Xuande Reign: An Exceptional Blue-and-White ‘Mandarin Ducks” Double-Walled Bowl

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DESCRIPTION.

of shallow rounded sides modelled with a double-walled bottom bowl and everted rim standing on tapering footring, the cavetto painted in slightly fuzzy and varying tones of underglaze cobalt blue with four mandarin ducks swimming in a pond of lotus flowers and seaweed with two circle lines around the mouth rim, the central inscribed with two lines vertically six Chinese character marks reading 大明宣德年製 [Made in the Ming dynasty, Xuande reign period] within double circled lines, the rear side depicted with a pair of phoenix flying among the peony and leaves framed by double circled lines, the base is unglazed with a circular hole at the bottom showing a reddish brown color from the kiln as a result of the iron in the clay.

RESEARCH & ESSAY.

The present bowl is painted in cobalt blue fired resulting in uneven colors to a dark blackish-blue in some parts and pale blue in others with silvery-black crystal-like spots. The color result of decoration itself shows a slightly fuzzy underglaze cobalt blue proving that it was difficult to control during the firing and cooling, where these characteristics are commonly found on early Ming blue-and-white wares. The sort of this blue cobalt-pigment clearly exhibits the high manganese and low iron content that was imported from Sumatra or so called as ‘Su Bo Ni Qing’. Du Feng & Su Baoru in Further study of sources of the imported cobalt-blue pigment used on Jingdezhen porcelain from late 13 to early 15 centuries, Du Feng & Su Baoru, Science in China Series E: Technological Sciences, Springer Science & Business Media, Beijing, Vol 51, 2008, p. 255 discuss that the view of the cobalt-blue used in Xuande reign being ‘Su Bo Ni Qing’ has been recorded at Zunsheng Bazhan that the term of cobalt-pigment ‘Su Bo Ni Qing’is different to blue-pigment ‘Su Ma Li Qing’, the term of ‘Su Ma Li Qing’ could be a transliteration for the place producing pigment material ‘Su Ma Li’ (Sammara) in Iraq.

The design of Mandarin ducks swimming among the lotus ponds and flowers on the present bowl appears from the first to have been commonly invented in the earlier reign, Tang dynasty, with the formal design of the ducks rather than in naturalistic setting and swimming decorated on low-fired wares with sancai glaze. These formal designs can be found on sancai pillow in the collection of the Palace Museum – Beijing, illustrated in “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. In later reign, these swimming ducks appeared in carved design on high-fired from number kiln sites, including those of Yaozhou and Ding, during the Song dynasty. Again, these designs can be seen on several Ding ware dishes from the collections of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in “Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ting Ware White Porcelain,” Taipei, 1987, no. 77. These swimming ducks among the lotus ponds and flowers design on ceramic were resumed by Jingdezhen potters and artisans in the Yuan dynasty. 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’, 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. Assuredly, a paired mandarin ducks swimming around lotus ponds like the current bowl was then continued and popular in the Ming Dynasty, particularly in the Xuande reign. The similar pattern on the center of this bowl is a Xuande doucai stem bowl excavated from the Zhengtong stratum of the Imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen, included in the exhibition Ceramic Finds from Jingdezhen Kilns, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1992, cat. no.23; another is illustrated in Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong, 1989, pl.89 (see fig. 1). A pair of phoenixes flying around floral design also commonly appears on early Ming blue-and-white stem bowls, teapot, bowls, dishes and even ewers with several different phoenix designs.

