Wanli reign: A Rare Polychrome “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” Baluster Jar and Cover

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DESCRIPTION.

Robustly potted with elegant broad-shouldered body rising from a spreading recessed base and stepped edge foot to a short waisted neck with a lipped rim, painted in sticky emerald green, coral red, muddy yellow including turquoise enamels over the transparent grayish-green hue glaze, around the body carefully composed a pictorial figures on densely  continuous lively scene of illustrative historical event from ‘San Guo Zhi Yian Yi三國演義(The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) novel episode showing a senior councilor of the Han court ‘Wang Yun (王允)in sitting behind the desk with a letter on it and folding his hands by watching a scene of traditional opera at his birthday party, while his daughter ‘Diaochan’ depicted looking on behind the curtain and ‘Yuan Shao’ reading a letter to Wang Yun accompanied with scenes of complex and heroic cavalries and ambassadors in various poses wearing dignity and military robes armed with variety of ancient shields, spears and flags in the fray around the palace yard with clouds and plants ornamentations, all framed by four cartouches showing blooming peony, lotus, and two varieties of chrysanthemum flowers with underglaze blue horizontally six Chinese characters of Wanli reign marks at the shoulder and three comical lion dogs chasing around peony flowers designs around the above foot, around the neck with stylized lotus flowers and leaves reserved in white on a red ground, the undulating edge of domed overhanging cover depicted with panels framing lotus flowers and underglaze blue on finial, the unglazed base in reddish brown in the kiln.

RESEARCH & ESSAY.

In the sixteenth century, the literati art emerged and China was considered as a central component of entrepreneurial culture. Porcelain art objects produced at Jingdezhen took a leading role in decorative art world epitomizing a restrained literati aesthetic. Porcelain art objects developed the conservative art history from earlier reigns at Jingdezhen. Polychrome enameled techniques led role in decorative arts, although blue and white vessels more mushroomed for global market. This phenomenon knowledge ‘scholars’ taste’ enjoyed a relatively stable lasting for years before the rebellions from Qing and peasants that finally inflicted the fall of Ming dynasty. The present polychrome enameled piece is one of the decisive contributions to Ming dynastic art coming from Wanli reign (1573 – 1620).

Exclusively executed in a large size featuring thick and heavy body painted in polychrome enamels over the transparent slightly grayish-green hue glaze on the present jar are the commonly trademarks of porcelains produced in the late Ming period. Professor Liu Liang-yu from National Palace Museum discusses in Ming Official Wares, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics, Liu Liang-yu, Taiwan, 1991, pp. 279-280 that in the late Wanli period also saw a preference for large pieces with a thick and heavy body showing transparent grayish-green hue glaze. Polychrome techniques with overglazed enamels were introduced in the fifteenth century. In regard to the overglazed green, iron-red, yellow and turquoise enamels technique. This enamel technique, like on the present vessel, literally is so-called a five-colors, that was highly developed in the mid Ming dynasty, Zhengde (1506-1521 AD) to Wanli (1573–1619 AD) period.

In polychrome porcelains technique, the various colors were prepared from the material applied over the glaze, and the vessel was fired again at the lower temperature to create a delicate harmony and balanced perspective of design like this jar. Outlined with iron-red and brownish black enamel, the design on present jar is executed to create the complexity of vigorous epic characters adorned between the varying designs and shades. The artist of the present dish delivers an exceptional illustrative design with a dazzling epic grandeur executed with a high technical skill. The pictorial characters of storyline theme on the present jar are carefully drawn abreast with thin to bold lines by applying vibrant transparent enamels on the grayish-green hue glaze background so it generates the vivid and dynamic depictions of action lying in the balanced perspective. Suzanne G. Valenstein, in A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1975, p. 198 also notes that during the Wanli period, polychrome enamels generally outlined in brownish black, were then painted directly onto the rather dry-looking biscuit body, and finally the vessel was fired again just to the low temperature required to fuse the enamels.

Modelled in elegant broad-shouldered body and overhanging cover with undulating edge in predominantly coral red designs, the shape and enamel technique like the present jar firstly evolved in early sixteenth century during the Zhengde reign (1506-1521 AD). For example, a closely related form of baluster jar and cover with overglaze red outlines infilled with red, green and yellow enamels dated to Ming of Zhengde period (1506-1521 AD) but with different design from the British Museum, is illustrated in Ming Ceramics in The British Museum, Jessica Harrison-Hall, The British Museum Press, London, 2001, p. 260, cat.no. 9:105 (see fig. 1). The author also notes that the form of this covered jar was common in the Zhengde period, particularly decorated in the fahua style.

