The Heritage of Mongol: The Iconography of Chinese Buddhist on Celadon Lotus-Flower Petal Jar

The Mongol triumph of the Song dynasty was the definite victory for the Mongols to rule the whole of China led by Kublai Khan (1260–1294 AD). Mongols forces pushed further into their invasion out of China. The Mongol invasions of Korea (1231–1259) comprised a series of campaigns between 1231 AD and 1270 AD by the Mongol Empire against the Kingdom of Goryeo. Kublai Khan’s troops occupied Burma between 1277 and 1287, resulting in the submission and disintegration of the Pagan Kingdom. The Mongol tried to conquer Japan in 1274 and 1281 AD, but they were impeded by an extreme storm. When the Mongol challenged Vietnam Kingdom, the Mongols failed to win.

In 1293, Singhasari Kingdom in Java became the most powerful kingdom in the areas of Java and Sumatra after defeating Srivijaya Kingdom in 1290. The Mongol sent envoys to suing tribute to Singhasari, but the King of Singhasari, Kertanegara, harshly refused it. Kublai Khan was furious and sent a massive combat expedition comprising one thousand ships with 20,000 – 30,000 troops to Singhasari but it ended in defeat for the Mongols. After their default of these invasions, the Mongols preferred to a more strategic way, trading and tribute exchange to avoid further bloodshed. Kublai Khan emperor died in 1294, and the reign was succeeded by his sons and his later great grand-sons under Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Under the Yuan dynasty, the ceramic art trades over the Silk Road flourished. An indigenous ceramic production culture bloomed in China, and the potters at Longquan kilns created works of great technical and aesthetic brilliance that were exported to Buddhist Srivijaya empire in island of Sumatra. There is a great quantity of Longquan celadon wares found and excavated in archeological sites and seas throughout Sumatra and Java.

The Heritage of Mongol: The Iconography of Chinese Buddhist on Celadon Lotus-Flower Petal Jar
The Heritage of Mongol: The Iconography of Chinese Buddhist on Celadon Lotus-Flower Petal Jar

In 2001, the author and team conducted excavation at Palembang sites of Buddhist Srivijaya empire in Sumatra, which the its artifacts could add to our knowledge of the Chinese ceramic trade in the past. One of the sites excavated was Ipang Ceria village in Subdistrict of Muara Telang, Banyuasin Region, located about 50 kilometers east of Palembang City. The artifacts include Celadon wares ceramics deriving from Longquan kilns, dated to Song and Yuan dynasties. The present jar was acquired from a head of Ipang Ceria village in 24th January 2001, and it was considered as ‘Pusaka’ for his family. Now, the author would like to evaluate the present rare celadon jar that is based on its aesthetic and characteristics, and scholarly study of its historiography and ethnography, along with appreciation of its financial value in the art market.

The current celadon jar form is modelled after the earlier shape traditions of Yue ware (越窯) that had begun to occupy an ever-increasing role in daily life, Buddhist rituals, and burials. The Yue ware (越窯) was first made in the Han dynasty period (206 BCE – 220 AD) in China. The raised lotus petal applied on the shoulder on the current vessel is also clearly modelled after the earlier ‘yue’ green lotus-shaped petal jar prototype that commonly had appeared in the pottery of the Northern Qi 北齊 dynasty (550-577 AD) for utilitarian objects. For example, the similar lotus petal vase shape to the present jar was excavated in Hubei province from Li Yun’s tomb of the Northern Qi 北齊 (550-577 AD) period in Punyang, Henan province in 1958, now is collected in the Henan Provincial Museum (see fig. 1).1) The other similar-shaped jar, dated to Northern Qi dynasty 北齊 (550-577 AD), is from Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (see fig. 2).2) Relied on the numerous elements of design and shape of earlier dynasties, the potters of Yuan dynasty also appreciated much of green wares style and tradition of Qi dynasty (550-577 AD) as a source of its new decorative motifs and shapes. Modelled in the unique form elaborately raised decoration (dui tie) combined with relief design (yang wen) with four earing handles, the present jar was also modelled after celadon glaze prototype that had been produced in Three Kingdoms, Jin, Southern and Northern Dynasties, Sui (220 to 618 AD). In Chinese literature, the simulated antique porcelain like the present vessel is commonly so called ‘fang gu ci’, where the vessels that were modelled after the past wares are to celebrate the relics of previous dynasties.

