This drum-shaped vessel, probably made to contain chess (weiqi) pieces, is exquisitely potted, decorated, glazed and fired and, not surprisingly, exceedingly rare. The Yaozhou kilns at Huangpu, southwest of Tongchuan city in Shaanxi province, which had gained renown through their pale green vessels with deep, large-scale carving in the Five Dynasties period (907-960), became China’s major suppliers of high-quality celadon wares in the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). While they turned to producing bowls and dishes with incised or moulded designs on a vast scale, they also created a small number of vessels in other shapes, which were generally given particular attention and thus remained rare.
Comparisons to the present piece, with its charming applied florets to reproduce ‘drum nails’, are mainly found in the form of wasters discovered at the kiln site. One well-preserved box and cover recovered from the kiln site, of similar form and design, but with an additional foliate scroll around the centre, its glaze turned a very dark tone especially where it pooled, is published together with some chess pieces in Songdai Yaozhou yaozhi/The Yaozhou Kiln Site of the Song Period, Beijing, 1998, col. pl. XI’; also illustrated are fragments of boxes similar to the present piece or with additional carving, pl. LXXXIX, figs 1-3, and p. 332, fig. 167: 1-12; and similar covers, with applied or impressed florets, or lacking florets altogether, pl. XCIV, figs 3-5, and p. 346, fig. 172.
The complete example from the kiln site was included in the exhibition The Masterpieces of Yaozhou Ware, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1997, pl. 76, together with a miniature version from the collection of the Tokyo National Museum, cat. no. 77, and a later version with more yellowish glaze, attributed to the Jin dynasty (1115-1234), also excavated from the kiln site, pl. 89.
This type of covered box was copied by the Juntai kilns of Yuzhou, Henan province, which are better known for their bright blue Jun wares, which might explain differences in quality of some extant pieces. A small example from the Juntai kiln site, decorated with a diaper design around the centre, is illustrated in Henan Sheng Bowuguan [Henan Provincial Museum], Beijing, 1985, pl. 133; a related piece, carved with a foliate scroll, is published in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 1, pl. 422; and one from the Yang De Tang collection, carved with petals and with a yellowish glaze, was sold in our New York rooms, 17th March 2015, lot 62.