By the Wanli period (1573-1620 AD), the imperial kilns changed the designs and the enamels style reviving the popular figurative subjects from the renowned Chinese operas, folktales, poetry and historical novel sources, including the Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ episodes like on the present jar were intended to satisfy the overseas and imperial’s demand. The design of warriors on the current jar are drawn with seemingly Chinese pictorial figures and these images really visualize the realistic depiction of fictional personages in the novel that revive a classical woodblock-printed serial portraiture of late Ming dynasty. In addition, a sense of dynamism of design on the current jar is captured through the use of iron-red outlines which have been drawn in swift yet fine strokes, and attention is cleverly drawn to the scene by rendering the figures in cartoon-like ridiculous characters. These comical characters style and playfully position commonly emerged in late Ming ceramic designs and painting styles. Finely proportioned form, the harmonious, colorful and complementary decoration, the current jar is an outstanding example of the high level of skill of porcelain artists working at Jingdezhen in the Wanli period. Despite the large size of jar, the craftsman has successfully captured the scene of epic, which is taken from historical event and rendered in an overglaze enamels palette.

The subject on the present jar is derived from wood block printed narrative story edition San Guo Zhi Yan Yi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) illustration that was first published in 1522 AD in the Ming dynasty, although it may have been written in the late Yuan (1271–1368 AD). Like the Europe artists, China artists always have different themes and imaginations of works of art to explore the scramble events based on historical contexts. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a fictionalized account of the conflict between Wei, Wu, and Shu kingdoms in the third century C.E in China. Moss Robert, a sinologist and translator of the original Three Kingdoms novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong’s work, discusses in Three Kingdoms – A Historical Novel, Complete and Unbridged, Part Two, University of California Press and Foreign Language Press China, 2004, pp. 939 – 940 that scholarly attempts to date the work have produced various suggestions, ranging from as early as the Northern Song to as late as the Mid-Ming. The oldest complete printed edition, published in 1522 AD, has a preface dated 1494 AD in addition to its own preface. The author of the later preface says that “the text was so voluminous and a good edition of it so hard to find that I had requested that it be put in print and widely made public.” This suggests the possible existence of an earlier printed edition but more probably refers to manuscript copies, of which there must have been many.

The scene on the present piece is probably associated with Chapter 4 from one of the Romance the Three Kingdoms episodes. Luo Guanzhong 羅貫中 (1330 – 1400 AD), the author novel of The Romance of the Three Kindoms, Volume 1 – 3, C.H. Brewitt-Taylor (Translator), First Rate Publishers, USA, 2016 explains extensively illustrates it that at Bohai, Yuan Shao (154 – 202 AD), a nobleman and ardent supporter of the Han Dynasty, heard of Dong Zhuo’s (139 – 192 AD) misuse of power and sent a secret letter to Wang Yun (137–192 AD), an interior minister of the Han dynasty who served Emperor Xian (181–234 AD): that the rebel Dong Zhuo outrages Heaven and has deposed his ruler. Common people dare not speak of him: That is understandable. Yet you suffer his aggressions as if you knew naught of them. How then are you a dutiful and loyal minister? I have assembled an army and desire to sweep clean the royal habitation, but I dare not lightly begin the task. If you are willing, then find an opportunity to plot against this man. If you would use force, I am at your command.” The letter arrived but Wang Yun could see no chance to plot against Dong Zhuo. One day while among the throng in attendance, mostly people of long service, Wang Yun said to his colleagues, “This is my birthday, I pray you come to a little party in my humble cot this evening.” “We certainly will,” they cried, “and wish you long life.”

Acclaimed as one of the Four Great Novels of Chinese literature, the novel of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms subject like on the present vessel also attracted the scholars and critics for commentaries in the late Ming periods, and the novel’s illustration appealed to Wanli emperor for reading with pleasure. Kang-i Sun Chang and Stephen Owen discuss in The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature From 1375, Volume 2, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010, pp. 51 – 54 that the novel ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ in its 1522 edition draws upon materials from both historical text and earlier popular sources, including books on military tactic. The author breaks new ground in the vivid depiction of battle; altogether it has more than one hundred battle scenes….….………..The novel’s reception during the Ming was immensely positive, claiming the Wanli Emperor (1573 – 1620 AD) as one of its most avid readers; it is still popular today.

