the well-potted globular body rising to a tall cylindrical neck widening at the mouth resting on a short circular foot, the body superbly bold carved and painted in overglaze copper-red, green and black enamels in various hue in wucai style with a pair of mightily ferocious five-clawed dragons, both of them showing their undulating scaly bodies terminating in powerful muscular limbs and sharp claws with mouth wide opened revealing sharp fangs and a curled leaf-like tongue, one of them representing a ‘Dragon Lung’ breathing a flame from its mouth, and both of them depicted aggressively striding on tumultuous waves and rocks in various shades of underglaze blue, the base inscribed with underglaze blue vertically two lines six Chinese characters mark reading Da Qing Yongzheng nian zhi within the double-circled lines.
RESEARCH & ESSAY.
As the most innovative imperial art patron, Yongzheng Emperor, reigning from 1723 to 1735 AD, encouraged the recreation of masterpieces of the past at the imperial workshops. The creation of contemporary designs, the Yongzheng wares are frequently based on earlier prototypes that became equally influential in his reign. The bulbous body in tianqiuping-shaped vase and pattern on the present vase could be rooted in imperial porcelains that were developed in the Yongle period (1403 – 1424 AD) of early Ming dynasty. In the early Ming dynasty blue-and-white tianqiuping vases mostly are depicted with the design of a large three-clawed dragon circling around the sides that were painted in several different versions, including the dragons striding among lingzhi-shaped clouds, among lotus scrolls, or carved and reserved in white among overall waves. For examples, the tianqiuping depicting the dragon among lotus scrolls, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition Mingdai chunian ciqi tezhan mulu/Special Exhibition of Early Ming Period Porcelain, 1982, cat. no. 5 (see fig. 1); and two tianqiuping vessels in the Palace Museum, Beijing, one with dragon floating amongst lingzhi-shaped clouds and the other with the dragon incised and reserved in white amid cobalt waves, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (I), Shanghai, 2000, pls 87 and 88. The three-clawed dragon reserved in white among overall waves, Yongle period (1403 – 1424 AD), is collected in Jingdezhen Ceramics Archaeology Research Institute (fig. 2).
The early Ming dynasty blue-and-white ‘dragon’ tianqiuping was frequently emulated during the Yongzheng reign in copper-red and underglaze-blue. The Yongzheng design was in trun further transformed during the later period, Qianlong reign, with various styles of dragons amids crashing waves. While the Yongzheng and Qianlong ‘dragon’ Tianquiping vases were clearly inspired by the early Ming examples, it does not copy any version closely. See the related example for two tianqiuping vases executed in underglaze blue and red – a Yongzheng example painted with a dragon among waves and a Qianlong-marked one decorated with a dragon among clouds and waves – published together in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (III), Shanghai, 2000, pls. 197 and 210. Another with a copper-red dragon among the underglaze blue crested waves, Qianlong mark and of the period, is from the Chang Foundation, Taipei, illustrated in Selected Chinese Ceramics from Han to Ch’ing Dynasties, Chang Foundation Inaugural Catalogue, J. Spencer, Taipei, 1990, p. 150 & 54. Further, compare with a copper-red and underglaze blue ‘dragon’ tianquiping, mark and period of Yongzheng, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 31st October 2004, lot. 25, for HKD 15,182,400 (see fig. 3). Compare with a large copper-red and underglaze-blue ‘dragon’ vase, Tianquiping, mark and period of Qianlong reign (1736 – 1795 AD), published at Sotheby’s Thirty Years in Hong Kong: “1973-2003”, Hong Kong, 2003, pl. 282, then it was sold at Poly Auction Hong Kong, 17th October 2019, lot. Lot 3324, for HKD 56,640,000 (USD 7,218,938), initially estimated between HKD 20,000,000 – 30,000,000 (USD 2,549,060 – 3,823,590) (see fig. 4). During the Yongzheng reign, the cloisonné technique was also applied on ‘dragon’ Tianqiuping like the present form. Compare with a large cloisonné ‘dragon’ Tianqiuping of Yongzheng mark and of the period, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 3rd October 2017, lot. 102, for HKD 14,500,000, initially estimated between HKD 6,000,000 – 8,000,000 (see fig. 5).
The present carved and wucai style vase with two five-clawed dragons, which the ‘Dragon Lung’ animal breathing flame from its mouth shows the more powerful style and undoubted originality as its Yongzheng porcelain counterpart, and equally seems to be unique. Thus, the important tianqiuping exhibited here is remarkable in many ways, not only in its rare colors scheme with two five-clawed dragon designs, but most importantly in its unusual workmanship and the outstanding quality of the carving and wucai style enameling technique. The fierce bold relief and enameled five-clawed dragons with their heads, the dragons’ heads on the present vase resemble that of a giantic lizard, and one of them ‘Dragon Lung’ breathing a flame from its mouth looks as if it is about to come to life.
Depicted with two five-clawed dragons, which one of them showing its mouth wide opened revealing sharp fangs and a curled leaf-like tongue, and another ‘Dragon Lung’ breathing a flame out of its mouth. The design flaming-breathing dragon like on the present vase have different interpretations in multicultural countries. Darek Isaacs in Dragons or Dinosaurs? Creation Or Evolution?, Bridge Logos, USA, 2010, pp. 121 – 122 discusses about a fire-breathing dragon meaning. In Japanese belief, the flame-dragon like the design on the present vase is so called ‘Kiyo’, a Japanese dragon that could fly and blast fire from its mouth. In Spain, it is called ‘Coca’ that is a monstrous and fire-exuding dragon. While in the Bristis Isles, it was the ‘Fire-Drakes’ seeming to be a species of the dragon that inhabited northern Europe. Meanwhile, for those who take the claims of the Bible seriously, this notion of fire-breathing, must be taken with a sober mind and cannot be easily ignored:
“Out of his mouth go flaming torhes; sparks of fire leap forth. Out of his nostrils comes from smoke, as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. His breath kindles coals, and a flame comes forth from his mouth.” (Job 41:19-21, Scripture Quotation Version/ESV from the Holy Bible)
It is different from a fire-breathing dragon design with aggressive connotations of most Western and Christians stories. In ancient China, the design of the dragon that breathes flame (龙喷火) on the present vase discloses the spiritual, imperial and cultural symbols that represents prosperity and good luck, auspicious power as well as a rain deity that fosters harmony strictly reserved for use by the emperor only. The design on the current bowl also reveals the Chinese legend of “The Carp Leaping over the Dragon’s Gate” (Liyu Yue Longmen or 鲤鱼跳龙门) on the Yellow River near Hejin county, Shanxi. The folktale suggests that if a carp leaps over the Dragon’s Gate it would become the dragon, and if it failed it would remain a fish. Thus, the dragon design on the present vase bestows the symbolic meaning of success for upwardly mobile individuals, such as traditional scholars who sought their fortune through the imperial degree examination system (Keju: 科舉) become a wealth official or prestigious bureaucrat like transformation from an agile carp into a powerful dragon. The dragon design breathing a flame was also depicted jn a mural painting excavated in a small ancient local temple in a neighborhood in the East Street of Quanzhou city, China or the so-called “Carp City” in local dialect (see fig. 6). Quanzhou city is one of the smaller rural settlements and market towns by Chinese migrants living on the southeast coast beginning to “crystallize” into larger places. Soon, the Wu (221 – 280 C.E), one of three contesting kingdoms centering on the Lower Yangzhe River, conquered the area and established Fengzhou (Harvest Town), a county seat situated to the northwest of the current city. The small walled town of Fengzhou was the beginning of Quanzhou’s urban history. (see also: Empire and Local Worlds: A Chinese Model for Long-Term Historical Anthropology, Mingming Wang, First Edition, Left Coast Press, Inc, USA, 2009).
Mingdai chunian ciqi tezhan mulu/Special Exhibition of Early Ming Period Porcelain, 1982, cat. no. 5.
The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (I), Shanghai, 2000, pls 87 and 88.
The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (III), Shanghai, 2000, pls. 197 and 210.
Selected Chinese Ceramics from Han to Ch’ing Dynasties, Chang Foundation Inaugural Catalogue, J. Spencer, Taipei, 1990, p. 150 & 54.
Dragons or Dinosaurs? Creation Or Evolution?, Bridge Logos, Darek Isaacs, USA, 2010, 121 – 122.
Empire and Local Worlds: A Chinese Model for Long-Term Historical Anthropology, Mingming Wang, First Edition, Left Coast Press, Inc, USA, 2009.