Lot 14. Rare plat en laque rouge, dynastie Yuan (1279-1368). Diamètre: 31,6 cm. (12 ½ in.). Estimate 35,000 - EUR 50,000 (USD 39,631 - USD 56,616)Price realised EUR 75,000. © Christie's Image Ltd 2020.

Le plat est très densément sculpté dans plusieurs couches de laque rouge d'un décor animé de personnages dans un paysage montagneux au bord d'une rivière dans un grand cartouche octogonal polylobé entouré de fleurs. Le revers est orné d'une frise de rinceaux feuillagés et la base est couverte de laque brune.

A Vision of Peace and Plenty
Rosemary Scott, Senior International Academic Consultant, Asian Art

This Yuan dynasty carved vermilion lacquer dish is of particular interest for its overall rarity and for various unusual aspects of its design. The first of these is the fact that although the dish itself is circular, the main interior decorative panel is lobed in eight-petal form. It is more usual to find that the lobed central decorative panel on such a dish conforms to the form of the mouth rim. This can be seen on the Yuan dynasty carved vermilion lacquer seven-lobed platter from the Irving Collection now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York (illustrated in East Asian Lacquer  The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, New York, 1991, pp. 76-7, no. 23); the Yuan carved dark green/black and red lacquer eight petal-lobed dish illustrated in the exhibition catalogue The Colors and Forms of Song and Yuan China  Featuring Lacquerwares, Ceramics, and Metalwares, Tokyo, 2004, no. 88; and the Yuan carved vermilion lacquer six petal-lobed dish illustrated in the exhibition catalogue 2000 Years of Chinese Lacquer, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 82-3, no. 36.

These lobed dishes, and other Yuan dynasty carved lacquer vessels, share with the current circular dish a mixed floral scroll carved in the band between the mouth rim and the frame of the central interior panel. The arrangement of this floral scroll band would have been an even greater challenge for the carver of the current dish, since he had to accommodate the fluctuating width of the decorative band. The choice of flowers varies slightly between the various dishes, but the auspicious chrysanthemum, pomegranate, peony, camelia and lotus are amongst those identifiable on the current dish. The New York, Tokyo and Hong Kong dishes – along with a number of others of similar date - also share with the current dish a tixi (carved layered lacquer) ‘classic scroll’ on the exterior. This scroll is usually described in Chinese as xiangcao (fragrant grass), and is well-adapted to the even curvature of the exterior wall of the dish.

The Yuan dynasty saw a rise in popularity of ‘narrative scenes with human figures’ (renwu gushi), which had started to come to prominence in the late Song dynasty, but became a favourite subject in the decorative arts of the Yuan, especially on porcelain and lacquer. At first sight the decoration within the central panel on the interior of this lacquer dish looks to be a classic depiction of figures in a river landscape. However, closer inspection reveals that the figure on the far left is not standing at the door of a studio or pavilion, as would normally be the case, but seems to be coming out of an opening in the rock face. A possible clue to the subject of this design is provided by the fisherman who stands in conversation with a gentleman, on the banks of the river. The gentleman appears in a family group, accompanied by his wife and child, rather than being a lone scholar or recluse, while the fisherman is neither on his boat nor engaged in an activity directly related to fishing.

Although rarely found on the decorative arts of this period, despite its considerable popularity in later dynasties, it seems likely that the subject of the scene on this dish comes from a famous story written by the poet Tao Yuanming (c. 365-427). This work of prose entitled ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ (Taohua yuanji ) was written in about AD 421, and has inspired Chinese poets, musicians, artists and craftsmen ever since. The story is set in the Taiyuan period (AD 376-396) of the Eastern Jin Dynasty, and tells the tale of a fisherman from Wuling in Hunan province who one day followed the stream in his boat for so long that he forgot how far he had gone. Suddenly he found himself at a point where blossoming peach trees grew along both banks of the stream, and their petals floated down around him. Fascinated, the fisherman followed the stream to its source at the foot of a mountain, where both the stream and the peach trees came to an end. However, he could see an opening in the rocks through which light appeared to shine, and so left his boat and walked through the rocks and into a beautiful, verdant land with plentiful food and happy inhabitants. The people of the land welcomed the fisherman, entertained him royally, and asked him many questions about his home and the conditions in the outside world. When he eventually left to return home, the people asked him not to tell anyone about their land. The fisherman eventually managed to find his way home, and did tell those in his village about the beautiful land he had seen, but, try though they might, they never found the way back to the Peach Blossom Spring.

The fisherman depicted on the dish looks healthy and well-clothed, as he might if he had been fed and cared for by the inhabitants of Peach Blossom Spring. His boat appears to be packed with provisions, and his attitude to the gentleman with whom he is shown in conversation could be interpreted as polite gratitude. On either bank of the stream there are trees, which may have been intended to represent blossoming peach trees – it is difficult to be sure of this on a carved red lacquer piece. It is possible, therefore that the scene shows the fisherman bidding farewell to some of those from Peach Blossom Spring who had shown him kindness, before embarking on his journey home.

In Tao Yuanming’s story, the people of Peach Blossom Spring explain to the fisherman that their ancestors had come to this haven of peace and plenty in order to escape the turmoil of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) and that none of them had ever ventured outside again. Tao Yuanming himself wrote the tale during another time of political uncertainty (the so-called Six Dynasties period, AD 220-589), when the view of a tranquil Utopia would have been particularly appealing. Such a view would have been equally appealing to the Han Chinese during the Yuan period, when China was ruled by a foreign dynasty – the Mongols. Some of the Chinese population had suffered great hardship, and many of the scholar-official class were prevented from achieving what would have been their expected position in society and the lifestyle that would have accompanied it.

Christie'sArt d'Asie, Paris, 23 June 2020