This spectacular jar belongs to a rare group of large and finely painted with historically depictions of legendary joinder of warriors and ambassadors based on ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ episode. Only one or two other jars compared closely to the present example. Compare to polychrome-enameled ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ jar with similar composition and fashion, especially iron-red and green, yellow, and turquoise enamels, but with different episode design on the body, unmarked and dated to Jiajing reign (1521 – 1567 AD), from Musée Guimet, Paris, illustrated in Ming Porcelain, Lion-Goldschmidth, New York, Rizzoli, 1978, pp. 164 – 165, pl. 146 (see fig. 2). The author discusses that ware of this type were usually decorated primarily in iron-red and green, with some yellow. More unusually, there was sometimes the addition of turquoise, as seen on a large jar and cover in the Musée Guimet. This palette would come to dominate polychrome porcelains, eventually leading to the appearance of famille verte during the second half of the seventeenth century. Again, the related polychrome technique of the present type, dated to Jiajing reign of Ming dynasty but with design of Immortals is a jar from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, published in A Selection of Chinese Ceramics from the Adele and Stanley Herzman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 1, 1990–August 26, 1990 (see fig. 3). The polychrome vessels predominantly painted in iron red, green, yellow and turquoise enamels of the late Ming dynasty also appear in the market. For example. compare with a small polychrome ovoid jar (14 cm in height) but being freely executed in slightly simple figures and landscape design, unmarked and dated to late Ming dynasty (16th – 17th century), sold at Sotheby’s New York, 17th March 2015, lot. 39, estimated between US$ 15,000 – US$ 20,000 (see fig. 4). Compare with a small iron-red, yellow and green-enameled vase or meiping with apocryphal Jiajing mark (25.1 cm in height), but dated to 17th century, in similar polychrome technique style and colors element but depicted with immortals and attendants from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accessioned in 1925 (Rogers Fund), and the piece was then sold at Christie’s New York, 15th September 2016, lot. 828, for US$ 11.875 (see fig. 5).

In the late Ming dynasty of Wanli reign to Transitional eras 17th century, a drama scene of San Guo Zhi Yan Yi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms) also became a part of the eclectic design painted on blue and white wares in a wide range forms, including jars, vases and bowls or dishes that are preserved in renowned museums and in market. For example, a blue and white jar (30 x 18 x 22.4 cm in overall size), dated Wanli period, decorated with this drama scene but in different episode to the present piece is from Museum of Fine Arts Boston, USA, Accession Number 46.544 (see fig. 6). Also, see a smaller blue and white jar and cover (21.5 cm in height), dated Chongzhen period, circa 1640, illustrated in Transitional Wares and Their Forerunners, Richard Kilburn, The Oriental Ceramic Society, Hong Kong, 1981, p. 119, no. 77. The piece was then sold at Christie’s New York, 16th March 2015, Lot. 3536, for US$ 161,000, initially estimated between US$ 60.000 – US$ 80,000 (see fig. 7).

The design arrangement on the current dish is elaborately adorned with certain Chinese motifs and format by applying a wider color range and much busier decorative elements of decoration around the exterior of this Jar. The decoration arrangement and design style on the present jar is radically different from designs of its contemporaries or later Ming dynasty. As we note that the imperial demands for porcelains at Jingdezhen during the late Ming dynasty declined after the Wanli Emperor’s death (1620 AD). In his later successors’ reigns, the financial of the palace was then squandered for wealth of eunuch ‘Wei Zhongqian and Nurse-Ke’, and depleted for military campaigns against peasant rebellions, especially during the Tianqi Emperor (1621 – 1628 AD). Similarly, Chongzhen Emperor (1627 – 1644 AD) of the late Ming dynasty, as the slump of Chinese porcelain trades, the imperial kiln expenses was also for expenditure of massive rebellion and war threat from Manchu (the founder of Qing dynasty). These massive turbulences in Transitional periods impacted that Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) turned to Japan kilns being able to produce the wares with the competitive price. For this reason, the kilns at Jingdezhen boosted the porcelain production at competitive prices compared to that of overseas productions. As a result, most of decorative elements and subjects of Transitional porcelains are painted in freely and spontaneously execution for mass export, and they are radically different to those of the current imperial Wanli jar. Still, the Transitional and Qing of early Kangxi wares were also as export commodity, so as the designs are executed hastily with a slightly low quality compared to that of the imperial wares.

