Hongzhi reign: An Unusual Incised and Enameled ‘Carp -Dragon’ on Yellow Ground Bowl.

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DESCRIPTION.

of finely potted bowl with a deep-rounded sides and out-turned rim standing on slightly high foot ring, the exterior incised relief and filled in with green, aubergine and white enamels of a ferocious five-clawed dragon ‘Lung’ spitting flame out of from its mouth around the clouds above a small carp leaping over serpentine wave of the river, the interior decorated with incised open flower and small greenish white enamel, all over reserved on a yellow glaze ground, the based in white glazed and written with underglazed brownish blue vertically two lines of six character Hongzhi reign marks circled by double lines.

RESEARCH & ESSAY.

The Chinese ceramic production in the Hongzhi reign (1487 -1505) was considered as significant hint that the much of Chinese ceramics were smuggled out of the country. The emperor produced the imperial wares for only several years of his reign. The imperial porcelains were produced at Jingdezhen, but it was marked as the shrinking scale of production and the relative austerity in terms of decoration varieties, including theyellow-glazed porcelains like on the current dish. The design is also executed in conservative style, commonly in conjunction with incised and enameled dragon design on a yellow-enameled glaze.

Decorated in slip-trailed and enameled design against on a yellow glaze background like on the current bowl is typical technique commonly applied on porcelains of Middle Ming dynasty. Suzanne Valenstein in Ming Porcelains: A Retrospective [Exh. cat. China Institute Gallery, China Institute in America, New York], New York, 1970, pl. 22 discusses that the technique of slip-trailing like on the present bowl is common, however, on the so-called fahua wares of the middle Ming dynasty. The porcelains executed in slip-trailed or incised decoration technique into the body with a yellow ground enamel, like the present bowl, also appeared in the early Ming dynasties, which the designs of dragon images incised and painted in yellow-and-green colour scheme had been already experimented at Jingdezhen in the Yongle period (1403-24). For example, a small ewer and dish with this design was excavated from the Yongle stratum of the Ming imperial kiln site in 1988, illustrated in Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, cat. nos. 28 and 29.

The most common imperial decorative motifs in incised design of dragons painted in aubergine or green enamels covered with a yellow enamel ground was also popular in the mid 15th century and early 16th century. For example. an incised green dragon on yellow ground enamel bowl of Chenghua period was excavated from the imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen, illustrated in Ming Official Wares, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics, Liu Liang-yu, Taiwan, 1991, p.125 (see fig. 1). Also, the incised aubergine dragon design on the yellow ground of Chenghua bowl was excavated from Zhushan site at Jingdezhen, illustrated in Tsui Museum of Art, A Legacy of Chenghua-Imperial Porcelain of the Chenghua Reign Excavated from Zhushan, Jingdezen, Exhibition Catalogue, Hong Kong, 1993, p.131 (see fig. 2). As the Chenghua emperor’s son and successor, Hongzhi emperor revived and developed the techniques of porcelains of his predecessor at Jingdezhen, but they are largely decorated with green ‘dragon’ enamel. The incised green dragon on the yellow ground enamel in the Hongzhi period is evidenced by a stem cup from National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum: Enameled Ware of the Ming Dynasty, vo. 2, Hong Kong, 1966, pp. 86 – 87 (see fig. 3).

In the later Ming reigns, the porcelains with incised design and green enamels on yellow ground techniques were widely used, especially in the Zhengde period (1506 – 1521) to Wanli period (1572 – 1620). As a successor of Chenghua Emperor, porcelains those were ordered for the court from Jingdezen frequently resumed the Chenghua porcelain’s traditions. The present incised ‘dragon-fish’ bowl painted in green, aubergine and white on yellow ground enamels is similar in principle to the technique of green or aubergine ‘dragon’ on yellow ground wares in the Chenghua period. The design of ‘carp-dragon’ on the current bowl represents a meaning symbol in Chinese legend. A five-clawed dragon of Lung is a symbol of power in imperial. The Lung is often associated with the powers and functions of nature governed by the forces thus indicated, such as the East, spring, etc., are ranked under the symbol of Azure Dragon. Meanwhile, the carp with its scaly armor is regarded as symbol of perseverance as its struggles in swimming and leaping against the current of waves. The combination of dragon and a leaping Carp design on the current bowl reveals the Chinese legend of “The Carp Leaping over the Dragon’s Gate” (Liyu Yue Longmen or鲤鱼跳龙门) on the Yellow River near Hejin county, Shanxi. The folktale suggests that if a carp leaps over the Dragon’s Gate it would become the dragon, and if it failed it would remain a fish. Thus, the carp-dragon design bestows the symbolic meaning of success for upwardly mobile individuals, such as traditional scholars who sought their fortune through the imperial degree examination system (Keju:  科舉) to become a wealth official or prestigious bureaucrat like transformation from an agile carp into a powerful dragon. The carp and dragon design on the current bowl is closely similar style to a mural painting excavated in a small ancient local temple in a neighborhood in the East Street of Quanzhou city, China or the so-called “Carp City” in local dialect (see fig. 4). Quanzhou city is one of the smaller rural settlements and market towns by Chinese migrants living on the southeast coast beginning to “crystallize” into larger places. Soon, the Wu (221 – 280 C.E), one of three contesting kingdoms centering on the Lower Yangzhe River, conquered the area and established Fengzhou (Harvest Town), a county seat situated to the northwest of the current city. The small walled town of Fengzhou was the beginning of Quanzhou’s urban history. (see also: Empire and Local Worlds: A Chinese Model for Long-Term Historical Anthropology, Mingming Wang, First Edition, Left Coast Press, Inc, USA, 2009).

The incised standard green ‘dragon’ on yellow ground porcelains were also produced in the later periods, either in the shape of bowls or stem cups. For example, a bowl with Zhengde mark from the Princessehof Museum, Leeuwarden, Holland, is illustrated in Keramiek uit Azie, Barbara Harrisson, Leeuwarden, 1985, pl. 53 (see fig. 5); another, probably also of the Zhengde reign but with a phags-pa mark is in the British Museum, London, illustrated in Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, Jessica Harrison-Hall, London, 2001, pl. 8:31 (see fig. 6).  The incised dragon designs on yellow ground enamel bowls largely appeared in the later Ming bowls, especially Jiajing period in the market. For example, compare with a yellow and green ‘Dragon’ bowl with mark of Jiajing reign and period from Meiyintang Collection (17.1 cm in width), sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 9th April 2013, lot. 30, estimated between HKD 2,700,000 – HKD 3,500,000 or equivalent to US$ 347,814 – US$ 450,870 (see fig. 7).

The design on present bowl with Hongzhi mark is unusual as it is rare to find yellow-glazed wares with incised carp-dragon design in green, aubergine and white enamels. Mostly bowls of Hingzhi period using the present technique is decorated with a standard green ‘dragon’ design. For example, compare with a yellow-glazed dragon bowl marked with Hongzhi and of period (15.9 cm), sold at Christie’s Hongkong, 30th May 2006, lot. 1343, for HKD 108,000, initially estimated between HKD 60,000 – HKD 80,000 (see fig. 8). In addition, most of yellow-glazed bowls and dishes of Hongzhi reign are monochrome and do not have further incised and enameled decorations, especially with carp-dragon enameled with green, aubergine and white like on the present bowl. For examples, one from the Percival David Foundation, illustrated in La Porcelaine Ming, D. Lion-Goldschmidt, Fribourg, 1978, p. 111, pl. 93; and another from the Qing court collection, illustrated in Monochrome Porcelain, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 138. Yellow-glazed dishes with Hongzhi mark also include from Victoria and Albert Museum, illustrated in Ming Porcelain, D. Lion-Goldschmidt, Fribourg, 1986, pl. 113; one in the Topkapi Saray Museum, illustrated Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, R. Krahl, Istanbul, vol. II, p. 447, no. 774. Further, three yellow-glazed dishes from the British Museum, is illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, op.cit, pp. 185-186, pls. 7:18- 7:20 (see fig. 9).

The ‘carp-dragon’ design on the current bowl represents the Chinese legend of “The Carp Leaping over the Dragon’s Gate” that has played a large part in Chinese thought through thousands of years ago. When the image of dragon is accompanied by a carp leaping or swimming on the current of wave in variant style, it would represent the illustration of the Chinese legend of “The Carp Leaping over the Dragon’s Gate”. Chinese intellectual history and philosophical glory were at their peak in the Ming dynasty. The Ming imperial school system located in Nanking in the early Ming and Peking in the later Ming was limited to Art Scholar candidates who were already prepared in everything before entering and examination. L Newton Hayes illustrates in The Chinese Dragon, introduction by Fong F. Sec, LLD, Third Edition, Commercial Press Limited, Shanghai – China, 1923, pp. 19 – 20, that the use of “Passed the Dragon’s Gate” figure was doubtless to illustrate the difficulty of passing the examinations. Within the main entrance to Nanking’s Examination Hall, where the Master’s Degree was earned, stood along “spirit wall.” Upon the front of this structure was painted with a dragon gate, beneath which was shown a carp changing into a dragon. It was difficult for a Bachelor of Arts to become a Master as for a carp to be transformed into a dragon (see fig. 10).

Therefore, the present ‘carp-dragon’ bowl with Hongzhi reign mark (1487 – 1505 AD) perfectly exemplifies the unusual design and honorable interpretation of its theme. The theme is based on historic ideas of the middle Ming dynasty on the legend of “The Carp Leaping over the Dragon’s Gate” that was interpreted by ancient Chinese scholars who sought their fortune through the imperial degree examination to become a wealth official or prestigious bureaucrat in the Ming periods.

Citation:

  1. Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, cat. nos. 28 and 29.

  2. Ming Official Wares, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics, Liu Liang-yu, cit, p.125.

  3. Ming Porcelains: A Retrospective[Exh. cat. China Institute Gallery, Suzanne Valenstein, China Institute in America, New York], New York, 1970, pl. 22

  4. Porcelain of the National Palace Museum: Enameled Ware of the Ming Dynasty, vo. 2, Hong Kong, 1966, pp. 86 – 87.

  5. Empire and Local Worlds: A Chinese Model for Long-Term Historical Anthropology, Mingming Wang, First Edition, Left Coast Press, Inc, USA, 2009.

  6. The Chinese Dragon, introduction by Fong F. Sec, LLD, Third Edition, Commercial Press Limited, Shanghai – China, 1923, pp. 19 – 20.

  7. Barbara Harrisson, Keramiek uit Azie, Leeuwarden, 1985, pl. 53.

  8. Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, Jessica Harrison-Hall, London, 2001, pl. 8:31.

  9. La Porcelaine Ming, Lion-Goldschmidt, Fribourg, 1978, p. 111, pl. 93.

  • Monochrome Porcelain, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 138.

  • Ming Porcelain, D. Lion-Goldschmidt, Fribourg, 1986, pl. 113.

  • Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Krahl, Istanbul, vol. II, p. 447, no. 774.

CATALOGUE ENTRY.

Hongzhi Reign