Considering the proficiency achieved by Chinese artisans working with glass since the Bronze Age, it remains one of art history’s great surprises that glass did not become more widely used in Chinese society. Chinese glass from before the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) is exceedingly rare, and the present piece, which is unique, would seem to represent one of the finest examples preserved.
Chinese potters had worked with glass-like glazes since the early Bronze Age, and in the later Bronze Age glass artisans quickly learned to copy foreign glass ‘eye beads’, that is, beads inlaid with complex eye patterns in different colours that had arrived from Central or Western Asia. They also fashioned custom-made polychrome glass plaques with similar patterns to be inlaid into bronze vessels and smaller bronze items, thereby creating some of the most desirable luxury goods of the time.
After these promising beginnings, the medium had a less successful interim period in the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220). One of the reasons that glass did not experience the meteoritic rise in popularity one might have expected, may be that its quality as a medium in its own right was not fully realised. Instead, its usefulness as a suitable material to simulate jade and other precious or semi-precious stones was discovered, which thus could be replaced by a cheaper alternative. Although the use of glass became more wide-spread, this usage as a substitute of more precious materials temporarily very likely reduced its appreciation and prestige.
A new chapter began with the significant influx of Central Asian and Middle Eastern foreigners, their goods and their tastes via the Silk Route, particularly in the Nanbeichao period (Southern and Northern Dynasties, 420-589) and the centuries thereafter. Glass vessels were among the luxuries brought across the Central Asian desert from Iran, Syria and other parts of the Roman Empire, and these new transparent vessels, seemingly insubstantial, yet fully functional, were greatly admired. Glass achieved an elevated status and was produced in China once more, inspired by the technology imported by foreign artisans.
Occasional references in contemporary texts attest to its preciousness. In Jin shu [History of the Jin dynasty], for example, one biography states about the person “The emperor’s favours were often bestowed on his house He was supplied with abundant food, all stored inside glass vessels” (An Jiayao, ‘Glass Vessels and Ornaments of the Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties Periods’, in Cecilia Braghin, ed., Chinese Glass. Archaeological Studies on the Uses and Social Context of Glass Artefacts from the Warring States to the Northern Song Period, Orientalia Venetiana XIV, Florence, 2002, p. 58).
The material and the secrets of its manufacture were long shrouded in mystery, which undoubtedly contributed to its aura. The fourth-century Daoist scholar and alchemist Ge Hong stated “In foreign countries … people make bowls of glass (lit. rock crystal, shui ching [shui jing]) by combining five sorts of ash. Nowadays in our southern coastal provinces, Chiaochow [Jiaozhou] and Kuangchow [Guangzhou], many have obtained knowledge of this art, and engage in such a smelting to produce it… But when they speak of it (as rock crystal) ordinary people will not believe them, saying that rock crystal is a substance found only in Nature … belonging to the category of jade … He who has seen little, marvels much – that is the way of the world.” (Joseph Needham with Lu Gwei-Djen, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 5: Chemistry and Chemical Technology, part II: Spagyrical Discovery and Invention: Magisteries of Gold and Immortality, Cambridge, 1974, p. 64).
Even throughout the Tang (618-907), glass seems to have remained rare and was not much used in daily life, not even at court, but appears to have been largely reserved for use in a Buddhist context. Although Schafer talks about several foreign missions bringing gifts of glass to the Tang court in Chang’an, and even states that Emperor’s Xuanzong’s (r. 713-756) notorious concubine Yang Guifei is reputed to have drunk grape wine from a glass cup, that cup was apparently decorated with the Seven Teasures of Buddhism (Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand, Berkeley/Los Angeles, 1963, p. 143 and pp. 234-6).
In her study of the Silk Road, Susan Whitfield states: “During the Chinese Tang and Northern Song periods (618-907 and 960-1127 respectively), glass was still little known in China, and used almost exclusively by Buddhist communities. Glass was cherished because of its origin in the west, like Buddhism, and for its transparency, which was associated with purity. Glass was also regarded as one of the Seven Treasures of the Buddhist Paradise, hence an appropriate material for offerings and religious accessories. Glass vessels in Buddhist stupas served two different purposes: they were used as reliquaries, to hold the precious remains of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni and important monks; or they were given as offerings by devotees.” (Susan Whitfield, The Silk Road, Trade, Travel, War and Faith, London, 2004, p. 157).
