This pair of cups is an outstanding example of the high level of skill of porcelain artists working at Jingdezhen in the Kangxi period. Despite the small surface of the cups, the craftsman has successfully captured the drama of the scenes, which are taken from woodblock print illustrations and rendered in a famille-verte palette. A sense of dynamism is captured through the use of outlines which have been drawn in swift yet fine strokes, and attention is cleverly drawn to the central scene by rendering the figures in iron red.
The cups depict a scene from the play Xixiangji (Romance of the Western Chamber) compiled by Wang Shifu (1260-1336). In style the illustration echoes the celebrated works of the painter Chen Hongshou (1598-1652), who created multiple woodblock prints of the play from 1630. Scenes from popular literature are rarely found on Kangxi imperial porcelains, particularly on small vessels such as these cups. It is possible that a small group of wares were decorated with such narrative designs as another means of consolidating his right to the throne as a foreign ruler. Kangxi is known to have worked incessantly to understand China’s history, culture and achievements to gain and retain the respect necessary to rule over a predominantly Han-Chinese elite. Further small porcelain vessels decorated with figural scenes from literature include a cup also depicting a passage from Xixiangji, illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. 4, pt. II, London, 2010, pl. 1740, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 4th April 2012, lot 51; and a bowl rendered with a scene from the 14th century drama Han gong qiu (Autumn of the Han Palace) composed by Ma Zhiyuan (1250-1321), from the collection of Allen J. Mercher, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 6th April 2016, lot 3008.
With its narrow foot and tall flared sides, cups of this form were first created in the Jiajing reign (1522-1566) and produced in a small number during the Kangxi period with various designs; a doucai cup with mountains and river, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is published in Qingdai yuyao ciqi, vol. 1, pt. 1, Beijing, 2005, pl. 76; and another decorated with a landscape in underglaze blue, in the Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, is illustrated in Kangxi Porcelain Wares from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Shanghai, 1998, pl. 29. For the Jiajing prototype, see one painted with rams in cobalt, included in the exhibition The Fame of Flame. Imperial Wares of the Jiajing and Wanli Periods, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2009, cat. no. 12; and a yellow-glazed version of larger size, from the Sir Percival David collection and now in the British Museum, London, included in Illustrated Catalogue of Ming and Qing Monochrome Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 1989, no. A 595.