Yongle reign: A Large Blue-and-White ‘Two Peony Blooms’ Charger

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DESCRIPTION.

of shallow rounded sides divided into sixteen bracket foliations, rising from a short circular tapered foot to a barbed everted rim, finely painted in graded shades of sapphire-blue cobalt accented with silvery ‘heaping and piling’, the interior with two large peony blooms growing from a curled branch bearing densely leaves and two buds within three line borders, on the cavetto with meandering stems of fruit sprays including grape, peach, melon, lingzhi, pomegranate, and persimmon within a barbed double-line border, below a border of undulating lotus bud scroll within single blue lines at the rim, the exterior painted with leafy lingzhi sprigs within double-line borders, the base and footring left unglazed in buff-color.

RESEARCH & ESSAY.

In 1403, the Yongle emperor (1403 – 1424) sent diplomatic missions overseas for trade and power politic proclaiming a new Ming dynasty throne in China. These were described by Feixian and Ma Huan, the latter translator to Zheng He (Cheng Ho), a Muslim eunuch who commanded the naval expedition for the emperor. Ma Huan (馬歡) wrote a book entitled “Yin Ya Shen Lan” (瀛涯勝覽) listing that ‘blue porcelain’ as one of the products traded and reported that it was popular in Dai Viet (Now Vietnam), Java and Sumatra (Now Indonesia), Sri Lanka, and Dovar (now the province of Zufar, Oman). He also included comments on Jingdezhen blue and white wares as highly valued in these countries. Yongle Porcelains were distributed via both land and sea to overseas traders and patrons, often in exchange for species, precious stones and gold. Mill J.V.G translated Ma Huan’s book in Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lain, “The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores”, (1433), Cambridge, 1970, pp. 3 and 97 that Java, Palembang, Malacca and north Sumatran ports were visited. In Java, Ma Huan found recorded the concrete evidence of Chinese trade with Java on ceramics and coins. He also said, “The people of the country are very fond of the blue-and-white decoration porcelains of the Central Country, also of such things as musk, gold flecked hemp-silks, and beads.” The imported blue pigment was used to paint the dark blue designs.

It is obvious that under the Yongle Emperor (1403-1424) to Xuande Emperor (1426 – 1435), the demand and interest from overseas on blue and white wares increased, and the palace placed large orders for it. Like on the current dish, the designs are painted in cobalt blue, which it concentrates in certain areas ebulliently turning darker and deep blue-black pigment because of imperfect control during the firing. As the result of the use of the cobalt on the present dish, it is known as the ‘heaped and piled’ effect, where the cobalt is burnt black and the pigment is slightly blurred through the glaze. The Ming shu (official history of the Ming dynasty) records that in 1426, 1430, 1433, and 1434 Muhammadan blue for blue-and-white porcelains was brought as tribute from Srivijaya empire – Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s island today. Geoffrey C. Gunn notes in  History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2011, pp. 266 – 267 that the influence of West Asian techniques on Chinese pottery may have been significant, as with importation from Abbasid Caliphate – Persia of cobalt oxide, vital for production of blue and white porcelain. While the original source of cobalt was Persia, its arrival in Sumatra by sea was known as Sumali (Su Bo Ni Qing) or Sumatra blue that was used for creating a rich dark blue pigment on porcelain. Also known as Su Ma Li Qing (Samara blue), it was first conveyed to Ming China by envoys from Sumatra (Sriwijaya) in 1426, 1430, 1433, and 1434, or by returning fleets of the Zheng He’s mission.

Floral motif elements, including peony, camelia flower, prunus plant, peach and are predominated throughout the early Ming blue-and-white porcelain history. The current dish is depicted with two large peony blooms on the center and fruit sprays on the cavetto executed in graded shades of cobalt blue that demonstrates natural plentiful beauty, and aesthetically creating a truly exciting and lively visual effect against the white background glaze. The peony motif, like on the present dish, was a major factor in blue-and-white wares decoration with a wide range of different style and composition in the early years of the fifteenth century. Besides peony represents the third month in the lunar calendar, it is also the emblem of spring and symbolic of love and affection, feminine beauty, wealth, honor and happiness.

A large blue-and-white bracket foliations dish of early Ming dynasty decorated with two large peonies freely interlaced by scroll-like stems inside with fruit spray on the cavetto like the current dish is very rarely seen in any dishes of early Ming era. Some related examples ‘two peony blooms’ of early Ming dish are arranged in different order of the fruit sprays. For example, the similar design and style on the center to the current dish is a blue-and-white everted charger (44.7 cm diameter) dated to Yongle Period (1403-1424) from The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, a gift of SUMITOMO Group (see fig. 1). An eight-barbed dish with two peony stems framed by eight-lobed panel closely related to current dish is from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, illustrated by He Li, in Chinese Ceramics, A New Comprehensive Survey, New York, 1996, p. 219, no. 396; another from the British Museum, is illustrated in Ming Ceramic In The British Museum, Jessica Harrison-Hall, The British Museum Press, London, 2001, pp. 115, no. 3:32. (see fig. 2).

A related two large peony blooms dish from the Ardabil Shrine and now in the National Museum of Iran, Tehran, is illustrated in John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington D.C., 1956, pl. 32, no. 29.68 (see fig. 3). Another is included in the Exhibition of Ancient Chinese Ceramics from the Collection of the Kau Chi Society of Chinese Art, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1981, cat. no. 64. Compare also one dish of related design from the Qing Court Collection, Beijing, illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 55 (see fig. 4); and the two dishes included in the Exhibition of Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated From the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 1989, illustrated in the Catalogue, p. 63, figs. 1 and 2. The exactly similar shape and design was sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 29th October 2001, lot 528 (43.5 cm in size), and was sold again at the same room in 22nd October 2005, lot. 336, for HKD 1,020,000 or equivalent to USD 131,498, initially estimated between HKD 600,000 – HKD 800,000 (see fig. 5); another from National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2nd Floor Gallery 203c (see fig. 6).

Citation:

  1. Ma Huan’s book in Ma Huan, Ying-yai Sheng-lain, “The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores”, (1433), Mill J.V.G Cambridge, 1970, pp. 3 and 97.

  2. History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Geoffrey C. Gunn notes Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong, 2011, pp. 266 – 267.

  3. Chinese Ceramics, A New Comprehensive Survey, He Li,, New York, 1996, p. 219, no. 396.

  4. Ming Ceramic in The British Museum, Jessica Harrison-Hall, The British Museum Press, London, 2001, pp. 115, no. 3:32.

  5. Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, John Alexander Pope, Washington D.C., 1956, pl. 32, no. 29.68.

  6. the Exhibition of Ancient Chinese Ceramics from the Collection of the Kau Chi Society of Chinese Art, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1981, cat. no. 64.

  7. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 55.

  8. the Exhibition of Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated From the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 1989, p. 63, figs. 1 and 2.

CATALOGUE ENTRY.

Yongle