hen appreciating Chinese ceramics, important considerations include glaze, body material, decoration, condition, and of course, the form. Chinese potters found inspiration from nature and foliate forms, as well as historical wares made centuries earlier in other materials and replicated them in a contemporary design.
Hu – Ritual Wine Vessel
One of the earliest ceramic forms, the hu harks back to before the Shang dynasty (1600-1045 BCE). First made in pottery, the hu evolved into the bronze form as a ritual wine vessel with a pear-shaped cross section, swelling at the belly, then flaring at a narrow neck, creating an S-shape profile. The bronze versions often had rings attached to the sides of the neck. Varieties include a square section called fang hu and bian hu which appeared towards the end of the Shang dynasty. Even as the ritual importance of bronze vessels faded by the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220), the hu vase existed in ceramics for centuries with a renewed interest in the form during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), in Guan, Ge and Longquan celadon glazes. By this time, the shape had an entirely decorative function. In the Qing dynasty Kangxi period (r. 1662-1722), the shape would appear in porcelain with holes around the foot replicating the style of archaic bronzes, and the Yongzheng period (r. 1723-1735) continued this classic form.
A Variation to the Classic
The hexagonal-sectioned vase also drew inspiration from archaic bronze hu and was modified in the Song dynasty to have six or eight sides and tubular lug handles. The same handles are found on Shang bronze hu, likely used with a rope handle running through the tubes and secured by knots. The teadust-glazed hexagonal vase from the Qianlong period (r. 1736-1795) is one such example. In order to get the precise corners and angles, this vessel was made by a mould and not on the wheel.
He – Wine Kettle
The inspiration for the blue and white kettle, he, in the collection may come from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), however, the earliest prototype may have been a tripod vessel, gui, from the Dawenkou culture (ca. 2800-2400 BCE). This form appeared in the 11th-10th century BCE as a bronze ritual wine vessel, often found in tripod form and later evolved into animal-form vessels on four legs. The function of the wine vessel was revived in the Qing dynasty. In the 1915 text ‘Shou He’ (‘On the He’), the scholar Wang Guowei (1877-1927) described the practice by abstemious banqueters of diluting wine using water poured from a he. Palace documents show the first order for these vessels placed in the third year of the Qianlong reign (1739).
Meiping – The Plum Vase
The meiping originated in the Tang dynasty (618-907) as a wine storage vessel often found in tombs. Later the shape was used for decorative vases during the Song dynasty, a high period of innovation in Chinese ceramics with technical mastery and refinement. The name ‘plum vase’ comes from the use of placing plum blossoms in the vase. The body is tall and slender with a short narrow neck, broad rounded shoulders, tapering to a narrow base. They sometimes had lids, which were often lost, and variations include hexagonal meiping vases. The meiping vase can be found in in almost all styles of glaze including celadon, Cizhou, qingbai, blue and white, copper-red, wucai, doucai, and famille-rose.
Hulu – Double Gourd
The potters of the Song dynasty looked to nature when inventing new forms. The double-gourd vase, hulu ping, is based on the hourglass-shaped gourd vegetable. It is full of auspicious meaning from fertility to immortality and happiness. The Daoist immortal Li Tie-Guai is depicted as a beggar holding a double gourd. Two works from the collection include the auspiciously decorated blue and white double-gourd vase with handles from the Qianlong period with a slightly flattened body, as well as a teadust glaze variation with ruyi-head handles from the Qianlong period.
For inspiration, the potters of Jingdezhen looked not only to the past, but also to contemporary wares in other materials. While bronze candlesticks existed from the Tang dynasty, ceramic versions remained rare until the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), and by the Yongle period (r. 1403-1424), porcelain candlesticks based on the Middle Eastern metal versions were in use. Candlesticks were an integral part of the Tibetan Buddhist altar; along with the ding censer and gu vase, they formed the wugong or ‘five offering vessels’. An altar with a stone wugong set can be found outside each of the Ming emperor’s tombs, beginning with the Yongle Emperor. Qing porcelain candlesticks have a bell-shaped base, a deep wide pan in the middle, and a tapered neck with a smaller dish for holding the handle. The yellow-ground famille-rose pair from the Qianlong period would have been used in a temple or ancestral hall.
Stand for a Drinking Vessel
The jue is a Shang dynasty ritual bronze tripod, and in the early Ming dynasty, the drinking vessel was revived for rituals in the temples. Embellished metal versions in silver and gold have been found in the tombs of Prince Zhuang of Liang (1411-1441) and the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620). While the jue is an ancient form, the stand is a Ming innovation to secure the vessel and elevate the status of the vessel. In the centre of the stand is a mountain, evoking the Daoist Isle of the Blessed, the abode of the Immortals. The mountain has three rounded brackets for locking in the legs of the jue.
It was also in the Ming dynasty Yongle period that ceramic shapes copied Middle Eastern metalwork brought into China by traders and tribute bearers. One such vessel was the moonflask, with its circular body, domed on one side and flat on the unglazed reverse, opening at the top with a short neck and narrow mouth. Some Ming versions have the compressed spherical body on both sides. Yongzheng versions followed the Ming design but also put their own contemporary spin on them such as the one with three necks in blue and white version with gourd decoration as well as in guan-type glaze.
The potters at Jingdezhen were always trying to find new ways to amuse and impress the emperor, be it through trompe l'oeil porcelain or through technological innovations – such as vases that rotate within other vases or conjoined vessels. The work of connecting multiple vases is deceptively complicated, requiring precision cuts and high level of craftsmanship to lute component pieces together around a central vase. These types of vases can have between two to seven mouths. The more vases are joined together, the harder the feat. There are only four known examples of conjoined six-vessels in blue and white from the Qianlong period. The shape of the individual vase is known as a Guanyin ping because it is the shape of the amphora that the deity holds in her hand.