The New Stage of Yuan and Majapahit Trade Relation: A Large Blue-and-White ‘Mandarin Ducks’ Charger

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The New Stage of Yuan and Majapahit Trade Relation: A Large Blue-and-White ‘Mandarin Ducks’ Charger


With shallow rounded sides rising from a straight foot ring to a flared everted rim, finely painted in vibrant tones of underglaze blue exhibiting rust spots in places densely depicted with a pair of Mandarin ducks swimming amidst flowering lotus plants and waterweed within double-line borders, delicately decorated with a band of scrolling lotus consisting of six blossoming lotus borne on meandering leafy stems around the cavetto, below an everted rim adorned with a diamond brocade pattern, and a band of interlocking six blossoming peonies flowers and branches arranged at the exterior, a reddish-brown unglazed base with an edge-cut foot rim.


In tradition of Chinese dynasty, the dynastic ruling is that in which there is a succession of rulers in the same family lineage, a family maintains power all throughout hereditary means. From Genghis Khan to Kublai Khan emperor, in 13th century, Mongols for a long period was faced with wars, bloodshed, and conflicts with other countries because of Mongol emperor’s ambition to succeed their influence and power. However, Yuan dynasty of China never ceased trading porcelains that flourished in Asia, even though warfare continued through many parts of Southeast Asia. Ruling from 1279 – 1368 in a short reign for ninety years, but the Yuan Dynasty impacted Chinese porcelain trade history in Sumatra and Java areas very much.

Although, Yuan dynasty had ever been in bloodshed confrontation with Java in 1293 AD, and probably its anger sentiment still was arising therefrom to a trailblazer of Majapahit kingdom, but Mongols more emphasized in benefitable commerce and political endeavors with Java for Yuan dynasty in China. Yuan dynasty reopened kilns at Jingdezhen city producing blue-and-white wares with a wide range of style and design to meet its patrons in Java, Sumatra and even far middle east countries. Blue and white porcelains became a valuable asset in trade for commodities for China, Sumatra and Java. Otherwise, collecting blue and white porcelains became a great status symbol for among palace elites, dukes and royal families in Java.

Moreover, much of ancient Chinese texts reveal the evidences of blue and white porcelains demanded by Javanese in early 13th century, in the Song dynasty period. Zhu fan zhi 諸蕃志 (Description of Barbarian Peoples), written by a member of the Song Dynasty imperial clan, Zhao Rukuo (1170 – 1231 AD), elaborates the evidence. Blue and white porcelain is mentioned specifically, “The (Javanese) barbarian merchants prosper in business and trade for…blue and white wares.” That is, by 1225 AD of the Song dynasty the demand for blue and white porcelain in Java was such Zhao Rukuo thought it necessary to record. Ignoring Zhao Rukuo’s account, consensus today is concentrated on pre-Ming blue and white porcelain found in East Java at Trowulan, the capital of the Majapahit Kingdom (1293 – 1528 AD). Consequently, it is wider occurrence in Java (as well as its associated islands) is regarded is regarded as a result of trade carried out by the Majapahit kingdom with China during the Yuan period (1279 – 1362 AD).1)

In 25th February 2004, the author conducted the research on archaeological Chinese blue and white porcelain in Trowulan site. Yet, the author only focused on the wares of Yuan and Ming periods. Trowulan site preserves valuable artifacts for education and enjoyment. Truly, it holds historical and archaeological significance and is representative of Chinese and Javanese culture in the past. For further evidence, the current blue and white dish, collected by a descent of Javanese noble, it is a vital to research it in order to provide a wide picture about its historical and aesthetic value.

Under the Yuan dynasty, the technique escalation of blue and white wares at Jingdezhen was executed by potters and artists in attractive decoration, and the designs boldly applied in vivid and dark-blue pigment were revealed. Like on the present dish, the cobalt ore was shown on blue and white wares in thickly applied resulting rich in iron, which yielded a glaze with darker blue spots. Probably this is an effect of using the Samarra Blue (sumali qing) or Sumatra Blue (suboni qing) cobalt that is commonly used for blue and white of Yuan to early Ming periods. The cobalt oxide on the present dish was painted on the designs then the design was coated with a clear glaze onto the porcelain.

The present blue and white dish shows its distinctive characteristic of design. It is finely and spontaneously designed, and the patterns are delicate and moderately structured, in which several layers of strip-shaped supplementary motifs that are executed to set off the theme pattern. Showing in bright underglaze blue color, the present piece was a specific exported blue-and-white dish to Javanese royal families and other countries from Jingdezhen kiln produced in the late Yuan dynasty.

