Well potted with an ovoid body tapering to a narrow base and a short straight neck flanked by four double-strap ruyi-shaped handles applied to the shoulder below the wide mouth, around the exterior crisply appliquéd and molded with sprig of four paired-toads model confronted each other, covered with a glossy dark brownish-black glaze liberally flecked with expressionistic patterns in beige tones simulating partridge-feather mottles in varying sizes stopping above the foot exposing a pale buff body and the base applied with a small glaze.
In the periods between the collapse of Tang dynasty and the emergence of Song dynasty in the first half on the tenth century, there was boisterous trade relation between the overseas and the independent empires in China, such as Fujian kingdom of Min (reigning from 909 to 945 AD) and the rich Guangdong kingdom of Nan Han (Southern Han reigning from 917 to 971 AD). As a central of powerful maritime trade entrepôt, Srivijaya kingdom unquestionably savored this situation, which it gained the abundant revenue and achieved its prosperity. A 10th-century Muslim Persian writer ‘Ahmad ibn Rustah Isfahani’ (احمد ابن رسته اصفهانی) was so astonished with the affluence of Buddhist Srivijaya ruler that he declared one would no hear of a king who was wealthier, stronger or with more revenue aside from Srivijaya.
The present jar was found in the Musi River basin in 26th February 1993, around Palembang of Southern Sumatra island. Ancient archive mentions that Musi River served as hinterland, and rival estuarine areas capable of forming rival power centers in 10th – 13th centuries. The areas upstream of the Musi river were rich in various commodities valuable to Chinese traders.1) This archaeological evidence also supports theory from a 20th-century French scholar of southeast Asian archaeology and history, George Coedès, that a large trading settlement, with production, religious, commercial and political centers, had emerged there for several centuries prior to the fourteenth century. Archaeological artifacts unearthed including Buddhist statues, fragments of inscriptions, pottery and Chinese ceramics also have remained. The present jar is probably a testament of Palembang history as once a great harbor in 10th to 13th centuries.
The form of the present jar is modelled after archaic ovoid hu-shaped vessel of Neolithic period (2300–2000 B.C). The model was then developed in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) that is known as ‘Ovoid Jar’ coated with sancai, white, green and iron-brown glazes. The prototype (46.3 cm in height) is an ovoid jar of Tang dynasty with iron-brown and splashed milky-blue ash glazes from the Art Institute of Chicago (see fig. 1).2) Another, dated Tang dynasty, from an American private collection that is included in the exhibition.3) Also, see the example illustrated by Professor Liu Liang-yu.4) Another, Tang dynasty splash-glazed ovoid jar, formerly in the Jaehne Collection, and now is in The Newark Museum, where it is attributed to the Duandian kiln, Lushan county, Henan province.5) Another coated with a glaze of dark olive-brown color and boldly decorated with large irregular splashes of beige tone, dated to Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD), was sold at Christie’s New York, 19 – 20 September 2013, lot. 1271 (see fig. 2).
The present ovoid jar covered with black glaze liberally flecked irregular russet brown splashes with unique frogs-molded pattern is one of outstanding Jizhou wares produced during Southern Song dynasty at Jizhou 吉州kilns in Jianxi province. The russet brown splashes on the present piece are executed by applying an iron-rich slip to a surface of body and then covering the slip with an iron-rich glaze. During firing, the glaze melts and separates and the iron bubbles to the surface to create a dramatic abstract design. Jizhou kilns themselves were first established and operated in the mid to late Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) or Five Dynasties (907-960) and enjoyed a great prosperity during the Song dynasty but stopped their production at the end of Song and the beginning of the Yuan dynasty. During the Song dynasty, the highly sophisticated aesthetics of Jizhou wares developed around the ritual of tea drinking. The Jizhou kiln was famous for the brown and black glaze on jars and bowls commonly for container tea drinking. Some of the jars, like the present jar, may have held wine or tea, while the smaller bowls were likely used to sip tea widely used by a variety of social classes, from emperors to common people and monks.
