng meiping.
It was not only in monochrome wares that the imperial porcelains of the Qing dynasty reflected court interest in ceramics from earlier periods.Doucai was a decorative technique which flourished during the Chenghua (1465-1487) reign of the Ming dynasty, but which was little used thereafter, until its revival in the 18th century. In the doucai (abutted colours) technique the outlines of the design were painted in underglaze blue, and the enamel colours applied over the fired glaze within the blue outlines. It was a technique which would have been expensive, since not only did the pieces have to be fired twice - doubling the risk of losses in the kiln - but the painting of underglaze blue outlines (as opposed to whole motifs) on an unfired porous body left no room for error. Any mistakes would have resulted in the vessel being discarded. It is not surprising, therefore, that few doucai wares were produced in the later Ming dynasty reigns. However, the early Ming dynasty doucai porcelains were traditionally highly esteemed and the great Qing emperors demanded a revival of the technique. In some cases, such as the two Qianlong lidded jars in the current sale ((lot 3209) the potters kept largely to the earlier Ming dynasty style, however, in other cases they made full use of new technological developments, as can be seen in the expanded colour palette of the Qianlong basin in this sale ((lot 3214).
This expanded colour palette was itself developed as a result of imperial patronage. The Kangxi emperor had a particular interest in porcelain and in enamels. He commissioned the rebuilding of the kiln complex at Jingdezhen for the production of imperial porcelain, and he also established imperial ateliers within the Imperial Palace in Beijing to work in a range of different media, including enamels. It was during his reign that the Qing dynasty enamel palette was expanded and refined. The Qing dynasty so-called famille verte palette - named by two French writers, Jacqumart and Le Blanc, in 1862, because of the dominance of green in this palette - contained primarily transparent enamel colours. In the Kangxi reign enamels in this famille verte palette were painted with great refinement, and often combined with underglaze blue using a similar decorative technique to the earlier wucai - indeed they are sometimes described as wucai. At the end of the Kangxi reign and beginning of the Yongzheng reign there were further developments in overglaze enamels, which lead to the establishment of the palette, which became known in Europe as famille rose. The enamel colour that gave the palette its name is a rose pink which was produced using colloidal gold. Two other colours were key to the painting styles which developed in this palette - these were an opaque white enamel and an opaque yellow enamel. The opaque white enamel was especially important in that it could be mixed with other colours to create pastel shades. The opaque yellow enamel was of a consistency that it could be used in small dots which stood slightly proud of the surface of a vessel, and was particularly effective for painting the anthers in the centre of blossoms. Not only were most of the enamels of the famille rose palette more opaque than their wucai equivalents, they also had the advantage to the ceramic decorator that they did not flow when fired, and could therefore be used with extreme precision. The precision allowed by the new enamels, as well as the much greater range of colours available to the decorator, enabled the Qing dynasty ceramic decorators to produce more detailed and more varied designs in the doucaitechnique, as displayed on the Qianlong basin.
Thus it can be seen that many different influences were brought to bear on imperial porcelains, including the personal tastes of emperors; illustrations from printed books; the imperial patronage of technological development; imperial fascination with antiques; the importance of traditional iconography; and court ritual usage. These influences, and others, combined to ensure that the imperial porcelains of the Ming and Qing dynasties were as diverse and technologically refined as they were beautiful.
Christie's. Imperial Chinese Porcelain: Treasures from a Distinguished American Collection, Hong Kong, 27 November 2013. SALE 3265