Wanli Reign: A Rare Polychrome-Enameled “Sages” on a Yellow-and-Green Glaze Ground Jar.

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DESCRIPTION.

the baluster body with a high shoulder rising from a flat base to a short straight neck with a flared rim, the exterior brightly painted on the biscuit with outlined in beige and enameled with green, turquoise, beige and aubergine  enamels on a yellow-and-green lead glaze ground, all showing the procession of sages (圣人游行) on horseback followed by three childhood servants carrying a parasol, one serving the books and another bearing a supply, the other procession side adorned with two servants while one kneeling and another running in greeting the sages, all set and narrated in a garden landscape with a rump of plants between ruyi cloud pattern on below the shoulder and upright lappet bands around the foot, the shoulder with ruyi clouds pattern framing floral below the bosses and circled turquoise enamels around the lip, an underglaze blue six-character of Wanli reign mark inscribed within double circled lines on the base.

RESEARCH & ESSAY.

During the Wanli reign the range of color combination on ceramic was expanded and the overglaze enamel technique on a low-fired yellow lead glaze showing a dark brown tone was adopted from earlier reigns. The variant enamel colors painted on to a low-fired yellow lead glaze had appeared on Han earthenware and was then on ‘sancai’ dark or light brown glaze wares from the Tang and Song dynasties. The glaze technique of the past reigns was resumed with variant overglazed designs during the Ming dynasties. In the Ming dynasty, the overglazed decoration on a low-fired green and yellow lead glaze also became popular in the late Ming dynasty. The technique of polychrome decoration on a low-fired yellow and green glaze, like the present jar, involves the technique that the vessel is coated with yellow and green glaze and it is fired in a certain temperature degree. The vessel is then enameled directly on the body, and it is fired in the kiln once more at a high temperature until the low-fired greenish yellow lead glaze reaches its melting points. Some wares decorated in enamels on a yellow glazed background like on the present piece was primarily for funerary objects in the Wanli reign of Ming dynasty. For example, a tripod incense burner decorated in enamels on the biscuit with molded dragon a yellow ground was excavated from Ding Ling, the stone tomb of the emperor Wanli, his empress and concubine outside Beijing. The porcelain incense burner was placed on the northern side of the outer coffin on the Wanli emperor, and it is published and illustrated in Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yunjiisuo, Dingling bowaguan, vol. 1, Beijing, 1990, pp. 185 – 186, fig 291, and vol. 2, pl. 91.

In the middle and late Ming periods, the animated figures scenes deriving from woodblock printed illustration and story were frequently depicted on porcelains by using various technique and style. Painted with scenes of animated figures within floral landscape, the current jar is notable for the particularly animated childhood servants design that was popular in middle to late Ming reigns. The scene illustration on the current jar probably derived from a popular procession of sages (圣人游行) legend that was appreciated by the imperial of the late Ming dynasty, Wanli reign.

Like the preceding reigns, especially in Song dynasty (960 – 1127 AD), sages were considered as “wise rulers” deriving from a group of Chinese philosopher, historian and writer. The sage figures depicted on the present piece was probably illustration of images of historical dignitaries accompanied by the servants and receiving from aides which were recognizable as well-known individuals from popular legends, novels or plays. Two vases depicted with sage figures dated to Wanli period were excavated from Ding Ling who died in 1620, the stone tomb of the emperor Wanli, his empress and concubine, illustrated in Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo, Dingling bowugan, Beijing shi wensu gongzuodui, Dingling (The imperial tomb of the Ming dynasty, Dingling), 2 vols, vol 1, Beijing, 1990, pp. 185, 187 figs 292:1-3 (line drawing); and a vase depicted the figures enamels is illustrated in Imperial Overglaze Enameled Wares in the Late Ming Dynasty, Dewaga Tetsuro, Osaka, 1995, cat no. 28.  A gu-shaped vase with Wanli mark and of period decorated with similar figures theme painted in purplish-brown design on a yellow-and-green glaze from the British Museum, is illustrated in “Ming Ceramics in The British Museum,” Jessica Harrison-Hall, The British Museum Press, London, 2001, pp. 342, cat.no. 11:173 (see fig. 1). the author discusses that the figures may derive from a popular vernacular Chinese story or legend as yet unidentified. The theme of an official being presented with gifts by a subordinate is both widespread and auspicious.

The themes of procession of sages (圣人游行) on horseback followed by three childhood servants, like on the present piece, is also a popular theme on Fahua-type wares of Wanli porcelains. See a turquoise-ground ‘fahua-type’ jar coated with turquoise ground dated to Wanli reign of Ming dynasty, sold at Sotheby’s New York, 22nd March 2011, lot. 99, for US$ 56,250, initially estimated between US$ 10,000 – US$ 15,000 (see fig. 2). The polychrome enamels technique like on the present piece also appeared in the Wanli reign of Ming dynasty in different forms and designs. For example, see the similar technique enamels ‘dragons’ dish, Wanli mark and of period, from T.T. Tsui Collection, sold at Christie’s London, 10th May 2011, lot. 242. for GBP 55,250, initially estimated between GBP 40,000 – GBP 50,000 (see fig. 3).

The vessels decorated with scene of animated sage on horseback followed by childhood servants was also popular design on blue-and-white bowls of the late Ming dynasty. See a blue-and-white bowl of Jiajing mark and of the period included in the exhibition, The Fame of Flame. Imperial Wares of the Jiajing and Wanli Periods, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2009, cat. no. 17; another published in Sekai tōji zenshū/ Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 14, Tokyo, 1976, pls 214 and 215. Also, see a small blue and white bowl (16.1 cm) decorated with animated sages on horseback and childhood servants, mark and period of Wanli reign, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 06 April 2016, lot. 44, estimated between HKD 250,000 — 350,000 (US$ 32,230 – US$ 45,122) and it fetched at 1,625,000 HKD or equivalent to US$ 209,495 (see fig. 4). The number of related Wanli-marked jars painted in yellow-and green-glazed enamels with different design appears in the market. For example, see a green and yellow-glazed ‘dragon’ jar from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, sold at Christie’s New York, 15th September 2016, lot. 836, for US$ 317,000, initially estimated between US$ 50,000 – US$ 70,000 (see fig. 5).

Citation:

  1. Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yunjiisuo, Dingling bowaguan, vol. 1, Beijing, 1990, pp. 185 – 186, fig 291, and vol. 2, pl. 91.

  2. Chronicle of The Chinese Emperors, The reign-by-reign Record of The Rulers of Imperial China, Ann Paludan, Thames & Hudson, London, 2001, pp. 180-181.

  3. Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo, Dingling bowugan, Beijing shi wensu gongzuodui, Dingling (The imperial tomb of the Ming dynasty, Dingling), 2 vols, vol 1, Beijing, 1990, pp. 185, 187 figs 292:1-3.

  4. Imperial Overglaze Enamelled Wares in the Late Ming Dynasty, Dewaga Tetsuro, Osaka, 1995, cat no. 28.

  5. Ming Ceramics in The British Museum, Jessica Harrison-Hall, The British Museum Press, London, 2001, pp. 342, cat.no. 11:173.

  6. The Fame of Flame. Imperial Wares of the Jiajing and Wanli Periods, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2009, cat. no. 17.

  7. Sekai tōji zenshū/ Ceramic Art of the World, vol. 14, Tokyo, 1976, pls 214 and 215.

CATALOGUE ENTRY.

Wanli Reign