Lot 3603. A superbly enamelled pair of doucai 'Eight Immortals' bowls, marks and period of Yongzheng (1723-1735); 10.7 cm, 4 1/4  in. Estimate 4,000,000 — 6,000,000 HKD (509,320 - 763,980 USD). Lot Sold 7,375,000 HKD (939,059 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.

each elegantly potted with gently curved sides rising to a slightly flaring rim from a short footring, the exterior delicately painted in the doucai palette with the Eight Daoist Immortals in billowing robes surrounded by flowing scarves, all amidst multi-coloured scrolling clouds, the interior further decorated with a central medallion of the Three Star Gods beneath an overhanging pine tree, the recessed base inscribed in underglaze blue with a six-character reign mark within a double circle.

Provenance: Collection of Choo Kia Peng (1881-1965), and thence by descent.

NoteExquisitely painted with the Eight Daoist Immortals dressed in billowing robes illustrated crossing the rough sea after attending the Peach Festival of the Queen Mother of the West, these bowls testify to the great developments in porcelain production during the Yongzheng period. The precision of the cobalt pencilled lines and shading captured on the robes of the immortals reveals the refinement of the porcelain and the craftsmen’s mastery over techniques and materials as a direct result of the Emperor’s keen patronage.

Bowls of this type are rare and only four other pairs of bowls are known: one pair was sold in these rooms, 20th November 1984, lot 501; another pair was sold at Christie’s London, 4th December 1995, lot 153; the third pair was sold twice at Christie’s Hong Kong, 31st October 1994, lot 617, and again, 29th May 2007, lot 1462; and the fourth pair from the collection of Chutaro Nakano was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 31st May 2010, lot 1876, and again in these rooms, 7th October 2015, lot 3637. This motif is also known painted in underglaze blue only, such as a bowl, from the Agatha and Irving Aronson collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 21st-22nd March 2013, lot 1473; and another, but the interior roundel depicting Shoulao and his deer, from the collection of Sir Harry Garner, illustrated in Soame Jenyns, Later Chinese Porcelain, London, 1971, pl. LX.

The polychrome (doucai) colour scheme, where the outline is drawn in underglaze blue and filled with washes of underglaze blue and four different overglaze enamels, gained popularity with the Chenghua Emperor. The term doucai, which refers to the interaction of the colours (cai), is ambiguous since the term dou allows for the colours to be characterised as clashing or matching. Terms such as ‘contrasting’, ‘contending’, ‘interlocking’, ‘joined’, and ‘dove-tailed’ have been suggested as translations, the most satisfactory rendering perhaps being ‘completion of colours’ as used by Fang Chaoying in his biographical entry on the Chenghua Emperor in Dictionary of Ming Biography 1368-1644, New York, 1976, p. 302.

The doucai style is ideally suited for rendering this scene of the Eight Immortals. A perfect harmony of delicately pencilled underglaze-blue lines with vivid blocks of iron red, yellow, green and aubergine endow the scene with a sense of ethereality which is fitting to the subject. Furthermore, the doucai style, which was originally probably referred to as wucai, ‘five colours’, and the clouds surrounding the immortals carry further symbolic meaning. ‘Rainbow-coloured’ or five-coloured clouds (wuse yun) are considered highly auspicious portents of good omens. According to Therese Tse Bartholomew, in Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, San Francisco, 2006, p. 105, clouds (yun) are used as a pun on the word ‘fortune’ and are considered benevolent because of their power to supply water. As seen on the present pair of bowls, auspicious rainbow-coloured clouds are often depicted in lingzhi (longevity fungus) shape, and the lingzhi itself has the form of the wish-granting ruyi (‘according to your wish’) sceptre. As Heir Apparent, the Yongzheng Emperor had himself portrayed in clay wearing a coat with five-coloured roundels over a cloud-decorated robe.

The clouds swirling between each Immortal indicates that this scene illustrates the story whereby they combined their powers to sail past the tempest rather than travelling by their clouds. The proverb is a lesson on how individual strengths and gifts can together be used to tackle the same obstacle. This image grew in popularity after the Yongzheng reign and was rendered in various different palettes; for example see a pair of Daoguang mark and period puce and underglaze blue decorated rounded bowls, from the Edward T. Chow collection, sold in these rooms, 19th May 1981, lot 530; and an exquisite pair of famille-rose decorated jars and covers, with Qianlong reign marks and of the period, sold twice at Christie’s Hong Kong, 31st March 1992, lot 656, 1st May 1995, lot 675, and again in our New York rooms, 17th March 2009, lot 124. See also a doucai bowl of larger size and broader foot decorated with the Eight Immortals depicted in a landscape, sold in these rooms, 29th October 1991, lot 208.

Sotheby'sAn Important Collection of Chinese Ceramics, Hong Kong, 08 Oct 2019