Jiajing Reign: An Outstanding Underglaze Blue “Confucius Qilin” (麒麟) Dish

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DESCRIPTION

finely potted, rounded sides, painted in strong washes and bold outline of cobalt underglaze blue exquisitely decorated in the center with a two-horned mythical beast ‘Qilin’ in lush hairs and mouth open in a fierce roar of dragon-like face spatting a sacred jade book out of its mouth surrounded by The Eight Precious Things (babao: 八宝) within double circled lines showing a rectangular line enclosing six Chinese characters of Jiajing reign marks, around the cavetto elucidated with five-clawed dragon and flying phoenix each chasing flaming pearls around clouds, the underside depicted with plain diamond-work of diaper pattern, and six Swastika and mystic knot of the key patterns around the footring, the unglazed base in brownish-colored in the kiln as a result of the iron in the clay supported with tapering foot ring.

RESEARCH & ESSAY

The present dish is an exquisite specimen of the late Ming imperial porcelain painted in bold outline filled with washes of underglaze cobalt blue exhibiting the mixed and combined decorative elements from two great religions influence, Confucius and Taoism. The blue pigment, like the present dish was done in slightly strong washes and bold outline and is full of vitality. The blue pigment also visibly shows manganese and iron impurities, which the blue was imported from Persia and it was ever used on the wares produced in the Jiajing to early Wanli periods. According to historical records, when the local blue from Leping area was unavailable, the composition of blue is mixed between local blue pigment from Leping and imported cobalt. The Persia blue pigment widely used during the Jiajing and Wanli reigns was imported through Yunnan. But it was usually mixed with another local or called Shizi blue. See also: 私家藏宝: 粤桂港澳台私人藏品珍 (A Private Collection of Chinese Ceramics: Treasure from Collectors in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan), Zhao Ziqiang, Guangxi Fine Arts Publishing House; 1st edition, pp. 12 – 13.

Qilin (麒麟) image, like the dragon animal, appeared on bronze sculpture in Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) and its appearance was depicted in a variety of subsequent Chinese works of history and fiction in later Chinese dynasties. From the Yuan to Qing dynasties it was used as art design on porcelains and for a mystical good omen. In Ming dynasty, like on the current dish, the Qilin image frequently is featured with its fierce dragon-like head, oxen hooves, fish skins and double deer’s horns. We may see the example of the carved marble of Qilin sculpture at Ming tomb entrance built by the emperors of the Ming dynasty of China (see fig. 1). Qilin, or what is always called a unicorn, a mythical animal typically represented as a horse with a single straight horn projecting from its forehead, was used on Ming robes as a badge of rank for dukes, marquises, sons-in-law of the emperor, and earls. In 1453 it was decreed that the Officers of the Guards in attendance of the Emperor should also wear Qilin robes. The embroidered badge shows a beast with scales, cloven hoofs, and upright long busy tail. However, it always had two horns (see: 29 Chinese Mysteries, Roy Bates, Tu Dragon Books, People Republic of China, Beijing, 2008, p. 86)

 

While no other Ming dish of this sacred decoration appears to have been published, but the Qilin design are frequently depicted in various profile and poses on several mediums in the Ming dynasty. For example, the related Qilin design around The Eight Precious Things patterns is on a carved red, yellow, green and black lacquer dish inscribed with Jiajing reign mark and period of Ming dynasty, from Qing court collection in Palace Museum – Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 173, no. 131 (see fig. 2). The present dish with exceptional Qilin design alongside elaborate ornamentation painted in a careful realist technique in ‘Gongbi (工笔)’ style is rarely published and mainly for a “court-style” artwork. Painted in fine underglazed cobalt blue mixed with a local blue rendering two-dimentional effect, the current piece is separated from those of coarse wares quality largely exported that are executed in freely expressive xieyi (寫意 ‘sketching thoughts’) style  lacking in more refined objects in the late Ming dynasties. For example, a blue-and-white dish, dated 16th century, with a galloping Qilin painted in freely expressive xieyi (寫意 ‘sketching thoughts’) was sold at Sotheby’s London, 11th May 2016, Lot. 244, for GBP 5000, initially estimated between GBP 4,000 – GBP 6000 (See fig. 3). Another, a polychrome-enameled kuixing table screen Ming dynasty, Jiajing period (1522-1566), 15.6 cm in size, is included in Late Umehara: His Art and Collection, The Shoto Museum of Art, Tokyo, 2005, p. 130, cat. no. C-29. The piece was then sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 26th May 2021, Lot. 324, for HKD69,300, initially estimated between HKD6,000 – HKD 8,000 (See fig. 4).

