HONG KONG - The radical simplicity of the Xuande ‘Fish’ Stemcup is without par in the history of Chinese porcelain decoration and is 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.

MARK AND PERIOD OF XUANDE. Estimate HK$40,000,000–60,000,000.

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).

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. 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.


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.

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.


08 October 2014 | Hong Kong