Of rounded sides, thick and sturdy body and a broad flat upturned rim with a bracket-lobed edge standing on a double thick-tapering foot ring, vividly colored and naturalistically rendered in great detail painted in green, red, and blue, black, yellow and brown enamels predominated by green pigment on transparent glaze showing a grayish-green hue decorated with Daoism Sanxing (三星 “Three Stars”) representing Shou Lao (God of Longevity) holding a peach, Lu (God of Rank) and Fuxing (God of Happiness) accompanied by a lady on behind and five small boys at traditional music play, all surrounded by leafy pine tree, fungus, bats, cranes and other immortal plants on double two circled lines with eight bracket panels framing a pair of conch and lotus flowers of Eight Buddhist Emblems around the cavetto and a series of Ru yi-shaped cloud collars appearing around the lip, with four shoufu motifs around the outer side and vertically underglaze blue six characters of Kangxi mark within double circle lines on the base.
In 1602, Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, abbreviated to VOC, was established by Dutch Republic (present-day Netherlands) in Batavia (present-day Jakarta). VOC, or The Dutch East India Company in English, was a trade corporation that became the greatest trading concern in the world in the 17th and early 18th centuries. According to VOC archives, between 1674 to 1726 AD Batavia was at the height of its prosperity. As the headquarters of the VOC and throne of its Governor General, Batavia was the center of the most extensive trading network Asia. The VOC exercised monopoly on supply of spices and many other Chinese demands than any other Asian ports. VOC controlled Batavia harbor of Sunda Kelapa as the departure, transit and arrival of the valuable objects from overseas, specifically Chinese porcelains. Chinese junks made it one of their major ports of arrival. By the end of the seventeenth century, Sunda Kelapa in Batavia had become one of the three major destination of Chinese shipping in Southeast Asia.1)
Therefore, by the roles of VOC and Chinese junks, the merchants obtained over 2,000,000 Chinese porcelains per year in Batavia. Of 2,000,000 porcelains, 1,200,000 porcelains were to meet the demand from local and regional (Batavia and its adjacent areas). Meanwhile, the total 400,000 porcelains were for VOC officials and the remainders were for Netherlands, although the fact was that they were for VOC personnel’s account.2) The present dish is appropriately considered not only as valuable merchandise but also as one of the aesthetic objects for an exceptional camaraderie between China and Batavia in 17th and 18th century.
The present dish demonstrates the technical achievements of the artist at Jingdezhen in the late seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries. Modelled in a large size, the dish is painted in highly impressive design with richly various enamels applied in details highlighting the tremendous technical skill of the artist to suit contemporary taste in Kangxi period (1662–1722 AD). The various overglazed enamels on the present dish represents the Five Colors design or Kangxi Wu Cai (康熙五彩) in Chinese. In the West, the Five Colors design refers to the term of famille verte porcelains that was popular throughout the Kangxi reign of the Qing dynasty. Kangxi Wu Cai (康熙五彩) is characterized by its slightly strong or hard colors, uniform glassy hue having little gradation of the enamel colors in transparent and bright that is predominated by green enamel. The transparent glaze exhibiting a grayish-green hue on the present dish likely inherited by the earlier reign, especially the overglazed enamels wares in the late Ming of Wanli reign (1572 – 1620 AD). It is a valuable resource what Professor Liu Liang-yu discusses that in the late Wanli period also saw a preference for large pieces with a thick and heavy body showing transparent grayish-green hue glaze.3) Hence, the current famille verte dish having a thick and heavy body coated with transparent grayish-green hue glaze was probably produced in early Kangxi reign.