Jiajing Emperor was the 11th emperor of the Chinese Ming dynasty who ruled from 1521 to 1567 AD practicing a Taoism religion. Even though as particularly fascinated with Taoism during his reign, Neo-Confucian doctrines influences also widespread before the scholar Confucians leaving the court as the decline in Confucianism standards. This is why the decorative elements on Chinese art during Jiajing reign commonly show the mixed and combined elements from any different religions’ influences.  Decorated with Qilin, a mythical beast animal spating a jade book out of its mouth surrounded by The Eight Precious Things, makes the present dish the most supernatural and mystical quality of ware created in the late Ming dynasty. Qilin pattern on the present dish is closely associated with Confucius’s birth history, a Chinese social philosopher, whose teachings deeply influenced East Asian life and thought. According to Shi Yi Ji (拾遺記), a Chinese mythological or historical treatise compiled by the Taoist scholar Wang Jia (王嘉) who died in 390 CE, Qilin is narrated to have appeared just before the birth of Confucious (551 B.C. – 479 B.C). Emilija Kiehl in “Copenhagen 2013 – 100 Years On: Origins, Innovations and Controversies: Proceedings of the 19th Congress of the International Association for Analytical Psychology”, Daimon, 2015“ that another story in Shi Yi Ji (Wang Jia) created an aura of holiness around Confucius’s birth. It says that before Confucius was born, one Qilin came to his house and spat a jade book out of its mouth. The jade book said that Confucius had holy blood, and was in the decline of Zhou dynasty. He had superfine virtue of a king, but no authority of a king. This story connected Confucius’s birth with Qilin, and made people believe that Confucius was a God who came from heaven. It is Qilin who escorted him into the world.” In Buddhist art, Qilin or unicorn is often shown carrying the Book of Laws with its own story and legend.

As a sacred animal design. the Qilin design like on present piece was then largely imitated on doucai and polychrome style in later reigns, Qing dynasties. Besides one of the Four Supernatural creatures that symbolizes justice and prosperity with high moral integrity, Qilin spatting a sacred jade book out of its mouth surrounded by The Eight Precious Things (babao: 八宝) have been addressed by Confucians as a sacred signal of the birth of Confucius to be “The Most Holy Sage” in China. Its appearance is then often correlated to coincident with arrival of a sage or virtuous ruler. The image of Qilin spatting a sacred jade book like on the present dish can be found on carved mural in temples in Xiamen, Fujian – China. (See fig. 5). It is believed that the birth of the great sage Confucius was foretold by the arrival of a Qilin. It also discloses that the baby to be born is going to be a man of extraordinary good moral character and talent, an exemplar of human excellences. In Feng Shui, Qilin like on the current dish symbolizes joy, wisdom, magnificence, celebration, long life and famous children.

Citation:

  1. 私家藏宝: 粤桂港澳台私人藏品珍集 (A Private Collection of Chinese Ceramics: Treasure from Collectors in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan), Zhao Ziqiang, Guangxi Fine Arts Publishing House; 1st edition, pp. 12 – 13.

  2. 29 Chinese Mysteries, Roy Bates, Tu Dragon Books, People Republic of China, Beijing, 2008, 86.

  3. Late Umehara: His Art and Collection, The Shoto Museum of Art, Tokyo, 2005, p. 130, cat. no. C-29

  4. The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 173, no. 131.

  5. Copenhagen 2013 – 100 Years On: Origins, Innovations and Controversies: Proceedings of the 19th Congress of the International Association for Analytical Psychology, Emilija Kiehl Daimon, 2015“.

CATALOGUE ENTRY.

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