The glaze on the current jar shows its distinctive features. The glaze exhibits an icy crackle thickly bubble suffused bluish-green glaze tone, and it stops at the above unglazed foot ring exposing a burnt reddish-brown color. All of these features come from Longquan celadon ware that was produced in Longquan, Zhejiang province during the early Yuan dynasty (1271 – 1368). Some Yuan celadon wares molded and incised with legendary figs or in archaic forms have the meaning of philosophical and religious context of Taoist, Buddhism and Islam. For example, the celadon vase molded in relief with Eight Taoist Immortals was produced in 14th century during Yuan dynasty. Taoist images might have originated already in earlier reign, Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), and the Eight Immortals image itself is figuratively used for happiness, which the number eight has been referred to as a lucky meaning in association with the Chinese tradition until today. In the Song and Yuan periods, many scholars and men of letters were closely related to the Taoist organizations and they became involved in the work of sorting through the Taoist classics, especially those concerning rituals and ceremonies.3)

The decorative techniques on the present piece shows that the Yuan potter was highly skilled in practicing a craft with great details of Buddhist ornamentation. Besides being modelled after the earlier lotus-shaped vessel, the potter complemented the element of sprig-molded four Buddhist Vaishravana (Sanskrit वैश्रवण) who is recognized as a Buddhist Protector riding on the back of a lion while holding a victory banner (dhvaja). This Buddhist image is quoted from the narratives of the historical Buddha’s life-story and is part of the Hinayana and Mahayana (different Buddhist sects) traditions of Buddhism originating from Nepal, India. The cover on the current jar in the shape of lotus flower also represents Buddhism architecture in a stupa of Buddha, where the Buddha is believed to be crowned and sitting in mediation posture in the top of the lotus shape. With memorable jar that is elaborately decorated with repertoire of sacred Buddhist emblems by using the available techniques such as incising, carving, and sprig-molding, the current piece profoundly evokes the spirit of Buddhist philosophy in the Yuan dynasty period and traditional lifestyle from the earlier reigns. Further, the current jar has a clearer layout with dense but orderly lines than that of earlier products.

The Buddhist image on the present jar is in tune with history of Mongol religions. The Mongol emperor Khubilai Khan (1215–1294) who founded the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) in China was a patronage of Buddhism. According to an Italian explorer, Marco Polo (1254 – 1324 AD), Emperor Gengish Khan sent an expedition to Sri Lanka in 1284, where it acquired not only the bowl of the Buddha, but some of Buddha’s hair and two of his teeth (molars) as well. With these prizes, it then returned to China.4) Later, the decorative motif of Buddhist images and Eight Buddhist Symbols on object de’ arts of Yuan period firstly emerged on ceramics when the Tibetan Lamaism monks introduced them to Yuan government. John Onians notes that the Yuan court patronized a great diversity of pictorial objects. The export of ceramics and silk was also a major revenue for individuals and for government. Finds of ceramics and textiles from sunken cargo ships extend through much of Southeast Asia. Sculpture was influenced by Mongol patronage of Tibetan Buddhism, which led to production of Tibetan Buddhist images in many parts of China.5)

When Kublai Khan took a Tibetan Buddhist deity as his personal savior, Yuan culture and art then transformed into Tibetan Buddhist art. The production of ceramics and erection of shrines were closely tied to Buddhist art relation. There are exquisite Yuan Buddhist stone sculptures and kinds of legendary stories in Feilai Feng site (Peak Flown from Afar) in the front of Lingyin Temple, located in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province in China. At the Feilai Feng site, Vaishravana sculpture dated to Yuan dynasty is seen riding on the back of a lion while holding a victory banner (dhvaja). Angela Falco Howard notes that Vaishravana stone in Feilai Feng site, one of the Four Heavenly Kings, is the most revered guardian of the dharma. There is an outstanding sculpture of Vaishravana. Looking calm and brave, he rides on the back of a vividly chiseled black lion (see fig. 3).6) In Buddhist Tibet, Vaishravana is considered as Protector of Dharma and the chief of the Four Heavenly Kings who is an important person in Buddhism. Thus, the image of Buddhist Vaishravana (Protector of Dharma) riding on the back of a lion while holding a victory banner (dhvaja) and Eight Buddhist Emblems on the current vessel distinctly represent a Tibet Buddhist iconography that is frequently depicted on several media in Yuan period.

