The Meiyintang 'Chicken Cup'
by Regina Krahl
The term ‘chicken cup’, which denotes a tiny porcelain wine cup painted with cocks, hens and chicks, has for centuries evoked one of the most desirable possessions for connoisseurs of Chinese works of art – imperial and otherwise. A ‘chicken cup’ is the crowning glory of any collection of Chinese porcelain. Created in the Chenghua reign (1465-87), when quality was at its peak, ‘chicken cups’ are outstanding in their tactile material, their range of colours, and their charming, unmannered painting style. Since quantities produced were at that time rather low, it is today almost impossible to acquire a genuine Chenghua example, only three other examples being preserved in private collections. Chenghua ‘chicken cups’ were only ever offered for sale at auction at Sotheby’s, once during the 1960s, twice during the ‘70s, three times during the ‘80s, once during the ‘90s (the present cup), and none has been available since.
A ‘chicken cup’ is not only celebrated as one of the finest and rarest specimens of Chinese ceramics – its materials, potting, painting and firing being of the highest quality – but it also is testimony to Chinese ceramic connoisseurship over the centuries and as such is a historical document that illustrates an aspect of China’s culture. Praised and desired by Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) emperors and other discerning literati collectors, ‘chicken cups’ have acquired a legendary aura that goes well beyond their immediate art-historical importance.
The Chenghua reign stands out among China’s imperial porcelain production for the unmatched level of craftsmanship and artfulness of its creations. For the longest part of the reign the style of the Xuande period (1426-35), the last reign before Chenghua to have produced fine imperial wares, remained influential. Only the final years of the reign saw a new departure of Jingdezhen’s imperial porcelain industry. This is when all the fine wares peculiar to this reign were created, including the ‘chicken cups’. Two major surveys of Chenghua porcelain have been published by Liu Xinyuan and Ts’ai Ho-pi, who agree on this point (Liu Xinyuan, ‘Jingdezhen chutu Ming Chenghua guanyao yiji yu yiwu zhi yanjiu/A Study of the Site of the Chenghua Imperial Kiln at Jingdezhen and Related Archaeological Finds’, in the exhibition catalogue A Legacy of Chenghua: Imperial Porcelain of the Chenghua Reign Excavated from Zhushan, Jingdezhen, The Tsui Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 18-87; and Cai Hebi [Ts’ai Ho-pi], Chuanshi pin Chenghua ci/Everlasting Chenghua Porcelain, Taipei, 2003). Cai and Liu disagree, however, on the exact years of and precise reasons for this innovation, although the involvement of the Emperor’s notorious favourite concubine Wan Guifei seems without doubt, and the production period seems in any case to be confined to the decade prior to 1485, when the imperial kilns halted production.
The characteristic porcelains of the Chenghua period, those of this late period, tend to be small and unpretentious, and seem at first glance unassuming and modest. They were intended for individual appreciation and handling rather than for display, and need a connoisseur’s glance and touch to be taken in in all their magnificence. Given the strict supervision and precise stipulations by the court in this period, it is hardly surprising that the material quality was improved compared to previous reigns, but it is most remarkable that the painted decoration on these cups could become so free and uncontrived. The painting tends to be much less formal and predictable than in previous reigns, with an unprecedented softness and elegance. Liu Xinyuan considers the distinctive, somewhat naïve calligraphy of the Chenghua reign mark to be that of the young Emperor himself, and marks enclosed in a double square, which are characteristic of doucai wares, were an innovation of the late Chenghua phase.
Exactingly shaped and carefully finished, a ‘chicken cup’ with its recessed base and lack of a foot sits particularly well in the hand. The sensuous pleasure of the touch of a piece of Chenghua porcelain is well known, and Chenghua ‘chicken cups’ are no exception in this respect. The extremely fine, tactile white paste of late Chenghua wares that has no match among Jingdezhen porcelains of any period, is due to refined body and glaze recipes, with increased levels of aluminium oxide and reduced iron oxide compared to those of the Xuande reign, enabling higher firing temperatures and resulting in a whiter, denser biscuit, as well as a lower content of iron and calcium oxide in the glaze, making it clearer and finer and giving it a distinctive, soft sheen.
The doucai colour scheme was not developed but refined in the Chenghua period. Doucai, has been translated as contrasting, contending, interlocking, joined or dovetailed colours, referring either to the contrast of the mostly primary colours or the fact that overglaze enamels are fitted into underglaze outlines. When imperial kilns made their first polychrome porcelains in the Xuande reign, it was ritual vessels with lançainvocations for use in Tibet, in a context where bright primary colours were revered. The delayed appearance of multi-coloured wares for use at court was obviously by choice. For the best wares of the Chenghua reign, such as ‘grape’ and ‘chicken cups’, attempts were made to increase the palette. ‘Chicken cups’ show different tones of red, a light and a dark olive green (green and yellow superimposed), yellow as well as a shaded pale underglaze blue used as a wash. For the chickens’ plumage several enamels were superimposed to create a rich variegated effect. The repeat firings necessary for this process naturally would have reduced the number of successfully completed examples.
The design of a cock and a hen with chicks in a garden is not encountered on porcelain before the Chenghua reign. The subject matter, however, was a well-known topic of Song dynasty (960-1279) painting and the Chenghua Emperor inscribed a poetic colophon about the subject on a Song hanging scroll of a hen and chicks (see Ts’ai Ho-pi in The Emperor’s broken china. Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, Sotheby’s, London, 1995, p. 22, fig. 1) (Fig. 1).
