The unassuming beauty of this outstanding falangcai bowl with its ethereal painting of poppies and its elegantly inscribed colophon would not immediately suggest that in fact it alludes to a major event of China’s history, a story reverberating with heroism and loyalty, love and devotion, that has become romanticized in poetry and fiction.
The poetic inscription below the rim can be translated:
They welcome the wind,
as if it could chase the sound of singing that has arisen.
The night full of rain,
how it causes the dancing sleeve to hang down!
For the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795), who as a young man was of course trained in the Chinese Classics, these two lines, together with the flower depicted, in China also known as Yu meiren, ‘Beauty Yu’, would immediately have evoked a story related in the seminal history of early China, the Shiji, ‘Records of the Grand Historian’, written by Sima Qian (145-c.90 BC), Grand Historian at the Han court (206 BC-AD 220).
One of the Biographies included in the Shiji is devoted to Xiang Yu (232-202 BC), a warlord, who fought against the Qin (221-206 BC) to reinstate the former state of Chu. Upon the fall of the Qin, he proclaimed himself Hegemon King of Western Chu and became engaged in a lengthy struggle over the hegemony of China with Liu Bang (256-195 BC), founder of the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Although that dynasty is officially set to have begun in 206 BC, the so-called Chu-Han contention lasted until 202 BC. It ended in the battle of Gaixia (in northern Anhui), where Sima Qian records the following story (translated by Burton Watson in Cyril Birch, ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature, Harmondsworth, 1967 , p. 142, with the Chinese terms here transferred into pinyin):
Xiang Yu’s army had built a walled camp at Gaixia, but his soldiers were few and his supplies exhausted. The Han army, joined by the forces of the other leaders, surrounded them with several lines of troops. In the night Xiang Yu heard the Han armies all about him singing the songs of Chu. ‘Has Han already conquered Chu?’ he exclaimed in astonishment. ‘How many men of Chu they have with them!’ Then he rose in the night and drank within the curtains of his tent. With him were the beautiful lady Yu, who enjoyed his favor and followed wherever he went, and his famous steed Dapple, which he always rode. Xiang Yu, filled with passionate sorrow, began to sing sadly, composing this song:
My strength plucked up the hills,
My might shadowed the world;
But the times were against me,
And Dapple runs no more;
When Dapple runs no more,
What then can I do?
Ah, Yu, my Yu,
What will your fate be?
He sang the song several times through, and Lady Yu joined her voice with his. Tears streamed down his face, while all those about him wept and were unable to lift their eyes from the ground.
Since having been recorded by Sima Qian, who goes on to relate Xiang Yu’s death soon after, this epic story with its romantic side-line featuring the hero’s consort, Lady Yu (d. 202 BC), has become a beloved popular topic of drama and romance in China and – freely enriched and embellished – has inspired poems, plays, Peking opera, films, TV series and video games to this day. The two lines that are inscribed on the present bowl, which refer to the songs of Chu signifying defeat, and the resulting fate of the two lovers, are taken from a longer late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) poem about poppies (Yong Yu meiren cao) by Xu Gui, that evokes Lady Yu’s story.
In later narratives, we can read that Lady Yu responded to the ‘Gaixia song’ by singing a poem herself and by performing a sword dance for her lover, giving herself the sword at the end. This tale of loyalty and moral integrity has made her a popular heroine and she is revered as one of ancient China’s famous beauties. As poppies are believed to have grown on the spot, where she killed herself, the flower is named after her, Yu meiren, ‘Beauty Yu’. Her tomb east of Suzhou in Lingbi county, Anhui province, in the area formerly named Gaixia, remains a famous tourist attraction.
The poppy flower is easy to recognize by its frilly, less than paper-thin petals, its buds enveloped by a green hull, which it sheds when they open, and a hairy stem. Flower painting had been practised in China since at least the Song dynasty (960-1279), but became a specialist genre due to the virtuosity of Yun Shouping (1633-1690), probably China’s most famous flower painter, who introduced a new diction: his scrolls and album leaves in the ‘boneless’ style (without ink outlines) revived interest in the field as a whole. His depictions also of poppies inspired many painters particularly in the Kangxi (1662-1722) and Yongzheng (1723-1735) periods, such as Wang Wu (1632-1690), Yun Bing (1670-1710), Ma Yuanyu (c. 1669-1722), Zou Yigui (1686-1772) and others, all of whom painted poppies, often in the form of album leaves representing one of the months of the year.
It is surprising therefore, that this ‘photogenic’ flower was so rarely depicted on porcelain. On falangcai porcelains from the Beijing enamelling workshops it was used already, but in a very different, more lush and imposing form, in the Kangxi period, with the flowers set against a purple ground; see Shen bi danqing. Lang Shining lai Hua sanbai nian tezhan/Portrayals from a Brush Divine. A Special Exhibition on the Tricentennial of Giuseppe Castiglione’s Arrival in China, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2015, cat. no. I-17.