The lotus-flower petal form on this current jar would certainly also have been long known in China and Asia. In Buddhism, the lotus-flower petal on the current vessel also refers a religious raison d’etre and called ‘divine mind-flower’ revealing mysterious law that encompasses all things in the universe. Buddha and Bodhisattva are often portrayed in meditation sitting or standing on it in both forms of up and down lotus-petal. Whenever Buddha sits on lotus pedestal, it symbolizes that Buddha remains in the realm of purity even though he may dwell physically in the “muddy water” of the secular world.7) Compared to other celadon export quality wares of the Yuan period, the present piece was probably exclusively ordered officially to meet the Buddhist Pagoda ritual household in Srivijaya’s temple during relationship between Srivijaya and Yuan dynasty in the late thirteenth to early fourteenth centuries. In addition, crafted in better design and quality to evoke the imperial pleasure, this Yuan celadon jar with sacred decoration and shape resembling the past relic have remained favorites for collectors of cultural and religious objects. Laurie Barnes discusses that an excavation of considerable quantities of Yuan Longquan wares along overland and maritime trade routes provide evidence of the types of wares made for various markets. The most common forms found in the Indonesia and Philippines are jars, small and large dishes, and bowls. Until quite recently, it was accustomed in Indonesia, specifically the island of Sulawesi, to include Longquan wares in burials. Archaeological finds in another part of Indonesia, Java and Sumatra, show a demand for utilitarian wares, such as those for serving rice or containers for use in ritual ceremonies.8)

Many large Longquan jars commonly were intended as the container for liquid or wine drink used in public spaces such as reception halls in the Yuan era. However, the author believes that the present jar was likely used a container for serving containers for use in ritual ceremonies in Srivijaya’s temple in Buddhist rituals. It probably contains spiritual water (China: shenshui) as medicine that was believed to not only heal all diseases, but also negative karma, affliction, tensions, poverty and any other misfortune of human being’s life. Variations in the production of celadon-glazed wares were exported and gifted to Asia empires during the Yuan dynasty for a variety of uses. Modelled in lotus petal decorated with Buddhist elements, the present jar shows an elegant profile, and truly indicates the highly escalation of Buddhism relationship between Yuan dynasty and Srivijaya empire in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries.

Known remarkably for its attractive intense conventional shape and Buddhism sacred decoration produced in the early Yuan dynasty, the current artifact is extremely rare to find the comparisons of the same period published. In art market,

mostly they are carved with florals and Taoist Immortals. For examples, compare with a carved celadon jar with four panels enclosing seasonal flowers (29.8 cm), sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30 May 2018, lot. 3028, for HK$ 6,100,000, initially estimated between HK$ 5,000,000 – HK$ 7,000,000 (see fig. 4). Compare also with a Yuan guan jar carved in relief with figure of Taoist Immortals (27.3 cm), sold at Christie’s Hongkong, 1st June 2011, lot. 3818, for HK$ 980,000, initially estimated between HK$ 380,000 – HK$ 450,000 (see fig. 5).

Bibliography

  1. Wang Qingzheng, Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China, 2002, p.39.

  2. Hi-Wai Yi-Chen, Chinese Art in Overseas Collections: Pottery and Porcelain, The National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1990, p. 48, fig. 48.

  3. The Editorial Committee of Chinese, In China: Five Thousand Years of History and Civilization, City University of Hong Kong Press, 2007, p. 381.

  4. John S. Strong, Relics of the Buddha, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, UK, 2004, p. 195

  5. John Onians (ed), Atlas of World Art, Laurence King Publishing, London, 2004, p. 139.

  6. Angela Falco Howard, Chinese Sculpture, Yale University and Foreign Language Press, New York, 2003, p. 416.

  7. The Lotus Adorns Buddhism: The Purest, Most Beautiful Flower, Temple Stay, Spring, Korean, 2016, p. 18.

  8. Laurie Barnes, ‘Chinese Ceramics: From the Paleolithic Period Through the Qing Dynasty’, 2010, pp. 337 – 338.

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