Not just the height of 18th-century fashion, these ceramics mark a cosmopolitan highpoint of the Chinese empire, argues Martin Barnes Lorber
Globalisation is nothing new. This rare pair of moonflasks, offered by Bonhams at the Fine Chinese Ceramics sale in Hong Kong in May, exemplifies the centuries-old connection between China and the Middle East.
The Silk Road had been the only land connection between these two vast areas, and in the 13th century the Mongols began their campaign of conquest along it, forging the largest empire the world had ever seen. Their Empire included the Abbasid caliphate, which they conquered in 1258, and, finally, China in 1271, where they established the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).
The Mongol Empire now stretched from Korea in the east to the Grand Duchy of Moscow in the north-west, the Himalayas in the south and, providing maritime access to Europe, the Black Sea in the west. The Empire controlled the entire length of the Silk Road and took full advantage of it to import commercial goods, technology and Islamic artistry into China.
At that time, China was the only culture that knew how to make porcelain. One of the technological advances imported by the Mongols was a new use of cobalt, which they already employed for underglaze blue designs on ceramics, but this time for decorating porcelain.
The Jingdezhen kilns in the southern province of Jiangxi began making pottery in the 6th century and later developed proto-porcelain wares, followed by true porcelain. They rose to the position of a jaor, a major kiln site, in 1004. Named after the Northern Song emperor, Zhenzong, the kilns were located over a massive deposit of petuntse – a white, kaolin-rich clay vital to the creation of true porcelain. The Mongols, arriving with supplies of cobalt, began using Jingdezhen to make both underglaze blue and underglaze copper-red decorated porcelains.
In 1368, the Mongols were expelled by the Chinese, who founded the Ming Dynasty. In retaliation, the Mongols shut down the part of the Silk Road that reached into China, cutting off the supply of cobalt and other commodities. The Chinese had not yet discovered any domestic cobalt, but there was sufficient Yuan cobalt in storage for the production of blue and white porcelain for the foreseeable future. And produce porcelain they did, continuing through the 30-year reign of the first Ming emperor, Hongwu (1368-1398).
After overthrowing his nephew, the Jianwen emperor (1399-1402), Yongle came to the throne and ruled as the third Ming emperor until 1435. Under him, the porcelain arts flourished. Many of the creations reflected foreign designs and shapes, as with this rare pair of moon-shaped flasks. In the Middle East, this shape was a water vessel, known in Arabic as wudu. It was used with a basin to wash one's own hands before prayers and the hands of guests.
The bulbous top of the neck is called a 'garlic head' in the West, a term usually applied to Qing porcelains. This was, in this case, not decorative at all, but actually had a practical purpose, as has been explained by Laurie Barnes, Elizabeth B. McGraw Curator of Chinese Art at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Florida. The Prophet Muhammad gave his followers the instruction to be frugal with what they owned. Water was the most precious resource in a desert culture, and Muslim metalworkers discovered that the 'garlic head' could save water by reducing the flow of water to a trickle.
The Emperor Yongle received many visits and gifts from the states of Central and Western Asia, as well as Korea, Japan, Annam, Champa in northern Vietnam, Tibet, Borneo, Java, Sumatra and Coromandel on the west coast of India. Among the imperial gifts he would give in return were blue-and-white porcelains made from the diminishing supply of Yuan cobalt, a material that was now the property of the emperor himself. The Jingdezhen potters took the wudu shape and copied it almost exactly, including the 'garlic head', but added a Chinese design to the sides: in this case, the baijixiang or the Eight Buddhist Symbols, here represented by an eight-pointed star, together with Chinese-style running foliage. The shape was called bianhu in Chinese; it became one of the most prominent Chinese porcelain shapes of all time.
Gilt Buddhist bronzes that had been commissioned as gifts to the imperial spiritual advisor, the Panchen Lama in Tibet, had a six-character reign mark engraved across the front of the base. However, it was long presumed that no Yongle porcelains had six-character reign marks, until recent excavations at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen uncovered Yongle porcelains bearing a six-character seal mark that reads Ta Ming Yongle nian zhi ("[made during] the years [of the] reign [of the] great Ming [emperor] Yongle"). There are also imperial porcelains made under the Xuande emperor (1426-1435) that bore a six-character reign mark.
After Yongle's death in 1424, the new Xuande emperor received petitions at Court from his ministers decrying the huge cost of accommodating these vast numbers of foreign embassies, of the great sea voyages of exploration begun by Yongle and of making underglaze blue porcelains as imperial gifts. Great changes were made: the voyages were cancelled and the large junks destroyed, foreign delegations were reduced, and the production of these flasks and other imperial gifts soon drew to an end.
Succeeding emperors, however, often kept rare porcelains, paintings and other prized works of art from earlier periods in special storage buildings within the Forbidden City, a huge palace complex built by Yongle to replace the original capital at Nanjing. Paintings and some other works of art were inspected frequently and admired, with porcelain becoming a particular passion of the Qianlong emperor (1736-1795). He was a keen observer and admirer not only of all things and styles Western, but also of great ceramics of the Yuan, Song and early Ming Dynasties, many of which he had sent to the imperial Jingdezhen kilns. There they would be exactingly copied in both shape and decoration, all bearing his own reign mark, Ta Qing Qianlong nian zhi.
'Exacting', if anything, undersells the carefulness of their work. As one example of the precision demanded by imperial commissions, consider a unique effect produced by firing the foreign cobalt used during the early Ming period. This cobalt was particularly hard and, even after prolonged grinding, a few very small grains survived. After the clear glaze was applied and the piece fired, these small grains appeared either as very dark blue/black spots under the glaze or erupted through the glaze to create splotches: such 'heaping and piling' is characteristic of these early Ming porcelains. When domestic cobalt was discovered around the mid-15th century, it was found to be softer, which meant it could be completely ground, eliminating 'heaping and piling'. When Qianlong issued an imperial order for certain early Ming porcelains to be copied, the artists had to copy the effect, using a very small brush to paint tiny dots in imitation. Such work can be seen on the moonflasks being offered at auction.
This pair of flasks not only has a long and distinguished American provenance of continuous possession by one family – philanthropic silk manufacturer William Skinner and his descendants (see right) – but also embodies the best of a ceramic tradition that has its roots in the Yuan and early Ming dynasties. Their condition is pristine, making them a worthy imperial gift.
Martin Barnes Lorber is an author and journalist for the Asian Art Newspaper.
Sale: Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Monday 29 May
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