In the Yongzheng reign, it appears to have been used only once in the Beijing workshops, but rendered in a manner much closer to the present example. A pair of small falangcai dishes of Yongzheng mark and period, also preserved in the National Palace Museum, is similarly painted with poppies growing from behind rockwork, both unique in composition and sharing between them the same two poetic lines inscribed on our bowl, one line appearing on each; see ibid., cat. no. II-05; and Qing gongzhong falangcai ci tezhan/Special Exhibition of Ch’ing Dynasty Enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1992, cat. no. 98 (fig. 1).
Although the present bowl was clearly inspired by these two dishes, it is very differently conceived and displays its own individual painting style. On the Yongzheng prototypes, the scenes are rendered with the flowers seemingly more substantial, less emphasis being put on the weightlessness of their stems and blooms that makes them dance in the wind. On the present bowl, the flowers are admirably observed from nature and superbly painted, growing in an unruly manner, their petals wind-blown and their stalks bent in disorderly ways.
Falangcai (‘foreign colours’) – porcelains painted in the imperial workshops of the Forbidden City in Beijing with enamels partly introduced from the West – are among the rarest and most dazzling ceramic wares of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The fine white porcelain, potted and fired in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, south of the Yangzi River and then sent up to Beijing, was painted within the confines of the imperial palace, next the Emperors’ living quarters, before being fired once more to affix the enamels. Never before or after can porcelain painters have been exposed to similar pressure as in these tightly circumscribed workshops, where they were to meet the extreme imperial expectations while being subject to immediate scrutiny from the monarch’s eyes. The whole setup was small in scale, not least for the simple reasons of space and inconvenience to ordinary palace life, and here individual artists would create individual works of art, incomparable to the mass production even of fine porcelains for the court undertaken at Jingdezhen. Every piece of porcelain produced in these workshops is unique, quality is unsurpassed and numbers, naturally, are very limited.
Poppy designs were also produced at Jingdezhen, and although they are extremely beautiful, they cannot compare to the present piece. While this bowl uses a palette specially developed for it and its design is laid out in an individual manner, Jingdezhen ‘poppy’ bowls are known in several virtually identical versions and are painted in the standard famille rose (‘fencai’) palette that had been developed for painting on a larger scale; compare the pair of ‘poppy’ bowls from the collection of Dr James D. Thornton, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29th November 2017, lot 2806.
During the Kangxi reign the imperial workshops in the Forbidden City resembled sophisticated laboratories more than art ateliers, where court artists, artisans and technicians explored new scientific discoveries, manufacturing methods and substances. To this end, the Emperor had welcomed foreigners to the court, mainly from Europe, to upgrade the country’s standards of scientific and technical knowledge to international levels. The Yongzheng Emperor mistrusted these foreigners right on his doorstep, and with few exceptions, expelled them from the court. One of the exceptions was granted to the Italian Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), a particularly capable artist who had endeavoured to learn Chinese painting techniques and experimented with a hybrid style that combined the ingenious Chinese manner of composition with the meticulous way of detailed representation in which he had been trained in Europe. His depictions of flowers, birds and animals, clearly based on Chinese models, obviously pleased the Emperors, and although they had little effect on the development of Chinese painting in general, they decisively influenced court artisans working practically side by side with Castiglione and other Europeans inside the Forbidden City.
Castiglione’s album Immortal Blossoms in an Everlasting Spring contains flower and bird-and-flower leaves that render the subjects in the stylish asymmetrical compositions that are quintessentially Chinese, yet with that almost excessive degree of precision that he had learned in Europe. One of these album leaves, which depicts corn poppies next to fringed irises, looks almost certain to have influenced the way the poppy flowers on this bowl were conceived in the enamelling workshops (fig. 2).
A major difference in the depiction of the nature scene on this Qianlong bowl from those on the Yongzheng dishes concerns the way the motif here has been ‘cut off’ at the rim, or better, enlarged beyond the space available for painting – a ploy to make the motif seemingly jump out of the two-dimensional plane. Such attempts to catch the viewer’s attention by suggesting three-dimensionality, which were practised already in Chinese handscroll paintings on paper or silk, are today still frequently used in advertising. At Jingdezhen, this style of depiction was turned into the guozhihua style, where the design ‘climbs over the wall’ and actually continues on the inside of the vessel – a very different concept, which scorns the idea behind the present stratagem, namely to engage the viewer by omitting part of the design.
No other pieces of Qianlong falangcai porcelain appear to exist painted with poppies, and this bowl is further unusual in showing loosely strewn fruits – a variation of the sanduo, the Three Abundances – on the inside. Comparable bowls with different flower motifs and accompanying poems on the outside are in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, but otherwise they are extremely rare; see the Museum’s exhibition catalogue, op. cit., 1992, cat. nos 57, 58 and 61, the latter with a fruiting branch also on the inside. Generally, however, bowls and dishes with such painterly decoration on the outside are undecorated on the inside, while pieces with more formal, coloured sgraffiato decoration often show painted insides; compare, for example, a pair of dishes with yellow sgraffiato grounds outside and freely strewn fruits inside, illustrated in Liao Pao Show (Liao Baoxiu), Huali cai ci: Qianlong yangcai/Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch’ien-lung Reign, exhibition catalogue, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2008, cat. no. 91.
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