Lot 896. An imperial fahua ‘dragon’ jar, guan, Chenghua-Hongzhi period, late 15th century; 18.4 cm high. Price realised USD 1,500,000 (Estimate $200,000-300,000). © Christie's Images Ltd 2023.

The jar is boldly decorated with five dragons writhing above crashing waves all below a lotus lappet band encircling the short neck, the designs outlined in raised slip with incised details and picked-out in turquoise and white glaze on a dark blue-glazed ground. The interior and base are covered in a thin wash of green glaze.

ProvenancePrivate collection, France.
Beaussant Lefevre, Art d'Asie, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 29 April 2011, lot 15.
J. J. Lally & Co., New York, no. 4673.

 A Very Rare 15th Century Fahua Dragon Jar
Rosemary Scott, Independent Scholar

Yhis exceptional jar is a very rare example of a Ming dynasty porcelain vessel decorated in the so-called fahua technique with a design of five imperial five-clawed dragons. The name fahua was coined by collectors in the 1920s[1] and can be translated as ‘designs with borders’. Fine relief lines of clay slip were applied to the surface of the ceramic item and these lines served as outlines to the design and also created bounded areas in which to apply relatively low-firing alkaline glazes of different colours. On some pieces, such as the current jar, details of elements such as the scales on dragons, the feathers on birds or the veins on leaves, were additionally incised into the body of the vessel under the glaze. This type of decoration is also sometimes referred to as the ‘cloisonné technique’, since it shares some similarities with cloisonné decoration on metal.

The technique of using raised outlines in ceramic decoration appears to have initially been used in the Yuan, or possibly even the Song, period on stoneware items from the tile-making kilns in Shanxi, and was later adopted in more refined form for use on porcelain at the Jingdezhen kilns. This decorative technique is especially associated with porcelains of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, particularly the reigns of the Hongzhi (1487-1505) and Zhengde (1505-1521) emperors. However, archaeological research has now revealed that the technique was used in rare instances at the Jingdezhen imperial kilns in the Xuande (1426-35) and Chenghua (1465-87) reigns. A dish decorated on the exterior with a design of green dragons and clouds on a yellow ground was excavated from the Xuande stratum of the Zhushan imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in 1988 and is illustrated in Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, p. 78, no. 73. Even more significantly, a very similar yellow and green dragon dish with fahua decoration was also excavated from the mid-Chenghua stratum at the imperial kilns (illustrated in The Emperor’s broken china – Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, London, 1995, p. 104, no. 142). (Fig. 1) The similarities of proportion and form between the dragons on the green and yellow dish excavated from the mid-Chenghua stratum at the imperial kilns and the dragons on the current jar raise the distinct possibility that the jar could date to the Chenghua reign.

fahua jar of the same size, shape and decoration as the current jar is today in the collection of the Saint Louis Art Museum, having been bequeathed to the museum by Samuel Craft Davis (1871-1940). (Fig. 2) The Saint Louis jar was included in the exhibition Ming Porcelains – A Retrospective, held by the China Institute in America, October 29, 1970-January 31, 1971 and is illustrated on page 50 of the exhibition catalogue, exhibit 22. The author of the catalogue, Suzanne Valenstein, dated the jar to the late 15th century and notes similarities between the five dragons on the jar and nine dragons on a Hongzhi blue and white bowl in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which is illustrated in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum, vol. 4, Blue-and-White Porcelain of the Ming, Hung-chih Ware, Hong Kong, 1965, pls. 5, 5A-5-E, to support a late 15th century date. However, since that catalogue was written extensive new information on the porcelains of the Chenghua reign has been gleaned from archaeological excavations carried out at the site of the imperial kilns, including the discovery of the fahua dish mentioned above. It is also interesting to compare the form of the dragons on the current jar with those painted in underglaze blue on a dish excavated from the early Chenghua stratum at Jingdezhen. This dish is illustrated in A Legacy of Chenghua – Imperial Porcelain of the Chenghua Reign Excavated from Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 100-01, no. A6. (Fig. 3)

It is also worth noting that the shape of the current jar with its wide, rounded shoulders, tapering sides and slightly compressed profile was one that rose in popularity in the Chenghua reign. The excavations at the imperial kilns revealed a wealth of jars of this form amongst the doucai wares from the late Chenghua stratum. Many of these excavated jars belong to the group on which the character tian (heaven) is written in underglaze blue on their base (see Jingdezhen chutu Yuan Ming guan ciqi (Yuan and Ming Imperial Porcelain Unearthed from Jingdezhen), Beijing, 1999, pp. 304-7, nos. 322-7, although, as might be expected, the doucai jars are of somewhat smaller size compared to the current fahua jar.

