Lot 3609
  • 3609


10,000,000 - 18,000,000 HKD
bidding is closed


  • porcelain
well modelled with a flattened spherical body with two domed side supported on an oval footring, surmounted by a waisted neck and small bulb-shaped mouth, flanked by a pair of elegantly arched strap handles extending from the upper neck to the narrow sides with lobed terminals, each main side incised with lotus blooms alternating with elongated petal lappets enclosing trefoil motifs, all radiating out from a central medallion encircling a striated border and yinyang symbol, surrounded by a chevron border along the edge, below a delicate floral scroll collaring the lower mouth, the lobed terminals of the handles similarly adorned with floral sprays, applied overall save for the unglazed footring with an unctuous 'sweet-white’ glaze

Catalogue Note

In its finely potted form and exquisite smooth white glaze, this moonflask (bianhu) embodies the classic style of the imperial court during the Yongle period. Although moonflasks of this type are better known by their underglaze-blue decorated counterparts, the white-glazed versions are considerably rarer. 

The celebrated ‘sweet-white’ glaze was specially devised by commission of the Yongle Emperor by potters working at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. Also known by connoisseurs as tianbai, the glaze was exclusively reserved for monochrome vessels produced during his reign. The immense difficulty in creating tianbai specimens is evident in the numerous finds at the Ming imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen. These tianbai sherds account for over 98% of finds in two consecutive Yongle strata at the eastern section of Zhushan Zonglu in Jingdezhen city, attesting to the small quantity that were fired satisfactorily and therefore delivered rather than destroyed (see the catalogue to the exhibition Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 19). 

The term tianbai is thought to be coined by the late-Ming writer Huang Yizheng, in his Shiwu ganzu [Purple pearl (memory bead) for remembering things] of 1591, where he characterises the glaze as ‘white like congealed fat, immaculate like piled-up snow’ to describe its luxuriousness and purity. Developed from the blue-tinted qingbai (‘bluish-white’) ware of the Song dynasty (960-1279) and the matt and opaque shufu wares of the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), the whiter appearance was achieved by producing the glaze almost entirely from glaze stone with no or little glaze ash (burned limestone), therefore containing less calcium carbonate than contemporary Jingdezhen white glazes. Furthermore, a pure white and fine porcelain was created through the combination of kaolin-rich paste with very low levels of iron and titanium.

Moonflasks of this incised type are rare; a closely related example was sold in our New York rooms, 21st/22nd September 2005, lot 63; one of slightly larger size, illustrated in John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, 1956, pl. 55, no. 29.458, sold in these rooms, 31st October 1974, lot 111, is now in the collection of The Asia Society, New York, illustrated in Denise Patry Leidy, Treasures of Asian Art. The Asia Society’s Mr and Mrs John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection, New York, 1994, pl. 170; and a third example of slightly smaller size, from the Severance and Greta Millikin Collection and now in the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, was included in the Museum’s exhibition The Severance and Greta Millikin Collection, 1990, cat. no. 42. Two moonflasks attributed to the Xuande period include one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji [Complete collection of Chinese ceramics], vol. 13, Shanghai, 2000, pl. 13; and another in the Shanghai Museum, published in Zhongguo meishu quanjiGonyi meishu bian [Complete series on Chinese art: Arts and crafts section], vol. 3, Shanghai, 1988, pl. 73.

Undecorated moonflasks of this form and glaze were also produced; see two sold in these rooms, the first, 11th May 1983, lot 108, and the second, 5th November 1996, lot 764; and another, but lacking a foot, excavated from the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns, included in the exhibition Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, cat. no. 91, where the author notes that the later versions have an oval footring (see p. 244). Another plain white moonflask is illustrated in Sir John Addis, ‘Hung Wu and Yung Lo White’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, 1975-77, col. pl. 41, pl. 30a, from a small group of fine white-glazed pieces from the Palace Museum, Beijing, where he suggests that the incised white wares were made from c.1420 until the death of the Yongle Emperor in 1424. 

The more widely known blue and white bianhu of this type include one in the collection of the Ottoman sultans in Turkey, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, London, 1986, vol. 2, pl. 616; one from the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, included in the exhibition Shanhai Hakubutsukan shozō seika jiki ten: meihin de tadoru Gen, Min, Shin jidai no sometsuke [Blue and white porcelains from the Shanghai Museum: Development of blue and white wares from Yuan to Qing dynasty], Matsuya Ginza, Tokyo, 1988, cat. no. 16; and another, from the Jingguantang and Huang Ding Xuan collections, included in the exhibition In Pursuit of Antiques. Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Exhibition of the Min Chiu Society, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 124, sold in these rooms, 29th October 1991, lot 29, and twice at Christie's Hong Kong, 3rd November 1996, lot 545, and, 28th November 2006, lot 1512. See also lot 3608 in this sale.