The lasting admiration for the unrivalled excellence of Song (960-1279) potters derives from two very different achievements: on the one hand the understated elegance of the refined green and white table wares, with their subtle tonal nuances and subdued decoration, and on the other hand the bold and striking appearance of black and white containers, with their swift and vivacious surface treatments with knife or brush in light/dark contrasts. The present meiping is a masterpiece of the latter category, which derives its beauty from the seemingly nonchalant sgraffiato carving, which in fact is skilfully laid out over the available space, with no awkward gaps or ungainly clusters, and the impeccable potting, manifested in its neat profile.
The term Cizhou tends to be freely used for a wide variety of kilns using slip designs, distributed particularly over Hebei and Henan, the most important being the Cizhou type site at Guantai in Cixian (Ci county), the region formerly called Cizhou, in the southernmost part of Hebei province. The Guantai kilns created not only a very wide variety of decorative styles, but are particularly renowned for their masterful yet free manner of execution, with the potters wielding the carving knife, and later the brush, with a spontaneity like that displayed by the literati painters of the time in their ink paintings. The most important styles, which were developed before painted decoration became prevalent, were the various sgraffiato designs that make decorative use of the contrast between white and black slip, or between white or black slip and the exposed stoneware body, as seen on this impressive meiping, where the potters made decorative use of the subtle colour difference between the light beige-brown body and the ivory-white slip coating.
The present piece shows the vigorous decoration of a lively peony scroll characteristic of the Guantai kilns’ production, which has been endowed with a sense of three-dimensionality through its bold outline carving and delicate incised and combed details. A very similar meiping with only two ranks of blooms, but incomplete and reconstituted from sherds, was discovered at the kiln site and is today in the Office for the Protection of Cultural Relics in Ci county, illustrated in Guantai Cizhou yaozhi/The Cizhou Kiln Site at Guantai, Beijing, 1997, col. pl. XI, no. 2, together with similarly decorated fragments of other vessels, col. pl. XXI, no. 1, a pillow fragment, pl. XXI, no. 2, and a vase, pl. XXIV, no. 2.
A complete meiping of virtually the same shape and design as the present piece, has also been excavated in Tangyin county, Henan province, and is now in the Henan Museum, published in Zhongguo taoci quanji [Complete series on Chinese ceramics], Shanghai, 1999-2000, vol. 7, pl. 203, where it is attributed to the Dangyangyu kilns in Xiuwu in the same province. Since the find site is, however, situated much closer to the Guantai than the Dangyangyu kilns, even though they are today located in different provinces, and since the typical Dangyangyu sgraffiato wares are quite different in style (ibid., pls 204, 205 and 211), a Guantai provenance is more likely also for that vase. This opinion has also been expressed by Qin Dashu in his essay ‘Baiyou tihua zhuangshide chansheng, fajue ji xiangguan wenti/The Origin and Development of White Slip Sgraffito Decoration and Related Issues’, Wenwu, 2000, no. 11, p. 70, where both examples are illustrated, p. 72, fig. 9 and p. 75, fig. 19.
A similar peony scroll is also found on a meiping covered in a lead-green glaze from the Eumorfopoulos collection in the British Museum, London, included in the exhibition Freedom of Clay and Brush through Seven Centuries in Northern China, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, 1980, cat. no. 94, where it is compared to a zun-shaped vase in the neutral colour scheme of the present vase, in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, fig. 276.
Due to increasing demand for attractive utilitarian ceramics, kilns making wares similar to Cizhou sprang up all around China during the Northern Song dynasty, and related wares were made, for example, by the Yezicun and Dongaikou kilns in Hebei province, the Dengfeng, Bacun, Lushan, Mixian and Dangyangyu kilns in Henan province, the Jiexiu kilns in Shanxi, and others.