This magnificent flask represents the height of ceramics production at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province during the Qianlong reign (1736-1795). It is an exceptional piece for its challenging shape as well as its massive size and would have required the highest technical skill of the craftsmen. The vessel is further striking for its rich decoration, which is exceedingly rare.
The exuberant display of auspicious messages on this moonflask, combining Buddhist and Daoist motifs as well as traditional Chinese wishes for happiness and longevity, interestingly reflects the Qing Court’s attitudes towards Buddhism, Daoism and Chinese culture. Essentially foreign to the Manchu rulers, they were all three fully embraced, promoted and observed. It is well known that the Qianlong Emperor was a fervent follower of Tibetan Buddhism, but Daoism also fell under his religious patronage. During his reign, worship took place at several Daoist altars in the palaces in Beijing and at the Yuanmingyuan. Daoist rites were equally performed as part of the Emperor’s birthday celebrations, together with Tibetan Buddhist and Chinese Buddhist rituals.
On the present piece, the auspicious symbols are superbly painted over the entire surface, yet seemingly in order of importance: Buddhist and Daoist emblems accompanied by shou characters as principal decoration, and bats among swirling clouds as Chinese good fortune signs around the edges, neck and foot.
The Wheel of the Law or dharmachakra prominently fills the main design, perfectly matching the vessel’s circular planes. Representing one of the Eight Buddhist Emblems (bajixiang), it is here shown with eight spokes, radiating from a hub with a large stylised shou character. Between the spokes are the attributes of the eight immortals consisting of the double gourd of Li Tieguai; the fan of Zhongli Quan; the flower basket of Lan Caihe; the rods of Zhang Guo; the lotus of He Xiangu; the sword of Lü Dongbin; the flute of Han Xiang and the castanets of Cao Guojiu.
This dazzingly festive composition is markedly different from the sedate ‘Eight Buddhist Emblems’ pattern of related moonflasks, and strongly suggests that the present piece was commissioned for a very specific occasion and person. In fact, in view of the many well-wishing symbols, it would have made an ideal and luxurious birthday gift.
If the geometrical arrangement dictated by the Dharma Wheel seems somewhat rigid, it is skilfully counterbalanced by the naturalistic depictions of the eight Daoist attributes, showing different kinds of shading in the leaves and flower petals, reminiscent of the early 15th-century blue and white painting style.
Early 15th-century blue and white pieces were indeed the inspiration of the current vessel. In shape, it was modelled after flasks of similarly large size, with an embellished convex side and embossed centre, and a flat unglazed back. These bianping or ‘flattened flasks’, designed to hold liquid, were hung vertically against the wall with a chain or strong ropes attached to small loops on their shoulder, or laid on their back, see for a Xuande period (1426-1435) example, Feng Xianming, ‘Yongle and Xuande Blue-and-White Porcelain in the Palace Museum’ in Chinese Ceramics. Selected Articles from Orientations 1982-2003, Hong Kong, 2004, pp. 172-186, fig. 19, and fig. 19a, a 13th-century Middle-Eastern brass prototype which was probably meant, with its slightly concave back, to be attached against the horse’s saddle.
It is interesting to note that contrary to the footless porcelain and brass prototypes, the present piece displays a prominent foot, which clearly shows a shift in functionality of such flasks from fluid container to decorative object for pure display.
The distinctive circular arrangement of auspicious motifs is reminiscent of a pattern seen on the interior of a Yongle period (1403-1424) blue and white basin from the Avery Brundage collection, see John Carswell, Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and Its Impact on the Western World, David and Alfred Smart Gallery, Chicago, 1985, cat. no. 28, where the bajixiang are painted within petals around a double vajra, and encircled with a keyfret band. The basin called qingshuiwan or ‘pure water bowl’ symbolising the purification of the heart, is believed to have been used in ritual Buddhist ceremonies.
Only two examples of this very rare design appear to be known, from the collection of Stephen W. Bushell, illustrated in W. Cosmo Monkhouse, A History and Description of Chinese Porcelain, London, New York, Melbourne, 1901, fig. 52; the other sold in our London rooms, 8th July 1975, lot 175, and subsequently in these rooms, 25th November 1981, lot 225.
For the more commonly known ‘Eight Buddhist Emblems’ moonflasks displaying the emblems within petals around a double vajra, see, for example, two pieces included in the exhibition catalogues Fu shou kang ning jixiang tu’an ciqi tezhan tulu/Good Fortune, Long Life, Health, and Peace: A Special Exhibition of Porcelains with Auspicious Designs, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1995, cat. no. 11; and Chūgoku sometsuke. Kobaruto burō no sekai/Chinese Porcelain in Underglaze Blue from the Nanjing Museum Collection, Sagawa Art Museum, Moriyama, Shiga Prefecture, 2003, cat. no. 78. Another example illustrated in Michel Beurdeley and Guy Raindre, Qing Porcelain. Famille Verte, Famille Rose 1644-1912, New York, 1987, pl. 154, from the collection of Edward T. Chow, was sold in these rooms, 19th May 1981, lot 544.
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