From the Yongzheng reign, treasured antiquities were sent to the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen to be copied and the Qianlong Emperor increased such commissions. Underglaze blue porcelains of the early Ming dynasty were particularly appreciated, as evidenced in Tang Ying’s record of official porcelain from 1732, which lists copies both of Yongle and Xuande blue and white wares. While the auspicious motif on this vase first appeared in the Hongwu reign, it is most likely that the Qing version was based on a Yongle prototype, such as a vase in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 33. The arrangement of flowers and rocks, the depiction of lappets and the scroll band at the neck, as well as the small lotus flowers at the foot are very similar.
Scenes of sophisticated gardens with fantastic rocks, bamboo, banana trees and other plants began to be painted on blue and white porcelain during the Yuan dynasty, where the motif proved most popular among a Middle Eastern audience who was attracted by the exotic nature of these plants. In the Ming dynasty, the design took a highly symbolic character and embodied the qualities and virtues of the scholar. Bamboo symbolises longevity, endurance and loyalty, as it remains green in winter and does not break in the wind. Rocks symbolise durability and steadfastness and are associated with reliability and friendship. Plantain leaves on the other hand, are one of the fourteen treasures of the scholar and represent education and self-cultivation. Banana leaves were used for practicing calligraphy by famous historical figures and poets, including Huaisu (c. 735-c.799). The Qianlong Emperor himself is portrayed writing on a banana leaf as Prince Hongli in the anonymous painting Prince Hongli Practicing Calligraphy on a Banana Leaf, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in the exhibition China: The Tree Emperors 1662-1795, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, cat. no. 187.
A closely related vase in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is illustrated in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum. Blue and White Wares of the Ch’ing Dynasty, vol. II, Hong Kong, 1968, pl. 12; one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Zhongguo taoci quanji [Complete series on Chinese ceramics], vol. 15, Shanghai, 2000, pl. 12; another was sold in our New York rooms, 20th March 1976, lot 174, and again at Christie’s New York, 17th September 2008, lot 459; and a fourth example was sold Christie’s Hong Kong, 30th May 2006, lot 1410, and again in these rooms, 8th October 2010, lot 2773.
Vases of this design were made from the Yongzheng reign through the Xuantong period; a closely related vase is illustrated together with examples from the Yongzheng, Daoguang, Xianfeng and Tongzhi reigns in the Shanghai Museum in Lu Minghua, Qingdai Yongzheng – Xuantong guanyao ciqi [Qing dynasty official wares from the Yongzheng to the Xuantong reigns], Shanghai, 2014, pls 3-107 and 3-32.
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