The history of the Longquan kilns can be traced back to at least the Song dynasty (960-1279). By the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), the kilns successfully produced wares in a range of bright jade-green tones, which set themselves apart from the muted celadon colour spectrum dominant in the preceding era and developed into the signature product of the kilns. Spreading over a large part of Zhejiang province, the Longquan kilns were conveniently located within reach of the trade ports of Wenzhou and Quanzhou, from where merchandise could be shipped to foreign markets in the Far East, Southeast Asia, India and the Middle East. This advantage was fully exploited in the Yuan dynasty and large quantities of wares were made for foreign markets. A huge quantity of large-scale vessels was produced to satisfy export demand. At the same time, new decorative techniques were deployed to revitalise traditional forms, as seen in the present example. Although the use of iron spots on celadon wares was observed on Yue wares from the late Western Jin dynasty (256-316), it was discontinued and only revived by the Longquan kilns in the Yuan dynasty. The russet spots effect is achieved by applying iron-rich pigment to the thick layer of celadon glaze before firing. The tea-brown patches, scattered like a shower of petals, are praised by the Japanese tea masters as tobi seiji – a term probably referring to the random distribution of the brown spots (see Kobayashi Hitoshi, ‘Guobao feiqingci huasheng kao [On the National Treasure tobi seiji hanaike]’, Chen Xin, trans., Zhongguo gu taoci yanjiu. Longquan yao yanjiu/The Research of Longquan Kiln, Beijing, 2011, p. 403). Despite its simplicity and beauty, the production of this type of wares lasted only for a short period of time, and the iron spots soon became much smaller and their distribution more restrained and regular.
Only four other examples of comparable form, size and decoration from the Yuan dynasty are known. The most famous among them is the National Treasure tobi seiji hanaike. Formerly in the collection of the Konoike family, it is now in the collection of the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka (accession no. 00556), and included in the catalogue to the exhibited Yūkyū no kōsai. Tōyō tōji no bi. Osaka shiritsu tōyō tōji bijutsu kan korekushon/The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka Collection: The Eternal Beauty and Luster of Oriental Ceramics, Tokyo, 2014, cat. no. 21 and cover (fig. 1). Another related vase from the Eumorfopoulos collection, is preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum and published in Stacey Pierson, Chinese Ceramics: A Design History, London, 2009, pp. 88-89, fig. 128 (accession no. C.24-1935). A further example is in the Baur collection, reputed to originate from Japan, illustrated by John Ayers, Chinese Ceramics in the Baur Collection, Geneva, 1999, vol. 1, pl. 42 (A104). The fourth example, designated as an ‘Important Cultural Property’ in 1935, belongs to a Japanese private collection and is included in Koyama Fujio, ed., Sekai tōji zenshū/Catalogue of World’s Ceramics, vol. 10: Sung and Liao Dynasties, Tokyo, 1955, pl. 49.
All the above examples are preserved outside of China. A few related yuhuchun vases of similar size have been excavated from cellars in China, but they, without the iron spots, belong to the more common celadon group; see Zhongguo taoci quanji [Complete series on Chinese ceramics], vol. 10: Yuan dynasty (I), Shanghai, 2000, pls 27-28 and 30.
Compare also Longquan iron-decorated wares of other forms. A related ring-handled vase is in the collection of the Shanghai Museum and published by Zhu Boqian, Longquan yao qingci/Celadons from Longquan Kilns, Taipei, 1998, pl. 155. A yenyen vase from the Sir Percival David Foundation, said to be formerly in the Sakai family collection in Japan, is now in the British Museum and included in Regina Krahl and Jessica Harrison-Hall, Chinese Ceramics: Highlights of the Sir Percival David Collection, London, 2009, pl. 20. See also a garlic-mouth vase in the Ise Cultural Foundation, included in Chūgoku tōji meihin-ten: Ise korekushon no shihō/Masterpieces of Chinese Ceramic Art Exhibition: Treasure of Ise Collection, Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Art, Kanazawa, 2012, cat. no. 41, and a related pair from the Yangdetang collection, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 30th November 2016, lot 3133. Compare also a dish in the Baur collection, included in Ayers, op.cit., pl. 43 (A105). A related pouring vessel yi and a tripod stand, both dated to the 14th century, are preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and exhibited in Tsai Mei-fen, ed., Bilü – Mingdai Longquan yao Qingci/Green – Longquan Celadon of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 2009, cat. nos 157-158 (accession nos Gu ci 17375, 17829). Related vessels of various forms were also recovered from a ship that, on its way to Japan in 1323, sank off the coast of Korea. Two examples among this group are a biscuit-decorated dish and another yi pouring vessel, now in the National Museum of Korea and included in The Sunken Treasures off the Sinan Coast, Tokyo, 1983, cat. nos 22-23.
This type of tobi seiji vessel, as discussed above, is extremely rare, and most of the extant examples are either kept in Japan or have arrived overseas by way of Japan. Kobayashi suggested that this group of Longquan wares was in fact made for the Japanese market. His hypothesis can explain the popularity of iron-decorated Longquan celadon in Japan and the small quantity of relevant excavated and heirloom pieces in China (op.cit., p. 413). In fact, during the Yuan dynasty, Qingbai wares with brown spots were also produced for export, but they are generally less refined than their Longquan counterparts; see Ye Peilan, Yuandai ciqi [Porcelain of the Yuan dynasty], Beijing, 1998, pp. 247-8, pls 428-437.
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