A wide range of Jizhou black-glazed jar and vase forms are commonly decorated with only splashes of variously colors on surfaces of the glaze, forming either in reminiscence of tortoiseshell, tiger’s fur, partridge feathers or russet marking and paper cut leaf and animal effects. For example, a Jizhou ‘tortoiseshell’ of related form is a vase (21.6 cm in height) (see fig. 3).6) Another is from the Palace Museum collection, Beijing;7) and another is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.8) Compare with related large Jizhou ‘partridge feathers’ meiping, dated to Southern Song dynasty, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 3rd October 2017, lot. 15 (see fig. 4). Also, compare with a small Henan ‘guri lacquer’ style motif on a dark brown glaze jar (21 cm in height), dated to Yuan dynasty, sold at Sotheby’s London, 5th November 2014, lot. 74 (see fig. 5). It is extremely rare to find a black-glazed jar of this type with russet-splash and molded-frog sprig suggestive of abstract pattern. Compare with a brown-splash black-glazed vase (meiping) of Northern Song dynasty (960 – 1127 AD), sold at Sotheby’s New York, 11th September 2019, lot. 505 (see fig. 6). The liberal russet-splashes or flecks applied on this piece are frequently referred to as ‘partridge-feather mottles’, or Zhegu ban, a term that had been used in the tenth century onwards. During the Northern Song and Jin periods, a number of Jizhou kilns resumed the partridge-feather mottles’ glazes, like the present piece.
Toad or ‘Tufted Zoomorphs’ is one of zoomorphic image that was a common pattern depicted on Chinese Neolithic storage jar (about 6000 to 2000 BC). For example, a double-handled jar painted in black and purple with geometric pattern of opposed pairs of abstract zoomorphic patterns (frog) from Asian Museum of San Francisco, dated to Machang phase of Majianyao culture (ca. 2300 – 2000 BC) (see fig. 7). The author also discusses that the motif or frog (and other variations of it) is commonly found on Machang ware excavated in several areas in Qinghai and Gunsu.9) Another, a pottery jar painted with frog pattern from collection of the Gansu Provincial Museum.10).
The specific form and elaborate frogs or toads ornament applied with molded appliqués technique on the current storage jar appears to be unique and rarely found on Jizhou wares published. The ‘Tortoiseshell’ with molded appliqués of this vessel is one of the most technically innovative patterns between the black glaze, beige splashes and sprig-molded decoration during the Southern Song period. The molded appliqués technique on the current piece can be also traced back to the repoussé of decorative aesthetic of metalworks or ceramics of earlier wares as its inspiration. In ancient Chinese classical antiquity, frog or toad is considered as a mythical creature representing the Lunar Yin and the frog spirit Ch’ing-Was Sheng that is associated with healing, wealth, prosperity and good luck for people business. Thus, the frog-molded design on the current ‘tortoiseshell’ pattern ovoid jar found in Musi River of Srivijaya site served a religious tea or wine drinking ceremony for the classes of wealthy and monks as a totem of prosperity of Southern Song dynasty and Sriwijaya empire era in 1127- 1279 AD.
Paul Michel Munoz, Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula, Singapore, Editions Didier Millet, 2006, p. 113.
Art Institute of Chicago, Reference Number: 1985.113
Early Chinese Ceramics: An American Private Collection, 28 March – 16 April 2005, no. 13.
Liu Liang-yu, Early Wares: Prehistoric to Tenth Century, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics, 1, Taipei, 1991, no. 95.
Robert D. Mowry, Hare’s Fur, Tortoiseshell, and Partridge Feathers: Chinese Brown- and Black-Glazed Ceramics, 400-1400, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 1996, p. 95, no. 8
Ibid, 1996, pp. 232-234, no. 91.
The Complete Collection of Treasures in the Palace Museum. Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (II), Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 216.
Treasures from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, China House Gallery, New York, 1979, cat. no. 36.
He Li, Chinese Ceramics: The New Standard Guide’, Thames and Hudson, Singapore, 1996, p. 60, cat. no. 8.
Shou cang jia 收藏家 = Collector & connoisseur, 2007:1, Beijing, p. 9, fig. 15.