As the fifth ruler of the Ming dynasty, Xuande Emperor became the first Ming emperor to patronize the arts extensively. The Emperor refined the height of imperial workshop at Jingdezhen, and eccentricity improvements were introduced in Chinese porcelain. The eccentric shape of the current bowl is shown with a double-walled bowl and a circular hole on the base. The current piece was modelled in comprising two bowls with different sizes by joining together attached with circular hole at the bottom. The vessel itself was purposed to hold and maintain warm temperature of liquid medicine, where the circular hole at the bottom is to allow it to fill space between the two walls. The double-walled bowl like the current shape is known as ‘Zhuge bowl or wan’ in Chinese classical literature. Wang Qingzheng in A Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China, 2002, pp. 23 – 24 discusses that the name of Zhuge wan or bowl is named after Zhuge Liang (zi Kong Ming), a historical figure in the Three Kingdoms Period and also known as a ‘kong ming bowl’. This bowl is made up of a shallow dish resting on top of a bowl with straight sides. It is hollow inside and has a hole at the center of the foot ring. As a ritual vessel, the bowl was produced in the Longquan kilns in the Song dynasty and in Jingdezhen kilns in the Ming and Qing dynasties. The sample of Longquan warming bowl prototype of Yuan or early Ming dynasty is from Robert H. Ellsworth’s collection, sold at Christie’s New York, 20th March 2015, lot. 868 (see fig. 2). The shape of early Ming double-walled blue-and-white bowl of Xuande reign, like the current piece, is rarely published and recorded in the renowned museums. Yet, the repertoire of shapes and designs on early Ming blue-and-white, like the present bowl, was continued and refined by later Ming reigns. The later Ming reigns in the middle Ming periods, Chenghua-Hongzhi-Zhengde Emperors, usually resumed the Xuande reign’s blue-and-white tradition, commissioning many simulations of the current Xuande’s double-walled shape with different designs produced in imperial factory. For example, a blue-and-white double-walled bowl decorated with a narrative landscape, attributed to Ming of Chenghua period from Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, illustrated in Chinese Ceramics, the New Standard Guide, He Li, Thames and Hudson, Singapore, 1996, pp. 223, cat. No, 415 (see fig. 3); another is a warming bowl with a floral scroll on the exterior attributed to the Chenghua reign from the Carl Kempe and Falk Collections, sold twice at Christie’s New York in 8th April 2014, lot 3025. Compare to similar blue-and-white double-walled bowl decorated with ‘immortals’ attributed to Chenghua period, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 05 October 2016, lot. 3714; another decorated with flowers on the interior and lily scroll on the exterior attributed to Chenghua reign, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 08 April 2014, lot. 3025 (see fig. 4). In the later reign, the bowl of this type attributed to the Hongzhi period (1488-1505), is included in the exhibition Chinese Porcelain in Underglaze Blue from the Nanjing Museum Collection, Sagawa Art Museum, Moriyama, 2003, cat. no. 39; another decorated with two figs. around the landscape on the center, and children at play at the exterior, with a circular hole at the bottom, attributed to 16th century, lent by Jean-Pierre Dubose, is illustrated in Ming Blue-and-White, the Art Institute of Chicago, An Exhibition of Blue Decorated Porcelain of The Ming Dynasty, December 21, 1949 to February 5, 1950, p. 61, cat.no. 123; another dated to 1475 – 1500 AD, decorated with figures riding horse, from Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is illustrated in Chinese Art and Design, Rose Kerr, The T.T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art, V & A, London, 1991, p. 22, fig. 2 (see fig. 5)

Not like other bowls with Xuande reign mark commonly found on the base or the lip edge of wares, the feature of the Ming of Xuande reign mark inscribed on the center of the present bowl is a historic hint of ritual vessel. Like the small stem bowls and cups, a six-character mark of Yongle and Xuande reign inscribed on the center circled by double rings was meant for the sacrificial rituals of Emperors. In the history of early Chinese healing practices, the healers often called spirits medium as a healing faith and used hot herbal liquid medicine inside the bowl as a medical remedy. Some other wares with a six-character mark of Xuande reign believed for the sacrificial rituals of emperors are preserved in the renowned museums. For example, a blue-and-white stem cup decorated with dragon on the exterior with Xuande reign mark on the center side is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, 34, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 172, no. 163. The style of Xuande mark of imperial depicted on the center of the current bowl is also similar to sherds that were discovered at the Ming imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen, included in the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi/Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 18; another is a dish painted in overglazed yellow enamel with fruits from Sir Percival David, illustrated in ‘Further Discoveries from the Imperial Kiln Site at Jingdezhen’, R. Scott, Orientations vol. 23, no. 4, April 1992, p. 51, fig. 16 (see fig. 6). The Emperor Xuande who was a Buddhist adherent, this bowl was closely devoted to Tibetan Buddhism practice of the Xuande emperor and his court for ritual offerings. Elizabeth Lyons, Heather Peters and Chʻeng-mei in Buddhism: History and Diversity of a Great Tradition, The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1985, p. 38, note that every altar of Tibetan Buddhist adherent must have its assortment of butter lamps, small bowl, teapots and water ewers, that were used not just for the daily offering, but also as part of special ceremonies which the household might commission.