The Tang dynasty and the centuries proceeding it saw an unequalled flowering of the Buddhist doctrine, which exerted a major influence on all strata of Chinese society right up to the court. In spite of repeated controversies that unfolded around the growing popularity of this religion, the increasing riches of temples and the explosion of the number of monasteries, Buddhism continued to grow in popularity. Emperors, who had a much closer affinity to Daoism and undertook repeated efforts to curtail the expansion of the Buddhist religion, such as Emperor Xuanzong, for example, were nevertheless fascinated and attracted by Esoteric Buddhism with its mystical practices, as was Tang aristocracy in general. Even the radical prosecution of Buddhists in 845 only seems to have sparked off a temporary setback, of fairly short duration, for Buddhist beliefs.
Glass vessels have been found in various Buddhist contexts, in sarira (Buddha relic) tombs, in pagoda foundations, in Buddhist cave temples, and are depicted not only in many wall paintings at Buddhist cave temples, particularly in Dunhuang in Gansu province, but also on Buddhist textile banners of silk or hemp found there and elsewhere. Takashi Taniichi has been able to locate over eighty glass vessels in wall paintings of fifty Dunhuang caves, dating from the Sui (581-618) to the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), in form of cups and stemmed cups, dishes, bowls and deep bowls, as well as bottles (Takashi Taniichi, ‘Roman and Post-Roman Glass Vessels Depicted in Asian Wall Paintings’, Orient, vol. 22, 1986, pp. 128-142).
Glass vessels are generally shown seemingly empty, that is, perhaps meant to be filled with holy water, but are also shown holding lotus stems. They are generally held by Bodhisattvas, sometimes also by the Buddha, and occasionally by his disciples. Their transparency is often very effectively rendered, with the hands holding the vessel being completely shown, including parts behind or underneath the object. This total transparency gave glass vessels something miraculous. Joseph Needham states that even in the Tang, naturalists still entertained the idea that they consisted of water or ice which had concreted after thousands of years in the earth (Joseph Needham, with Wang Ling and Kenneth Girdwood Robinson, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 4: Physics and Physical Technology, part I: Physics, Cambridge, 1962, p. 106).
Susan Whitfield (op.cit.) talks particularly about foreign glass, mainly imported from Iran, since Chinese glass was so much rarer; and a silk banner of the late ninth century in the collection of the British Museum clearly shows a Bodhisattva holding a globular facetted bowl of foreign design, probably of Sasanian workmanship (Roderick Whitfield and Anne Farrer, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. Chinese Art from the Silk Route, the British Museum, London, 1990, cat. no. 39) (fig. 1). Similar facetted bowls have been excavated in China and included, for example, in the exhibition China. Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004-5, cat. nos 65 and 117).
Most Buddhist paintings, however, depict glass vessels of more neutral shapes, which could be of local manufacture. A kneeling Bodhisattva holding a large globular bowl, probably of glass, can be seen, for example, in a wall painting of cave 334, dating from the early Tang period (Zhongguo shiku. Dunhuang Mogaoku [Grottoes of China. The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang], Beijing, 1987, vol. 3, pl. 79) (fig. 2); one of Buddha’s disciples is depicted with a blue glass bowl in cave 57, also of the early Tang (op.cit., vol. 3, pl. 12); a mid-Tang wall painting in cave 112 depicts a Bodhisattva with a lotus flower in a glass cup (op.cit., vol. 4, pl. 57); and a Bodhisattva holding a glass dish appears in a painted silk banner of the late eighth/first half ninth century (Jacques Giès, ed., Les arts de l’Asie centrale. La collection Paul Pelliot du musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet, Paris, 1995, vol. 2, no. 27).
The technique of glass blowing was transmitted to China through foreigners and led to glass vessels of high quality to be produced in China. As An Jiayao states (China. Dawn of a Golden Age, op.cit., p.58) “Except for the making of glass itself, glassblowing is the most significant invention in the history of glass production.” What makes blown glass shapes like that seen here so fascinating, is that they seem to capture and retain, as if frozen in time, the fluidity of the material at the moment of their creation. When the present bowl was blown, the huge glass bubble created its own distinctive, slightly undulating outline, as the material was slightly sagging due to its own weight. The craftsmanship in blowing such a huge vessel is remarkable and clearly did not constitute an every-day task for the artisan who created it.