The palette used on the current jar of deep cobalt blue, vivid copper turquoise and brilliant white was to become the most popular colour combination on fahua porcelains of the late 15th and early 16th century – often with the addition of small areas of yellow and/or aubergine purple. On the majority of 15th century fahua vessels, cobalt blue was used as the ground colour – as on the current jar. On a lesser number of vessels, turquoise was used as the ground colour, while the aforementioned reign-marked dishes excavated from the imperial kilns have a yellow ground. The use of a thin copper green glaze on the interior of the current jar is common to many closed-form fahua porcelain vessels. It is perhaps worth noting that the combination of cobalt blue and copper turquoise can be seen on porcelains excavated from both the Xuande and Chenghua strata at the imperial Jingdezhen kilns. These bowls and dishes have underglaze blue aquatic designs covered with a turquoise glaze (see Jingdezhen chutu Yuan Ming guan ciqi, op. cit., pp. 268-9, nos. 272-3 for Xuande examples, and The Emperor’s broken china – Reconstructing Chenghua porcelainop. cit., p. 104, no. 145 for a Chenghua example). The colour combination was thus well-established by the Chenghua reign. As the Jingdezhen fahua porcelains were biscuit-fired, and not given a clear porcelain glaze before the decorative colours added, the whole of the vessel needed to be covered with the coloured alkaline glazes, including the ground. The finished effect had the visual intensity of an embroidery on dark blue satin.

The waves from which the dragons on the current jar leap are probably intended to evoke the legend of the dragon rising from the waves at the spring equinox in order to bring rain to water the crops. The form of these waves, with their white-tipped spume relates to the waves on the famous late 15th century Ataka fahua guan jar in the collection of the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka (see R. Fujioka and G. Hasebe (eds.), Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 14, Ming Dynasty, Tokyo, 1976, p. 134, no. 135), and may represent a slightly earlier incarnation of the motif. A further development of the design can be seen on a 16th century fahua temple vase decorated with dragons above waves on a turquoise ground in the Burrell Collection (see Rosemary Scott, ‘The Unexpected Chinese Ceramic Collection of Sir William Burrell (1861-1958)’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 85, 2021, p. 160, fig. 16).

As mentioned above, dragons are rare on fahua vessels, but a guan jar with four dragons is illustrated in ‘2000 Years of Chinese Ceramics’, The Newark Museum Quarterly, Summer/Fall 1977, fig. 32; a fahua guan jar with dragons, dated to 1500, was sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in November 1990, lot 155 and again in 2005, lot 295. A fahua guan jar with turquoise ground, decorated with four dragons was sold by Christie’s New York in September 2022, lot 968. However, the distinctive shape of the current jar, together with aspects of its design, including the well-formed lappet band around the shoulder, sets it apart from these other jars.

fahua jar of similar form and size, decorated with phoenix and white peony, was among the ceramics donated to the Shanghai Museum by the famous Shanghainese collector Mr J. M. Hu (1911-1995 Hu Jenmou), whose studio name was Zande Lou (Studio of Transitory Enjoyment). This jar has been dated by the museum to the Chenghua reign. The Hu jar is illustrated in the catalogue Selected Ceramics from the Collection of Mr, & Mrs. J. M. Hu, which was published by the Shanghai Museum in 1989 to celebrate the opening of an exhibition of Mr and Mrs Hu’s donated items, pages 50-1, no. 18. While the current jar is decorated on the exterior in cobalt blue, copper turquoise and white, and on the interior with green, the exterior of the Hu jar includes yellow and aubergine in the phoenix decoration. Interestingly, however, there appear to be no incised details on the Hu jar, while the dragons on the current jar have finely incised scales along the length of their bodies. It is also noticeable that the lappet band around the shoulder of the current jar is of a more sophisticated type compared to that around the base of the Hu jar.

The form and decoration of the current jar, including the design of five-clawed dragons, have long been attributed to the second half of the 15th century, while the results of recent archaeological excavation and research suggest that it may in fact be a rare example dating to the Chenghua reign.

[1] For further discussion see Zhou Zhiwen, et al., ‘An Analysis of the Origin of Fahua name from the Perspective of Social Trends and the Implicit Egocentric Effect’, International Journal of Scientific and Technology Research, vol. 9, issue 9, 2020, pp. 9-11.

Christie's. J. J. Lally & Co.New York, 23 march 2023