Blue-and-white bowls debuted a new sales record and achieved the second-highest price for a Ming porcelain at auctions in 2017. For example, compare with an exceptional 23 cm in diameter Xuande bowl decorated with carp and mandarin fish swimming in a pond of lotus flowers and seaweed, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction week, 5th April 2017, lot. 1, for HK$ 229,000,000 or equivalent to US$ 29.500,000 including buyer’s premium, initially estimated between HK$100,000,000 or equivalent to US$ 12.800,000 (see fig. 7). The catalogue notes that as a porcelain motif, the lotus pond was taken up by Jingdezhen’s porcelain painters already in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), and some of the finest Yuan blue-and-white jars are painted with this subject. The flying phoenixes around the exterior of the present bowl appeared on blue-and-white artifacts of Xuande reign of early Ming dynasty. For example, the blue-and-white bowl decorated with phoenixes around the exterior was excavated from the Ming imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen, illustrated in Jingdezhen chutu Yuan Ming guanyao ciqi/Yuan’s and Ming’s Imperial Porcelain Unearthed from Jingdezhen, Yan-Huang Art Museum, Beijing, 1999, cat. no. 134 (see fig. 8).

The Xuande six-character mark design on the center like on the present bowl also appears on Xuande vessels. For example, compare with a yellow enamel dish decorated with Xuande six-character mark around the fruit clusters design (19 cm in diam), sold at Christie’s London, 10th May 2011, lot. 256, for GBP 769,250, initially estimated between GBP 300,000 – GBP 500,000 (see fig. 9). Early Ming Blue and white warmer bowl of the present form is extremely rare and no exact counterpart found in the market and publication, and it exemplifies the skill of porcelain craftsmen in early Ming dynasty, the Xuande reign (1425 – 1435 AD). With design of mandarin ducks and Ming of Xuande reign characters mark around the interior along with flying phoenixes on the rear side, it makes the present bowl as the greatest improvement and creativity of double-walled bowl model inspired by celadon form and blue-and-white decorative elements of Yuan dynasty porcelains.

Citation:

  1. Further study of sources of the imported cobalt-blue pigment used on Jingdezhen porcelain from late 13 to early 15 centuries, Du Feng & Su Baoru, Science in China Series E: Technological Sciences, Springer Science & Business Media, Beijing, vol. 51, 2008, p. 255.

  2. 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.

  3. “Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ting Ware White Porcelain,” National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1987, no. 77.

  4. ‘Fourteenth Century Chinese porcelain from a Tughlaq Palace in Delhi’, 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

  5. Ceramic Finds from Jingdezhen Kilns, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1992, cat. no.23.

  6. Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong, 1989, pl.89.

  7. A Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics, Wang Qingzheng, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China, 2002, pp. 23 – 24.

  8. Chinese Ceramics, the New Standard Guide, He Li, Thames and Hudson, Singapore, 1996, pp. 223, cat. No, 415.

  9. Chinese Porcelain in Underglaze Blue from the Nanjing Museum Collection, Sagawa Art Museum, Moriyama, 2003, cat. no. 39.

  10. Ming Blue-and-White, the Art Institute of Chicago, An Exhibition of Blue Decorated Porcelain of The Ming Dynasty, Jean-Pierre Dubose, December 21, 1949 to February 5, 1950, p. 61, cat.no. 123.

  11. Chinese Art and Design, Rose Kerr, The T.T. Tsui Gallery of Chinese Art, V & A, London, 1991, p. 22, fig. 2.

  12. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, 34, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 172, no. 163.

  13. Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi/Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 18.

  14. Further Discoveries from the Imperial Kiln Site at Jingdezhen’, R. Scott, Orientations 23, no. 4, April 1992, p. 51, fig. 16.

  15. Buddhism: History and Diversity of a Great Tradition, Elizabeth Lyons, Heather Peters and Chʻeng-mei, the University Museum, University of Pennsylvania, 1985, p. 38.

  16. Jingdezhen chutu Yuan Ming guanyao ciqi/Yuan’s and Ming’s Imperial Porcelain Unearthed from Jingdezhen, Yan-Huang Art Museum, Beijing, 1999, cat. no. 134.

CATALOGUE ENTRY.

Xuande