This strict supervision of Jingdezhen porcelain continued through the Xuande reign, but not beyond, as the manufacture of imperial porcelains was low on the imperial agenda in the three short reigns of the following ‘interregnum’, a period of political instability. When the court took up its interest in fine table wares again in the Chenghua period (1465-87), materials, shapes and styles had changed.
But whereas the Yongle Emperor appears to have used Jingdezhen’s blue-and-white porcelains predominantly for diplomatic purposes, for trade, and as imperial gifts rather than to furnish his palaces, the Xuande Emperor began to appropriate them as emblems of his imperial power. Thus, unlike many Yongle pieces that found their way into foreign lands, sent there on the Emperor’s orders, most Xuande pieces where retained in the palace and many are still remaining in the imperial collection today, either in the Palace Museum, Beijing, or the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Generally, they were inscribed with the imperial reign mark and thus display their imperial descent in eternity, a marking that was used extremely rarely in the Yongle reign. And although many forms and designs continued to be made almost identically over both periods, there is a clear domination of large sizes and motifs suitable for export in the Yongle era, whereas in the Xuande reign the dragon, as well as the phoenix, as symbols of imperial authority, became very prominent. Compared to the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), where dragons were also a popular motif of porcelain, the imperial animals of the Xuande period were depicted as less fierce and more majestic, with their mouth closed, their powerful body evenly built and their legs showing five claws. The dragons on the present bowl are prime examples of the Xuande species, a type that became the classic dragon image of China.
The present bowl, of which there are fewer than twenty known examples, is an iconic representative of one of the most famous eras of porcelain production. Because of its distinctively robust form, this type of bowl has traditionally been referred to by Western scholars and collectors as a ‘dice’ bowl; assuming that the dense walls were made to endure the inevitable wear and tear of flying dice. Throwing six dice in a bowl during the Moon Festival remains indeed a popular tradition. However, Chinese reference sources propose a different usage and describe this particular form as bo, a term associated with Buddhist alms bowls. For instance, the example in the Palace Museum (pl. 124 cited below) is accompanied by a note discussing the specific use of the word bo and relating it to the devote Buddhist practice of the Xuande emperor and his court.
Although associated with Buddhism, these outstanding bowls bear the quintessential imperial emblems of five-clawed dragons and a prominently positioned six-character reign mark on the base of the interior. Dragons are frequently featured on Xuande imperial ware; obviously a deliberate choice and one that left no doubt as to the singular authority of the emperor. On the present example, the powerful mythical beasts are remarkably well drawn; the finer details such as scales, claws and waves are executed with a masterful precision that is cleverly juxtaposed by dynamic poses and playful expressions. The intense, rich blue derives from the use of the higher quality cobalt, imported to the East from Islamic regions, its high iron content causing separation during firing and giving rise to the famous ‘heaping and piling’ effect. The harmonious composition is further strengthened by the perfectly proportioned use of positive and negative space. The evident technical skill speaks to the high standards expected from the imperial kiln workers of the Xuande era. An accomplished artist himself, the Xuande emperor was an active patron of the arts. His close interest in porcelain wares inspired numerous commissions during his brief ten year reign; a fact borne out by the variety, innovation, success and quantity of remaining imperial wares and the large number of shards from smashed inferior examples that have been excavated at Zhushan in Jingdezhen, the site of the Xuande imperial kilns.
Blue and white dragon bowls of this thickly potted type and of Xuande mark and period are in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (I), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 124; in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsuan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, cat.no. 37; in the Nanjing Museum, illustrated in Xu Huping, Treasures of the Nanjing Museum, Hong Kong, 2001, no. 45; in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, illustrated in John Ayers, Far Eastern Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1980, pl. 148; and from the Sir Percival David Collection at the British Museum, London, and in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., published in Oriental Ceramics. The World's Great Collections, vol. 7, Tokyo, 1976, monochrome pl. 97, and vol. 10, Tokyo, 1976, monochrome pl. 104, respectively. Additionally, a similar fragmentary bowl was excavated at the imperial kiln site of Zhushan in 1983 and in the exhibition Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation Taiwan, 1998, cat. no. 16.1, col. pl. 25 and p. 199.
Remarkably few of these distinctive thick-walled ‘dragon’ bowls have come up for auction over the years. A similar example from the Wu Lai-Hsi Collection was sold in our London rooms 26th May 1937, lot 52 and again in our London rooms from the Collection of C.M. Woodbridge, 8th May 1951, lot 69 where it was acquired by Bluett & Sons, London. Another from the Collection of Major Lindsay F. Hay was sold in our London rooms, 16th June 1939, lot 84, then again from the Collection of Lionel Edwards, 8th February 1945, lot 84 and for a third time, listed as from the Estate of Major Lindsay F. Hay 25th June 1946, lot 60. Another example, possibly the latter, in the Collection of Roy Leventritt was lent to the Ming Blue and White Exhibition at the Philadelphia Art Museum, 1949, no. 58. A bowl of this form included in the exhibition Ming Blue and White, M.F.E.A., Stockholm, 1964, cat.no. 31 and on loan at the M.F.E.A. between 1964 and 1974, was sold in our London rooms, 6th April 1976, lot 116 and a similar bowl was sold in these rooms 7th December 1983, lot 292. Three further examples were sold in our London rooms, one 11th May 1965, lot 27 and later again at Christie's New York, 9th November 1981; a second on 26th June 1973, lot 236 now in the Matsuoka Museum of Art, Tokyo and illustrated in Nakano, The Panoramic Views of Chinese Patterns, 1985, pl. 13; and the third on the 13th December 1977, lot 472 was sold again in our Hong Kong rooms 10th April 2006, lot 1659. Another example was sold Christie's Hong Kong, 20th March 1990, lot 519.
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