In histories of Chinese ceramics, the three short early Ming reigns of Zhengtong, Jingtai, and Tianshun, from 1436 to 1464, had long been omitted. Since the period was politically tumultuous and unstable, and no verifiable pieces with imperial marks from these reigns are known, ceramic specialists in China call it the ‘blank’ or ‘dark period’ (kongbaiqi, heianqi) and in the West, the ‘Interregnum’. Although several literary references attest to the contrary, it has generally been thought that for these nearly three decades in the mid-fifteenth century the imperial kilns were not in use; and even pieces considered as minyao, such as porcelains from dated tombs or pagoda foundations, did not lead to a proper recognition of Jingdezhen’s activity during that period.
Excavations at the imperial kiln site of Zhushan in Jingdezhen have now provided tangible evidence of an imperial production of porcelains during these reigns, which has suddenly focused unprecedented scholarly attention on this period. After a first exhibition devoted to this subject at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2012, further exhibitions have more recently been organized in Shenzhen, at the Palace Museum, Beijing, once more in Hong Kong, in Jingdezhen and at the Shanghai Museum (the latter continuing until 1st September 2019).
Although the stratigraphy of the site at Zhushan in Jingdezhen appears to be less clear than one would wish and does not allow for differentiation of pieces from the three reigns, it seems that the kilns were quite active in the Zhengtong (1436-1449) and Tianshun (1457-1464) periods and perhaps less so in the Jingtai reign (1450-1456), when cloisonné enamels may have been preferred. The excavations have, however, given most welcome insights into the kind of wares produced in the imperial workshops. Although no reign marks have been discovered and the imperial kilns seem to have been far less productive than before, in the Xuande period (1426-1435), and afterwards, in the Chenghua reign (1465-1487), the variety of wares they created is remarkable and many styles are highly original. Pieces from this period, which had entered the Qing Court Collection and are still in the Palace Museum, Beijing, had already been published (The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, Shanghai, 2000, vol. 1, pls 180 and 186); and a symposium held by the Shanghai Museum to coincide with the exhibition there has shown that Interregnum pieces from the imperial collection, so far unpublished, are also held in the National Palace Museum, Taipei.
Fragments of very similar figure-decorated vases and jars recovered from the Ming imperial kiln site at Zhushan, Jingdezhen, have been included in the exhibition Lustre Revealed. Jingdezhen Porcelain Wares in Mid Fifteenth Century China, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2019, cat. no. 200 (fig. 1). The relationship between such pieces from the imperial kilns, guanyao, and those from civilian kilns, minyao, are, however still somewhat obscure. Two related meiping with figure designs in the same catalogue, one excavated from a princely tomb in Guilin, the other also in the Guilin Museum, nos 202 and 203, are presented as perhaps representing gifts from the court, while others are classified as pieces in literati style from civilian kilns, namely nos 235-8, from the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, the Shanghai Museum, the Tianjin Museum and the Shaoxing Museum.
These meiping as well as several figure-decorated guan jars in the exhibition, cat. nos 227-234, all share the same distinct painting style: the outdoor settings are characterized by freely sketched vegetation and dramatic ‘draperies’ of convoluted clouds encompassing the figures, and often, agitated movement of hair and clothing, with fluttering ribbons, hems and sleeves, suggests a wind-blown location – an idiosyncratic style that is peculiar to this period and not found earlier or later.
The present meiping is a very characteristic piece of the mid-fifteenth century, when a deep cobalt blue was often used, seemingly applied in a fairly liquid state with a thick brush, as is particularly apparent at the banana-leaf border around the base. The free painting manner seen on many interregnum pieces, as well as many shapes and designs, obviously revive styles popular during the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). In that period, Jingdezhen produced many spectacular figure-decorated meiping and guan jars painted with scenes from Yuan drama. In the Yuan, such scenes can mostly be identified, and illustrations featuring a lady and her maid often depict the heroine of the Xixiangji (‘Romance of the Western Chamber’), Cui Yingying and her maid Hongniang. Although the lady depicted on our meiping, with her attendant bringing a book, cannot definitely be interpreted in this way, the scene clearly refers to this or similar stories that became popular as plays.
The present meiping comes from a Japanese collection. Seemingly the first – and for a long time the only – specialist to interest himself in porcelains such as this was the Japanese scholar Kushi Takushin. As early as 1943 he published and discussed a series of related figure-decorated guan jars (Shina Minsho tōji zukan [Illustrated catalogue of Chinese porcelain of the early Ming], Tokyo, 1943, pls 30-42). He not only remarked on their similarity to Yuan porcelains, but even argued that the customary dating in the West to the Hongzhi reign (1488-1505) is far too late and a date closer to Xuande should be more appropriate.
In the West, the three reigns were first properly acknowledged by John Alexander Pope, who coined the term ‘ceramic Interregnum’ for this period and discussed it at some length in print (Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington D. C., 1956, pp. 101-105). The term was probably adapted from its usage for the historical Interregnum (‘between the reigns’) of the Jingtai Emperor, whose reign intervened in that of his brother, who ruled under two mottos, Zhengtong and Tianshun. Pope, however, did not dare to attribute a flower-decorated meiping painted in a similar style as the present piece to the Interregnum, although he illustrates it together with two pieces painted in a loose Xuande style, which he offers as candidates (pl. 56).
Geng Baochang (Ming Qing ciqi jianding [Appraisal of Ming and Qing porcelain], Hong Kong, 1993) attributes a figure-decorated guan jar with very similar borders around neck, shoulder and foot to the Zhengtong period (pl. 126), other related jars to the Jingtai reign (pls 131 and 132), and further meiping and guan jars to Tianshun (pls 139, 141-144, 146), all being similarly painted in this ‘wind-swept’ style and featuring the same voluminous curly clouds.
The present vase comes from the fabled collection of Chinese ceramics and other works of art assembled by R.H.R. Palmer (1898-1970) and his wife, who started collecting in 1924. As esteemed members of the Oriental Ceramic Society, they lent to many of the Society’s exhibitions. The collection was particularly strong in Ming blue-and-white porcelains, many of which were sold at Sotheby’s over the years. In 1962, the present vase was sold, together with a companion piece of very similar shape and decoration, but with a key-fret border at the neck, as ‘early 15th century’; in 1968, the dating was changed to ‘late 15th century’ (fig. 2).
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale