The radical simplicity of this three-fish and related three-fruit designs is without par in the history of Chinese porcelain decoration and exceptional among Chinese imperial works of art. As a porcelain design, it was dictated largely by technical considerations, as the potters aimed at achieving the deepest, most intense red available with copper pigment. As an artistic concept, however, it was not totally without precedent in Chinese art and would not have caught the Xuande Emperor completely unawares.
Unassuming though it seems, its stark simplicity has been enlivened by a simple yet highly efficient trick: by letting one fish swim in the opposite direction from the other two, three different pairs of fish appear on the cup: a pair swimming towards each other, a pair pursuing each other, and a pair swimming away from each other, thus effortlessly achieving variation and avoiding repetition. To create the utmost effect with the most limited means is a characteristic trait of much Chinese art, well known particularly from ink painting. And although no ink painting of quite such bareness is known from this early date, the concept is not alien to Chinese Chan (Zen) painting and recalls the Six Persimmons by the 13th-century monk artist Muqi (fig. 1).
Fish play an important role as symbols in Chinese thought. In Chan Buddhism many stories revolve around them that are quoted as reasons for the use of a wooden fish as a gong in monasteries to call monks and nuns to prayer and to mark other activities; in Daoism, fish are the ultimate image of a glorified freedom from restraints; and in Confucian thought they immediately evoke the scholar succeeding in the imperial exams and thus assuring success in life, like the mythical carp swimming up-river and turning into a dragon.
After varied results in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) and Hongwu reign period (1368-98), the first impeccable reds were reached at the Jingdezhen imperial kilns in the Yongle reign (1403-24). Already in the Yuan dynasty, red glaze was used to decorate stem cups, but no attempt was made to lend shape to red splashes. Thus is the case with a revolving stem cup discovered among the hoard of Yuan porcelain at Gao’an, Jiangxi province, which is dramatically but unevenly splashed with red glaze (see Liu Jincheng, ed., Gaoan Yuandai jiaocang ciqi/The Porcelain from the Cellar of the Yuan Dynasty in Gao’an, Beijing, 2006, pp. 70-71).
Copper-red pigment used for painted designs under the glaze, and copper-red glaze applied all over the vessel were both brought to the highest standard in the Yongle reign and often passed the extreme expectations of the court; but the Yongle period was a time of experimentation at the imperial kilns, when tests were undertaken with many different materials and techniques, and a considerable part was quickly rejected and destroyed again before perfection was reached. As red glazes yielded a stronger result than red pigment used for underglaze painting, additional attempts were made to use the red glaze for painting with the brush, for which it is believed to have been sandwiched between two layers of transparent glaze. Several ambitious concepts were followed up, many of them abandoned when they proved unsatisfactory, but some retained even though the red did not fire perfectly well all the way round – an extremely rare occasion in this period and proof of the immense efforts such wares entailed. A Yongle stem cup with three fish of red glaze among underglaze-blue waves, and a stem bowl painted in red glaze with dragons and a formal border, for example, were both abandoned at the kiln site (their re-assembled fragments included in the exhibition Jingdezhen Zhushan chutu Yongle guanyao ciqi [Yongle Imperial porcelain excavated at Zhushan, Jingdezhen], Capital Museum, Beijing, 2007, cat. nos. 113 and 11); whereas the magnificent large meiping in the Meiyintang collection, with white dragons reserved among waves, many of which – but by no means all – have turned a bright red, was retained though imperfect (Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1634).
In the Xuande reign (1426-35), the potters appear to have realized that painting with a red glaze could work well as long the designs were reduced to simple silhouettes. This is when cups, stem cups and stem bowls with three red fish or three red fruit only, without any accompanying decoration and lacking even the customary underglaze-blue lines around rim and foot, began to be produced. The admirable, jewel-like colour and texture of these silhouettes was achieved only in the Xuande reign and was not matched again even in the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), when these designs were frequently copied, particularly in the Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1736-95) eras.
Although very well executed examples with red glaze decoration such as the present piece are known from the Xuande period, the numbers remained very small and more examples may have been destroyed than were deemed successful and preserved. Many deliberately broken stem cups, stem bowls and cups with red fish, red fruit, red dragons or other sea creatures, all of Xuande mark and period, have been recovered from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kiln site (some of them included in the exhibitions Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, cat. nos. 55, 75 and 76, and Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi/Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. nos. 45-1 and 2, 46-1 and 2, 49-1 and 2, 101-1, 2 and 3, and F 9). Attempts were also made to replace the copper-red with an overglaze iron red, which, however, equally did not always yield the desired result (e.g. cat. no. 77 in the former catalogue, cat. no. 48-1 in the latter).
Successfully fired comparisons include a similar stem cup in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, published in Mingdai Xuande guanyao jinghua tezhan tulu/Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 81 (fig. 2), together with an iron-red example, cat. no. 82, a red fruit example, cat. no. 86, another three-fish stem cup with a slightly larger and deeper bowl, cat. no. 87, a three-fruit stem bowl, cat. no. 98, a three-fish stem bowl, cat. no. 99; and a second cup like the present example included in Ming Xuande ciqi tezhan mulu/Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Hsuan-te Period Porcelain, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1980, cat. no. 124, where it is illustrated together with a later copy, cat. no. 126, as well as later copies of fruit stem cups, cat. nos. 125 and 127.
A similar stem cup in the Palace Museum, Beijing is included in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, Shanghai, 2000, vol. 1, pl. 226, with a detail on p. 246 (fig. 3); an example in the Shanghai Museum is published in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan zangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections : A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 3-52; and one from the Eumorfopoulos collection in the Victoria and Albert Museum is illustrated in Daisy Lion-Goldschmidt, Ming Porcelain, London, 1978, col. pl. 61. Other published pieces of somewhat different and less harmonious form may be later copies.
One comparable stem cup offered for sale at auction, of slightly larger and deeper shape, now in the Xiling Collection, was sold in our London rooms, 9th November 1954, lot 71; at Christie’s London, 8th December 1975, lot 130; and three times in these rooms, 25th November 1980, lot 45, from the Edward T. Chow collection; 18th November 1986, lot 30, from the T.Y. Chao collection; and 10th April 2006, lot 1661 (fig. 4). A three-fish stem cup of the deeper shape is also depicted in the Guwantu [Pictures of Antiquities] among other items in the imperial collection in the Yongzheng period, its stem firmly locked in a tall wooden stand to keep it safe. The scroll, dated in accordance with AD 1728, is preserved in the British Museum from the Sir Percival David Collection and was sold in our London rooms, 19th May 1939, lot 62; see the exhibition catalogue China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005-6, cat. no. 168 top left.