The design of the Taoist Three Star Gods or The Sanxing (三星 ) that comprises Fu, Lu and Shou images on the current piece is an auspicious imagery that have been highly valued and as a general aspiration of the Chinese people for over the thousands of years, specifically is associated with the Taoist religion in China. In later periods, the Chinese artists developed it in a set of technique and conventions for the visual representation of these Taoist images on several forms of media that reflected the contemporaneous taste at the respective time. In Ming dynasty, the Taoist Three Star God motif was recurred on Chinese paintings and porcelains presented in certain stereotyped form that contain a specific homophonic meaning. For example, a Ming handscroll painting dated to 1454 AD from Musee Gumet (Guimet Museum), it is depicted with the Taoist Three Star Gods in auspicious meaning. The Three Star Gods images are shown wearing the official caps and holding the tablet while a small attendant holds parasol with banner aloft (see fig. 1). The Three Star Gods have remained gods of popular religion, and their images are among the most commonly encountered today of any Chinese gods.4)
Meanwhile, the Taoist ‘Three Star Gods figures accompanied by bats, cranes, peach and a pine tree of the type on the current dish represents the auspicious and Feng Shui message of ‘Good Fortune’, High Official Income, and Longevity’. It creates an aesthetically pleasing scene with the exceptional skill of the painter. Being shone with the Three Star Gods wearing robes in detailed embellishment, the image is believed to be a hope cherished by the Chinese. Meanwhile, children at play (ying xi wen) accompanying Fuxing (God of Happiness) figure on this dish, in China, symbolize the joy of having sons. The image of Children at play like on the present piece were initially carved, impressed or painted on Song and Jin dynasties wares in 10th – 12th century. Thus, all elements and design depicted on the current dish would certainly have satisfied the taste of the Qing court, Kangxi emperor explicating his desire for Good Fortune, Prestige and Longevity.
Famille verte wares of Kangxi period decorated with figures, including ladies, Europeans, and narration of heroic story figures in the landscape or garden are commonly found. Yet, the divinity of Taoist Three Star Gods and children design like on this dish is rarely found and published. This sacred design is a slightly similar theme to that of on a lobed dish inscribed with Chenghua mark but dated to Kangxi period, now is preserved in the Percival David Foundation (see fig. 2).5) The Percival David Foundation dish is also ascertained as Kangxi period (1662-1722), illustrated by Los Angeles County Museum of Art.6) However, the determination of period on the dish emerges the controversy among the scholars. Margaret Medley argues that dish of Percival David Foundation is dated to the Late Ming period.7)
Despite the controversy, however, the Kangixi famille verte wares decorated with a sacred Three Stars God are highly sought-after in the market. Compare with similar design to a small brush pot or ‘bitong’ (17.5 cm in height) painted in Famille verte with ‘Three Star Gods’ and children at play design, unmarked but dated to Kangxi period, sold at Christie’s London, South Kensington, 7 November 2014, lot. 420 (see fig. 3). Also, compare with a famille-verte relief-molded quadrangular vase (53.3 cm in height) depicting the Hehe Erxian and the Three Star Gods, sold at Sotheby’s New York, 22nd March 2011, lot. 107 (see fig. 4).
The popularly sacred story on this dish was honorably placed in idealized settings of Kangxi ware. Since the early Qing dynasty was begun as conquest, and had no grounds in heritage, Kangxi emperor found his voices in the decor of porcelain, which part of them inherited the earlier reigns traditions. Taoism gods and goddesses appeared over and over as worthy stories from the great kilns of Jingdezhen. The dishes adorned with symbols of ‘Good Fortune’, ‘High Official Income’, and ‘Longevity’ like on the present dish were given to the favored courtiers as gifts on the birthdays of the emperors. And not least, the exportation of the kind of this precious piece was a prodigious source of revenue for Kangxi emperor. No exception, the Three Star Gods design on the present piece represents a simultaneously auspicious wish that brings Good Fortune, Prestige, and Longevity to the owner with a spiritual path that emphasizes the importance of living in harmony with the Tao.
Yoneo Ishii, The junk trade from Southeast Asia: Translations from the Tôsen fusetsu-gaki, 1674-1723 (Data paper series sources for the economic history of Southeast Asia), Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, Australian National History, 1998, p. 195.
C.J.A Jorg, Chinese Porcelain for the Dutch in the Seventeenth Century: Trading Networks and Private Enterprise’, in The Porcelains of Jingdezhen: Colloquies on Art and Archaeology in Asia, London: University of London, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 1993, pp. 194 – 197.
Liu Liang-yu, ‘Ming Official Wares, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics’, Taiwan, 1991, pp. 279-280.
Stephen Little & Shawn Eichman, Taoism and the Arts of China, Taoism and the Arts of China, The Art Institute of Chicago, University of California, First Edition, Berkeley, California, 2000, p. 91.
Rosemary E. Scott, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, A Guide to Collection, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Hongkong, 1989, p. 132, cat. No. 52.
The Imperial Taste Chinese Ceramics from Percival David Foundation, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Chronicle Books San Francisco, Japan, 1989, pp. 80-81, cat.no. 49.
Margaret Medley, ‘The Chinese Potter, A Practical History of Chinese Ceramics,’ London, 1999, p. 224, cat. No. Plate VII.