Actual glass vessels of the Tang dynasty are few and far between and no example approaching the monumentality of the present piece appears to have been published. One of the most important pieces would seem to be a large (29 cm) stem tray, whose use in ceremonies in the Tōdai-ji, Nara, is recorded for the year 752. It is preserved in the Shōsō-in, Nara, the storehouse of the personal belongings of Emperor Shōmu (r. 724-749), whose personal effects were donated to the Great Buddha at Tōdai-ji Although according to Ellen Johnston Laing, there are different opinions as to its provenance, its shape so closely replicates contemporary Chinese ceramic forms, that a Chinese origin would seem most likely. The yellowish tone of the glass seems to be similar to that of the present bowl, and it shows a similar domed centre, caused by the way it was blown or removed from the blowpipe (Shen Congwen, Boli shihua/History of Glassware, ed. Li Zhitan, Shenyang, 2004, p. 166; and Ellen Johnston Laing, ‘A Report on Western Asian Glassware in the Far East’, Bulletin of the Asia Institute, New Series, vol. 5, 1991, p. 117, fig. 22).
Sometime before 874, exquisite glass vessels, both of foreign origin and of utterly Chinese shape and make, were selected by the imperial household to be donated to the Famen Temple near Xi’an, one of the Empire’s most important temples, since it held a Buddha bone, one of the holiest Buddhist relics. Several times during the Tang dynasty was this bone transported with great pomp to the imperial palace and, after a short stay there, returned to the Temple in a lavish procession together with rich imperial gifts. The imperial donations it received were clearly chosen for their sumptuousness and rarity, representing the best to be had. Besides large quantities of gold and silver, silk brocades, and the finest ‘secret colour’ (mi se) porcelains, the Tang emperors’ gifts included twenty pieces of foreign and Chinese glass. Among them is a light blue glass dish with a similar emphasised lip and domed centre with corresponding pontil mark on the base (fig. 3). A bowl with straight sides (fig. 4) and the famous tea cup and cup stand, which is obviously of Chinese workmanship, all have a similar yellowish tint as the present bowl (Famensi kaogu fajue baogao/Report of Archaeological Excavation at Famen Temple, Beijing, 2007, vol. 1, p. 212, fig. 141: 1 and p. 218, fig. 145: 2, and vol. 2, col. pls 182, 189: 1 and 191: 2).
While no close glass comparison for this shape can be cited, ceramic vessels of this alms bowl shape were created already before the Tang dynasty, for example, by the Xingtai kilns of Hebei in the Sui dynasty (Xingtai Suidai Xing yao [The Xing kilns of the Sui dynasty at Xingtai], Beijing, 2006, pp. 69-73 and col. pl. 4).
Paul Houo-Ming-Tse [Huo Mingzhi, alias Paul Houo] (1880?-1949?), the former owner of this bowl, was an orphan, who grew up in Tianjin where he was educated by French missionaries. In 1906 he became a dealer in antiques and curios and opened his Ta-kou-tchai [Daguzhai, Studio for Understanding Antiquity] store in Beijing. Dealing in a very wide array of antiques, many of them procured in Shanxi province, he quickly gained knowledge and expertise in many different fields. He aimed at being seen as a scholar and to teach his clients, both about genuine articles and forgeries, a subject he also published a small book about, both in Chinese and French. In 1932 he sold part of his collection, including the present bowl, at Hôtel Drouot in Paris, and another part through J.C. Morgenthau & Co in New York, where concurrently he exhibited a group of fakes for educational purposes (see Susan Naquin, ‘Paul Houo, A Dealer in Antiquities in Early Twentieth Century Peking’, Études chinoises, Revue de l’Association française d’études chinoises, vol. XXXIV, no. 2, 2015, pp. 203-244).
André Portier (?-1963) founded Cabinet Portier & Associés, an appraisal firm for Asian art still in existence today in Paris, as part of the company Henri Portier & Co, who since the 19th century specialised in the import of silk from East Asia. In 1908, André Portier organised his first sale of Chinese art. Japanese prints and ceramics from his collection were sold through Beaussant Lefèvre and Christie’s at Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 21st June 2016, and the catalogue contains the following statement by his three grandsons: “We have learnt to love Asian art with our grandfather, André Portier, not having known Henri Portier, our great-grandfather. In his apartment, 9 rue Vignon, right under the flat of Jean Cocteau and Jean Marais, a room was dedicated to Asia. This room was opened to us when we were still very young, a museum where touching the objects was allowed. Japanese and Chinese legends came to life in the stories told by our grandfather and through these Asian objects that we could manipulate as we pleased.”
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