In the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), when the Yongle Emperor’s (r. 1403-1424) diplomatic missions to the Near and Middle East and to Africa were only distant episodes recorded in historic chronicles, a piece such as this must have seemed highly exotic at court. Clearly exhibiting all the cherished characteristics of Chinese porcelain from the early Ming period (1368-1644), but of intriguing shape and decoration, it was undoubtedly an object of wonder in the Qing imperial collection. It is not surprising that an astute observer such as the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) was fascinated by what he called a ‘bottomless jar’ (wudangzun) and attributed to the Xuande period (1426-1435). He not only composed two poems about vessels of this type and had the porcelain copied by the imperial kilns, but the Zaobanchu records for the year Qianlong 36 (1771) state that he also commissioned a wooden stand to be made for such a piece, that in 1772 a zitan stand was submitted and he ordered it to be inscribed with one of his poems. The poem in question is probably the following (translated by Dr Richard John Lynn; fig. 1):
Song for a Xuande Ware Bottomless Jar
Second only to guan and Ru wares,
it’s the Xuande and Chenghua that are praised,
For as age succeeded age,
though the making became finer,
Just as skill involved for wheeled carriages
One may want to recover the start,
but, alas, who ever can!
This piece basically emulates
zun vessels and lei wine jars,
But why is it made without a bottom,
impossible to hold water!
Now, don’t say this means
We should be criticised,
As when Tang Xigong had the occasion
to confront Marquis Zhao,
Who belittled a pottery goblet and
so valued the glitter of a jade,
Whose liquid when poured leaked out,
unable to hold it at all.
Then, he used the pottery one
and just set the jade one aside.
That its three folds integrate nicely,
does this surprise or not?
Though the porcelain is without a mark,
We provide it with a title.
The copper lining held inside
brings green malachite to life,
On the base of which “Xuande” is inscribed,
for the lining is from the “Great Ming”.
Fitting together as do inner and outer garment,
as close as elder and younger brother,
Though several hundred years have passed.
these join well together.
Since it is treasured as a numinous object,
trust that Our words are sincere:
Not only can it store water,
it holds flowers as well,
So as the meaning of Our gentle words unravel,
may they calm all the six emotions.
Here, the Emperor alludes to a story in Han Feizi (Sayings of Master Han Fei), where Marquis Zhao, ruler of Han, 362-333 BC, is being asked ‘Now, here is a white jade goblet without a bottom, and a pottery goblet with a bottom. Which one, my Lord, will you use to drink?. . . . To be a ruler and yet let the good words of his ministers leak away is just like having a jade goblet that lacks a bottom’.
Again, according to the Zaobanchu records, in 1775, the Emperor asked for the cloisonné liner of a piece such as this to be replaced with a new one. His second poem may have been composed for this piece, since in it he relates that a Jingtai style (i.e. cloisonné) liner was used, since no Xuande bronze example could be found.
Later entries, from the Daoguang period (1820-1850), which refer to a blue-and-white wudangzun flower vessel with a zitan stand, or a wudangzun flower vessel with a copper liner and zitan stand, suggest that these pieces were actively used in the palace, not as stands but, fitted with liners, as flower vases.
When the Yongle Emperor sent massive fleets to ports all over Asia and as far as East Africa and also dispatched overland expeditions to the Middle East, to showcase China’s supremacy internationally, he distributed huge quantities of fine silks and porcelains to foreign lands. Of course, the exchange was not one-sided, as the court received foreign goods in return, and Chinese craftsmen came in contact with foreign styles and tastes. The imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, which were under complete court control and produced only to imperial order, created many new styles, among them a series of vessels in the shapes of Persian, Syrian or Egyptian metal prototypes, such as the present stand. Curiously, however, the majority of these vessels never seem to have reached any foreign destination: of the six known companion pieces to this stand, only one can be traced to Syria, while the other five are preserved in China.
Among this famous group of early Ming porcelains in foreign metal shapes, stands such as the present piece are among the rarest. That they are so well known is not due to a large number of extant examples, but probably because they are so memorable. It is not only the shape that is unique; it is also highly unusual to find Arabic inscriptions on porcelains of this period, and even the supporting borders chosen to accompany them are very special.
Metal stands of this form were made under Mamluk rule in Egypt or Syria, particularly in the first half of the fourteenth century. Generally considerably larger, they were used to support trays. They tend to be made of brass and are inlaid in gold and silver with bands of Arabic writing embedded in thin abstract scrollwork and interspersed with formal roundels. On the metal versions, the decoration tends to completely fill the surface, with no space left blank. On one example, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (fig. 2), the roundels show similar scrollwork as the porcelain version, but they are aligned on the two bands; on other stands, such as one illustrated in James W. Allan, Islamic Metalwork: the Nuhad Es-Said Collection, London, rev.ed. 1999 (1982), pl. 19, the roundels are filled with inscriptions, but are spaced at a 90 degree angle, as they are on the present piece.