The Wanli Emperor (r. 1572-1620) is known to have admired Chenghua ‘chicken cups’ in particular, which made them expensive already at that time. During the Kangxi period (1662-1722) their value rose even further and is said to have surpassed that of the celebrated Song wares. The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95) wrote an ode in praise of ‘chicken cups’. To own a Chenghua doucai cup at that time had become synonymous with enjoying a small fortune. In the novel Hong lou meng (Dream of the Red Chamber) by Cao Xueqin (died 1763) Granny Liu accidentally drank from such a cup, making it thus unusuable for other members of the family. The cup was therefore kindly offered to the poor woman so that she would be able to live out her days on the proceeds.
The National Palace Museum, Taipei, holds eight authentic Chenghua ‘chicken cups’ together with many later copies, all of them listed in Gugong ciqi lu [Record of porcelains from the Old Palace], Taipei, 1961-6, part II, vol.1, pp. 253-5, of which six genuine examples were selected for the exhibition Chenghua ciqi tezhan/Special Exhibition of Ch’eng-hua Porcelain Ware, 1465-1487, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2003, cat. nos. 132-7; and two others for the exhibition Ming Chenghua ciqi tezhan [Special exhibition of Ming Chenghua porcelain], Taipei, 1977, col. pl. 1 and pl. 29, the latter illustrated again in colour in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum. Enamelled Ware of the Ming Dynasty, vol. I, Hong Kong, 1966, pl. 13.
Five other museum collections can boast a Chenghua example: the British Museum, London, from the Sir Percival David Collection, included in the exhibition Flawless Porcelains. Imperial Ceramics from the Reign of the Chenghua Emperor, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 1995, cat. no. 22; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, illustrated in John Ayers, Far Eastern Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1980, col. pl. 50; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, from the Evill collection, published in the Museum’s Annual Report of 1965; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from the collection of W.W. Winkworth, sold in our London rooms, 27th November 1973, lot 308A, and again in our New York rooms, 4th December 1984, lot 332, and illustrated in Suzanne G.Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, New York, 1989, col. pl. 24; and the Collections Baur, Geneva, from the George Eumorfopoulos and Mrs. Walter Sedgwick collections, sold in our London rooms, 2nd July 1968, lot 135, and illustrated in John Ayers, The Baur Collection Geneva: Chinese Ceramics, Geneva, 1968-74, vol. II, pl. A 141.
The authenticity of two cups in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published as genuine in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 177, has been challenged by the late Julian Thompson, the world’s leading authority on Chenghua porcelain, who believed that there are no Chenghua ‘chicken cups’ remaining in mainland China.
Only three other Chenghua ‘chicken cups’ appear to remain in private hands: two examples formerly in the collection of Edward T. Chow, one sold in these rooms 25th November 1980, lot 31, and illustrated in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Catalogue of Late Yuan and Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London: The British Museum Press, 2001, p. 159 figs 2 and 3 centre; the other sold in these rooms 19th May 1981, lot 429 and now in the Au Bak Ling collection and included in the exhibition 100 Masterpieces of Imperial Chinese Ceramics from the Au Bak Ling Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1998; the third, formerly the pair to the present cup in the Dreyfus collection, exhibited together with it in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition 1957, and illustrated in the Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 30, 1955-57, pl. 46, no. 175 right, was sold in our London rooms, 2nd March 1971, lot 166.
Even fragmentary ‘chicken cups’ appear to be rare among the excavations at the Ming imperial kiln site in Jingdezhen, where sherds of an unfinished cup, painted in underglaze blue only and still lacking the enamels, were recovered from the third and last Chenghua stratum, datable to the final years of the reign, and included in the exhibition The Emperor’s broken china. Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, Sotheby’s, London, 1995, cat. no. 23. This clearly shows that the complete design was drawn onto the unglazed porcelain in pale underglaze blue before firing, even if some outlines were later hidden under the enamels. More recently sherds of enamelled ‘chicken cups’ have also come to light and one is illustrated in ‘Jiangxi Jingdezhen Ming Qing yuyao yizhi fajue jianbao/Brief Excavation Report on Imperial Kiln of the Ming and Qing Dynasties Located in Jingdezhen City of Jiangxi Province’, Wenwu 2007, no. 5, p. 25, pl. 78. A cup recomposed from sherds has been sold at Christie’s London, 16th November 1999, lot 195.
The present cup comes now from the Meiyintang collection, one of the finest private collections of Chinese ceramics to have been assembled in the second half of the 20th century, and has a long history in the West, going back to the 1950s. It was then in the collection of Mrs. Leopold Dreyfus, a London-based collector, who owned an important but little known collection of Chinese ceramics, and lent to several exhibitions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, of which she was a member until the late 1980s. It comes in a box commissioned by the collector-dealer Edward T. Chow, and was probably once part of his vast holdings of outstanding ceramics, which are said to have included more than the two ‘chicken cups’ sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 1980 and 1981.
Many copies of doucai ‘chicken cups’ were made in the early Qing dynasty, with genuine Kangxi, Yongzheng ((1723-35) and Qianlong reign marks as well as with spurious Chenghua marks, with hall marks or without any mark. They vary considerably in the details of the decoration, but usually follow the early Ming prototype both in form and in the painting of the cocks with three long tail feathers. Compare two examples with Kangxi and Yongzheng reign marks illustrated together with one of the Ming originals from the Edward T. Chow collection, which they closely follow, in Cécile et Michel Beurdeley, La céramique chinoise, Fribourg, 1974, col. pls. 71 and 72. It was only in the Yongzheng period that the pattern underwent an updating and was redesigned, resulting in a free interpretation of the fifteenth-century model, see the cup also in the Meiyintang collection, illustrated in Krahl, op. cit., no. 1745, and pp. 218-19, figs. 19b and 20b, and sold in these rooms, 14th November 1989, lot 230.