Almost no other blue-and-white design of the Xuande reign (1426-1435) represented such a perfect vehicle for Jingdezhen’s potters to show off their prowess like this stem bowl and its rare companions. No previous or later porcelains have documented in any comparable way the artisans’ newly acquired ability to play with cobalt tones at will, to mix and fire them so precisely that they evoke exactly the desired effects: an impressive deep royal blue to convey majestic and powerful animals contrasting with the subtlest shades of pale blue to suggest sweet, unthreatening waters. The efforts to create distinctive tones of cobalt blue were clearly following the tradition of ink painting, where depth, emphasis and even drama were always invoked through simple shades of black and grey.
And as if this was not admirable enough, the imperial kilns conjured up another trick, the still mysterious technique of creating a design that is hidden, anhua, and not obvious to the casual viewer, but takes some effort to be seen – a technique never successfully replicated in later periods. Since in the Xuande reign, the interest at court in the artefacts from Jingdezhen’s imperial kilns had finally been fully aroused, the potters now strove not only to justify the attention they received, but to amplify it. To go to the extreme lengths of adding highly complex decoration that is all but invisible can have no other reason than trying to engage the Emperor directly with the porcelains delivered to the court, to get him to handle them, to look at them closely, to make him actively aware of the virtuosity of Jingdezhen’s artisans, in short, to impress him.
The Xuande Emperor continued the patronage of the Tibetan Buddhist clergy, their monasteries and temples, which the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424) had initiated on a grand scale. Stem bowls appear to have been used in Buddhist rituals and placed on Buddhist altars. Many stem bowls of this form, mainly in monochrome white, are known from the Yongle period and many different designs were commissioned by the Xuande Emperor. Those decorated with imperial five-clawed dragons and inscribed with the imperial reign mark left no doubt about the pious imperial donor who was thus immortalised. A number of stem bowls almost certainly bestowed by these two Emperors are still preserved in Tibet today, for example, in the Sakya (Sa-skya) Monastery in Xigaze (Shigatse) and in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, see the exhibition catalogue Xueyu cangzhen. Xizang wenwu jinghua/Treasures from Snow Mountains. Gems of Tibetan Cultural Relics, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2001, cat. nos 93-97, which include a white Yongle example with incised dragons and a Xuande stem bowl with blue five-clawed dragons and polychrome lotus.
The present design is known from only three other pieces, all of Xuande mark and period, and four other examples of a close variant are recorded, most of them in museum collections. A very similar piece in the Capital Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Shoudu Bowuguan cang ci xuan [Selection of porcelains from the Capital Museum], Beijing, 1991, pl. 101; another in the National Museum of China, Beijing, is published in Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan guancang wenwu yanjiu congshu / Studies on the Collections of the National Museum of China. Ciqi juan [Porcelain section]: Mingdai [Ming dynasty], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 40; and a third, from the Meiyintang collection and included in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1662, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th April 1997, lot 71 and in these rooms, 4th April 2012, lot 29.
A variant of the design has fewer rocks around the foot and a narrow border of curly ripples instead; a piece of that pattern in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is published in Mingdai Xuande yuyao ciqi/Imperial Porcelains from the Reign of Xuande in the Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2015, pl. 28 (fig. 1); one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is illustrated in Mingdai Xuande guanyao jinghua tezhan tulu /Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsüan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 108 (fig. 2); one, with the anhua inside either lacking or virtually invisible, is in the Musée Guimet, Paris, from the Grandidier collection, see Xavier Besse, La Chine des porcelaines, Paris, 2004, pl. 11; and another from the Xiling collection, at times on display at the Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, was sold twice in these rooms, 28th April 1992, lot 32, and 9th October 2007, lot 1552, and once at Christie’s Hong Kong 30th November 2016, lot 3310, and is illustrated on the dust jacket of the Xiling collection catalogue (Xiling Collection, n.p., 2011, cat. no. 15).
Stem bowls with deep blue dragons on pale blue waves were also made with a larger number of smaller dragons; see a piece with five animals in the British Museum, London, in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 4:14; another in Taiwan included in the Museum’s 1998 exhibition, op.cit., cat. no. 109; for one with nine dragons in Toronto see Royal Ontario Museum. The T.T. Tsui Galleries of Chinese Art, Toronto, 1996, pl. 104.
A similar effect, using softly shaded waves as a backdrop, was also employed on other shapes and designs; a dish with two similar blue dragons among waves on the outside, and a single blue and two anhua dragons inside is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, also included in the Museum’s Xuande exhibition 1998, op.cit., cat. no. 187, together with a stem cup with fabulous sea creatures among pale waves, cat. no. 74, both of Xuande mark and period. Fragmentary stem cups with fabulous sea creatures, and bowls with fish among water plants, both with pale wave backgrounds, have been excavated from the kiln site at Jingdezhen and included in the exhibition Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi /Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. nos 51-1 and 102-1.
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