Kangxi reign: A Large and Impressive Underglaze Blue and Iron-Red “Bird-and-Flower” Dish

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This dish is in shallow rounded sides, thick and sturdy body with a flared everted iron-brown dressed rim, standing with the unglazed channeled foot ring, delicately painted on overall interior of milky white glaze in varying bright shades of cobalt blue and copper red with four finches, while two in flight and another perched on a lower branch amidst budding and blossoming of old prunus flowers accompanied by bamboo growing from the bottom of the tree, the exterior with powder blue glaze, and the glazed base written vertically underglaze blue six characters of Kangxi reign mark.


There is no sudden break in the ceramic tradition between the Ming and the Ch’ing dynasties. When after a long struggle of rebellion, the Ming dynasty finally broke down and the last twenty years of the dynasty, and the beginning of the Ch’ing dynasty were dominated entirely by private kilns. The so-called Transitional Period is generally accepted to have lasted from around 1620 to around 1670. The reopening of the imperial kilns under the Ch’ing dynasty is not supposed to have taken place until the Kangxi period, and the date given is usually 1671. During 1671 and 1672, the shapes and designs of the wares were still executed by high-skilled  potters and painters of Ming dynasty through the practices of compulsory labor at the kilns. Although it was not supposed to have taken place in the ceramic production in 1671 and 1672, but Jingdezhen did produce the high quality of porcelains under the organized imperial kilns and control. The customers of Chinese wares were taking the trade of porcelains again from Japan to China. Dutch East India Company (VOC) should submit and satisfy orders from Europeans’ demands living in Batavia and Europe countries. In a peaceful condition and no constraints of trade, VOC began to contact with either imperial or private kilns at Jingdezhen in late 1670 to 1672. The wares were shipped by VOC merchant junks to Batavia before distributing them to Europe countries. See: Jan Wirgin: Selected Objects from Swedish Collections, Bulletin No.46, The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (Östasiatica Museet), Stockholm, 1974, p. 67.

Like some of late Ming and transitional wares in common, the present dish has an iron-brown dressed lip that not only partly to hide the flaw but also to evoke the texture of metal, which enhances the status of the ceramic vessels. Characterized with a large and heavily potted dish painted in underglaze blue and copper red and also exhibiting the channeled foot, the present dish is a typical early Kangxi period dish, where this channeled foot appears to have been used by the potters at Jingdezhen for a short period of time around 1670, and disappeared in the second half of the Kangxi period. In addition, the decoration painted with the combination of underglaze blue and copper-red like the present dish were usually produced during early Kangxi reign, approximately dated 1671.

The underglaze blue and copper-red decoration technique first appeared during the Yuan dynasty and continued to be employed in the early and mid-Ming to early Kangxi reigns. It was difficult for potters to achieve the perfect and luminous result and the vessel being often diffused and dull since the firing requirements for cobalt blue and copper red are different. Though, the most successful product of underglaze blue and copper red decoration began to appear in the late Kangxi and Yongzheng reigns of Qing dynasty. See: Wang Qingzheng: A Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China, 2002, pp.238. Yet, blue-and-white with copper-red on this Kangxi porcelain renders in intense, bright shades of cobalt blue, with an almost three-dimensional quality of a naturalistic scene of the popular bird and flowers motif. The design is also executed in detail in which the birds’ feathers and flower tree are rendered.

In this part of China the bird-and-flower design is a very important feature in the Chinese art that is quite frequently seen on Chinese traditional paintings of Song dynasty and was popular at Song court. By Southern Song times, official ‘Birds-and-Flowers” imagery appropriate to court functions seems to give way to a more private type of poetic subject matter, often sketched in small size formats. For example, Emperor Huizong (宋徽宗, 1082–1135) or born Zhao Ji (趙佶) of Song dynasty with his handscroll of ink and color on silk painting “Finches and Bamboo” depicting the kind of the birds like on the current piece, exhibited in “Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the Metropolitan Collection II,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 7, 2016–October 11, 2016 (see fig. 1). The design of birds on the present piece is also closely related to that of early Ming porcelains. In early Ming dynasty, the birds and flowering plants were developed and depicted on porcelains at Jingdezhen. For example, the blue-and-white vessels in wide range of forms depicted with birds on flowering branches dated to early Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403 – 1424 AD) are from British Museum (see fig. 2).

Taking from the earlier paintings and porcelains with ‘Birds-and-Flowers’ subject, the potters and artisans of Qing dynasty at Jingdezhen frequently enhanced and developed it on blue-and-white, doucai, wucai or blue-and-iron-red porcelains. The stunning traditional Chinese flower and bird design on the present vessel is given a rich symbolic or spiritual message playing a significant role in the lives of the Chinese. Its design elaborately decorated with magpies flying and perching at prunus tree design has a sacred meaning for happiness and good news. Magpies are identified by their white breast and long tails. In the Chinese New Year poster, a pair of magpies represents a happy married couple where they sit high atop prunus blossom expressing a wish for ‘double good news’. Moreover, since these birds are perched at the very top of the flowers, they are believed as ‘happiness up to the tips of one’s eyebrows.

 As their honor meaning of flower and bird in Chinese history, the Qing craftsmen absorbed and reproduced the quality of the prototypes with various techniques and style, and some of them are sometimes inscribed with earlier reign mark. For example, see a small blue-and-white and copper-red dish ‘bird and peony’ plate (27 cm in size) of Ming-Chenghua mark but dated to Kangxi period sold at Sotheby’s London, 7th November 2017, lot. 91, for GBP 7,500, initially estimated between GBP 4,000 – GBP 6,000 (see fig. 3). Compare with a small doucai-decorated prunus and magpie dish inscribed with Kangxi six-character mark and of the period (15.8 cm in size) sold at Christie’s London, 8th November 2011, lot. 443, for GBP 37,250, initially estimated between GBP 20,000 – GBP 30,000 (see fig. 4). Compare with blue-and-white Ming-style moon flask of Yongzeng period (1723 – 1735 AD) depicted with birds perched on prunus like on the present piece, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30th November 2016, lot. 3309 (37 cm in size), for HK$ 45,900,000 or equivalent to US$ 5,945,326, initially estimated between HKD 40,000,000 – HKD 60,000,000 (see fig. 5).


  1. Selected Objects from Swedish Collections, Jan Wirgin, Bulletin No.46, The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities (Östasiatica Museet), Stockholm, 1974, p. 67.

  2. A Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics, Wang Qingzheng, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China, 2002, pp.238.

  3. Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the Metropolitan Collection II, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 7, 2016–October 11, 2016.


Kangxi Reign