While Middle Eastern shapes were reproduced in some number in the Yongle period, Persian or Arabic inscriptions are rare on early Ming imperial porcelain. The inscriptions on the Mamluk metal stands relate the names or titles of high-ranking dignitaries or rulers, probably the stands’ owners, and eulogies on their virtues. On the porcelain versions, the inscriptions are no longer legible, but it is exceptional that they are copying texts of a secular nature rather than Islamic incantations, as the much more frequent Arabic inscriptions on later porcelains, particularly those of the Zhengde (1506-1521) period. Possibly the only other Yongle design with Arabic writing are small mantouxin bowls, which do not seem to copy metal vessels, and which show illegible bands of Arabic around the rim. Two such bowls were included in the exhibition Shi yu xin: Mingdai Yongle huangdi de ciqi/Pleasingly Pure and Lustrous: Porcelains from the Yongle Reign (1403-1424) of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2017, pp. 148-9; another from the Edward T. Chow, T.Y. Chao and S.C. Ko collections, was published in Chinese Porcelain. The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, pl. 17, and sold twice in these rooms, 25th November 1980, lot 4, and 18th November 1986, lot 41.
Of the supporting designs, particularly the cobalt-rich borders on the upper and lower rims of these stands are noteworthy. They are formed of slender loop motifs with a fine, toothed border around the inner edge, creating very delicate white reserves that evoke openwork. They were clearly challenging to render with a brush and may also have been inspired by Arab design. The slanting mirrored petal-panel border around the centre is also unusual, while the small floral sprigs under the rim are rare, but appear similarly under the everted rims of basins in the shape of Mamluk metal prototypes, such as the examples in the National Palace Museum illustrated in Shi yu xin., op.cit., pp. 129-135.
Six other stands of the present design appear to be recorded, all today in museum collections: A stand in the Palace Museum, Beijing, from the ancient Qing court collection, is illustrated in Geng Baochang, ed., Gugong Bowuyuan cang Ming chu qinghua ci [Early Ming blue-and-white porcelain in the Palace Museum], Beijing, 2002, vol. 1, pl. 29 (fig. 3), together with a Qianlong copy, vol. 2, pl. 212; another is kept in the Summer Palace, Beijing (Zhou Shangyun, 'Yiheyuan cangci jingshang [Highlights of the ceramic collection of the Summer Palace]', Forbidden City, 2008, vol. 5, p.92 top).
A stand in the Tianjin Municipal Museum is illustrated in Tianjin Shi Yishu Bowuguan cang ci/Porcelains from the Tianjin Municipal Museum, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 79, where it is stated that copies were made in the Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong reigns; an example in the Shanghai Museum, is published in Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan zangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections : A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 3-23; and one that had been collected in the Xingtai region by the Hebei Cultural Relics Shop, as recorded in Wenwu 1994, no. 1, p.73, is now apparently in the Folk Art Museum of Hebei Province (Minjian cang zhen: Hebei Sheng Minsu Bowuguan cang ciqi jingpin [Highlights of the ceramic collection of the Folk Art Museum of Hebei Province], Shijiazhuang, 2006, pp. 20-21).
A very similar stand in the British Museum, London, acquired by its former owner, Dr Joseph Aractingi in Damascus and first published in John Carswell, ‘An Early Ming Porcelain Stand from Damascus’, Oriental Art, New Series, vol. XII, no. 3, autumn 1966, p. 176, is now in the British Museum, illustrated in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, no. 3:22, together with a Mamluk silver-inlaid brass stand of similar shape, p. 110, fig. 1. Harrison-Hall remarks on the “very dark blue blurred cobalt tones”, which characterise the British Museum stand – as they do the present piece and similarly at least also the Palace Museum, Shanghai Museum and Hebei Museum examples.
Fragmentary pieces of this form have been discovered at the waste heaps of the Ming imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi both in the Yongle stratum, but apparently only in plain white, and in the Xuande stratum, in blue-and-white but inscribed with the imperial reign mark. No complete example of either of these two versions appears to be preserved; for the former see Imperial Porcelains from the Reigns of Hongwu and Yongle in the Ming Dynasty, Beijing, 2015, no. 115; for the latter Jingdezhen chutu Ming Xuande guanyao ciqi/Xuande Imperial Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, p. 121, fig. F 14 (fig. 4); and both juxtaposed in Liu Xinyuan, ‘Imperial Export Porcelain from Late Yuan to Early Ming’, Oriental Art, vol. XLV, no. 3, Autumn 1999, p. 52, figs 12 a and b.
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