Depicted with pictorial figures in an extravagant narrative landscape with yards, clouds and panels predominantly painted in iron-red and green schemes, like the present jar, are applied with Chinese motifs for Japanese taste. The kinds of motifs like on the present jar appealed to avid collectors from Japan and Europe, and many were immediately departed. As one of four great classical Chinese novels in China, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms was also the most famous narrative story spreading to Japan. In 16th century and onwards the personages in this novel were adopted and appreciated in numerous forms, including opera, painting, wood-cut prints and other various popular culture medias throughout the countries, especially in Japan and Korea. The classic Chinese epic narrative ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ literally influenced most subsequent rapidly in Japan during early 17th to 19th centuries. It was immensely influential Japanese literature in Japanese narrative and vernacular. With stunning designs of infinite variety and beautiful colors on scene of popular dramatic novel, this magnificent jar is highly prized and sought-after by Japanese wealthy for the color spectrum that represents a stunning polychrome example of the Wanli reign. The legend novel ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’ was more popular in Japan that was illustrated in form of Manga (Comic created in Japan) during Tokugawa徳川時代 period (1603 -1868 AD) or Edo (modern Tokyo), a period of great significance in Japan’s history when reaching its internal peace, political stability, and economic growth time. A great range of Chinese literature influenced the Japanese literatures, although it had been introduced to Japan during the 3rd century AD. Roman Rosenbaum in Manga and the Representation of Japanese History, Routledge Tayloer & Francis Group, London and New York, 2013, p. 237 notes that The Romance of the Three Kingdoms became very popular text in the Tokugawa period (1603 – 1868 AD). In 1687 AD, Tsuzoku sangokusi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Vernacular language, by Konan Bunzan), the first Japanese translation and also the first foreign edition of the text, was completed. It was a bestseller reprinted many times in the Tokugawa period. Its illustrative edition, Ehon tsuzuko sangokushi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Vernacular language, an illustrative edition) also had a wide circulation. Legends of the Three Kingdoms were adapted in Kabuki plays, novels and printings. For example, Nanso satomi hakkenden (The Eight Dog-Knights of Kazusa Satomi, written between 1811 and 1842 by Kyokutei Bakin) copied considerably from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Thus, featuring a grandeur of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms episode that is depicted with humorous touches of cartoon-like figures, this late Ming monumental jar is extremely rare. The theme of this jar was also as Wanli Emperor’s favorite as his pleasure of reading literature and this jar was intended to celebrate a political scene that lasted for 60 years from CE 220 to 280 of Han dynasty in China. This the Romance of the Three Kingdoms epic of Han dynasty recounts the heartbreaking and blithesome legend about the horses and warriors, the love and the misanthrope, the victorious and the defeated, and the living and the dead. This novel has fascinated the descendants of Chinese, Japan and Korea in the last centuries ago until today on its story emphasizing the most famous heroic conspiracies and military tactics in destroying the betrayer and rebel of kingdom by feudal lords and their retainers. The story also influenced the ways how the Chinese think about power, diplomacy, and war even to this day.

Citation.

  1. Ming Official Wares, A Survey of Chinese Ceramics, Liu Liang-yu, Taiwan, 1991, pp. 279-280.

  2. A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Suzanne G. Valenstein, New York, 1975, p. 198

  3. Ming Ceramics in The British Museum, Jessica Harrison-Hall, The British Museum Press, London, 2001, p. 260, cat.no. 9:105.

  4. Three Kingdoms – A Historical Novel, Complete and Unbridged, Moss Robert (translator), Part Two, University of California Press and Foreign Language Press China, 2004, pp. 939 – 940.

  5. The Romance of the Three Kindoms, Volume 1 – 3, H. Brewitt-Taylor (Translator), First Rate Publishers, USA, 2016.

  6. The Cambridge History of Chinese Literature From 1375, Volume 2, Kang-i Sun Chang and Stephen Owen, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010, pp. 51 – 54

  7. A Selection of Chinese Ceramics from the Adele and Stanley Herzman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 1, 1990–August 26, 1990.

  8. Ming Porcelain, Lion-Goldschmidth, New York, Rizzoli,1978, pp. 164 – 165, pl. 146.

  9. Transitional Wares and Their Forerunners, Richard Kilburn, The Oriental Ceramic Society, Hong Kong, 1981, p. 119, no. 77.

  10. Roman Rosenbaum in Manga and the Representation of Japanese History, Routledge Tayloer & Francis Group, London and New York, 2013, pp. 237.

CATALOGUE ENTRY.

Wanli Po;ychroem