The subject of design on the present piece is called ‘Mandarin Ducks’ that is well-known in Chinese mythology and meaning. Mandarin Duck, Aix galerculata, or Yúan yang, also known as Hsi ch’ih is an emblem of felicity and is commonly depicted with lotus. It is very beautiful species and called the Mandarin Duck an account of its alleged superiority over ducks, and extreme beauty of its plumage. These waterfowl manifest, when paired, a singular degree of attachment to each other, and are said to pine away and die when separated. Hence they have been elevated into an emblem of conjugal fidelity.2) Meanwhile, the Javanese people believe that ducks are the patient animals that are easily able to socialize regardless of their age, position, or origin. They gather in one group like a big a harmonious community like Javanese people.

The design of Mandarin ducks swimming among the lotus ponds and flowers appears from the first to have been commonly invented in the earlier reign, Tang dynasty. The low-fired ceramics of Tang period coated with sancai glaze are decorated with ducks in slightly naturalistic setting. These formal designs can be found on sancai pillow in the collection of the Palace Museum – Beijing.3) Later, the swimming ducks appeared in carved design on high-fired ceramics from number kiln sites, including those of Yaozhou and Ding, during the Song dynasty. These designs can be seen on several Ding dishes from the collections of the National Palace Museum, Taipei.4) The swimming ducks among the lotus ponds and flowers design on earlier ceramics were resumed by Jingdezhen potters and artisans in the Yuan dynasty, and they had been continued contemporaneously in the early Ming and later reign. There are some Yuan fragments of several vessels bearing similar ducks and lotus decoration found at the Tughlaq palace in Delhi, illustrated by E.S. Smart in ‘Fourteenth Century Chinese porcelain from a Tughlaq Palace in Delhi.5)

The design of the present large dish is very effective, and can be seen on large dishes both with everted rims and bracket-lobed rims in different patterns. A close comparison to the present piece is from the Topkapi Saray Museum.6) Another was found in Damascus.7) another is preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.8) The similar design also appears to have been popular at the courts of rulers in Western Asia and South Asia, with a slightly smaller example from the Ardebil Collection.9) The Yuan blue-and-white ‘Mandarin Ducks’ charger is sought-after by avid collectors in the market. Compare with similar design on a blue-and-white dish (46 cm in diameter) sold at Sotheby’s London, 15th May 2013, lot. 101 (see fig. 1). Compare with similar design on the Bracket-lobed dish (42.8 cm in diameter) but serpentine wave at the rim with white design against a blue ground around the cavetto, sold at Christie’s New York, 20th September 2013, lot. 1288 (see fig. 2). Compare with a similar design but a classic scroll at the rim to the Yuan dish, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30th May 2012, lot. 4054, (see fig. 3). There are also Yuan dynasty blue and white dishes with similar design of lotus pond but without pair of mandarin ducks. Compare with ‘Lotus Pond’ charger (37 cm in size), sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 28th November 2012 (see fig. 4). For archaeological evidence, compare with lotus pond charger but without design of mandarin ducks (28.3 cm in size) that was discovered in South Sulawesi (Indonesia) from the collection of Adam Malik and later was sold at Christie’s London, 13 November 2001, lot 117 (see fig. 5). Although the design of mandarin ducks is commonly depicted on blue-and-white wares, but no two dishes are exactly identical as the craftsmen conceived each dish individually.


  1. Adam T. Kessler, Song Blue and White Porcelain on the Silk Road, Library of Congress Cataloging – in Publication Data, Brill, 1958, p. 448.

  2. Williams C.A.S in “Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs,” Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont & Tokyo, Japan, Third Edition, 1999, p. p. 147.

  3. “Porcelain of the Jin and Tang Dynasties,” The Complete Collection of Treasure of the Palace Museum, vol. 31, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 232, no. 212.

  4. “Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ting Ware White Porcelain,” Taipei, 1987, no. 77.

  5. Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 41, 1975-77, pls. 75a, 79d, 81d, 85a, 86b and c, 87c, 88a, 89 a, c, e and f, and 90a.

  6. J. Ayers and R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, vol. II, p. 495, fig. 569.

  7. J. Carswell in Blue & White – Chinese Porcelain Around the World, London, 2000, p. 55, no. 55.

  8. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 34, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 12, no. 10.

  9. J. A. Pope in Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, reprint London, 1981, pl. 7.


The New Stage of Yuan and Majapahit Trade Relation: A Large Blue-and-White ‘Mandarin Ducks’ Charger