Ge ware is one of the most enigmatic wares in Chinese ceramic history. Its origin has been and still is shrouded in mystery. It is, nevertheless, one of the five great ceramic wares of the Song dynasty (960-1279), together with Ru, Ding, Jun and guan ware. Yet, its original kiln remains up till now undiscovered. Moreover, there are no surviving historical records of the Song dynasty about ge. With few pieces known to have survived from the Song period, rarity makes ge ware extremely precious.
The history of ge ware is closely linked to the movements of the Song dynasty court. When in 1127, the Song capital in nowadays Kaifeng in Henan province, was invaded by the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty (1115-1234), the Song court fled to the south and established a new capital in Hangzhou, in Zhejiang province. Thus, started the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). To emulate their lost past, the potters who had followed the court, modelled their products on the northern precursors with the famous Ru ware as foremost example. With time, depending on different geographical circumstances, local characteristic features were incorporated.
Among these southern wares, the most distinctive were the green wares with a crackled glaze, guan and ge, often mentioned in classical Chinese literature. While guan is known from Song dynasty records, ge is not. Perhaps due to this lack of information, literary texts of later periods discussed ge ware in a rather elusive way. The earliest reference to ge ware dates from a late Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) text titled Zhizheng Zhiji [A Faithful Record of the Zhizheng period (1342-68)] of Kong Qi (see Li Huibing, ‘A Re-definition of Ge Ware and Related Problems’ in Chinese Ceramics. Selected articles from Orientations 1982-1998, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 338-340). Ge and also guan, unlike other ceramic wares, were not named after a place of origin. While guan was meant to be ‘official’ ware, ge was taken by its literally meaning of gege (‘elder brother’), in reference to siblings who were potters. The elder brother supposedly owned a kiln in the Longquan area during the Southern Song period, where this type of crackled glaze ware would have been made. The Ming period (1368-1644) book, Gegu yaolun [Essential criteria of antiquities] (publ. 1388) of Cao Zhao, the most influential guidebook on the connoisseurship of artifacts, placed ge high on its ranking list of ceramic wares, but did not exactly define what ge ware was, except that it resembled guan ware (see Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things. Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, Illinois, 1991, p. 102).
Later Ming and Qing dynasty (1644-1911) texts elaborated on the so-called ‘purple-mouth and iron foot’ describing the black body, noticeable at the unglazed foot and through the glaze at the rim. Some ge appear to have been fired directly on the foot while others, on spurs. In those texts, there were also abundant poetic remarks about the crackled glaze, such as baijisui (´hundred crackles´), jinsi tiexian (‘golden threads and iron wires’), alluding to the larger dark cracks overlying the smaller yellowish ones or otherwise ‘fish scales’, ‘crab claws’ or ‘accumulated foam and stringed beads’, pointing to the numerous tiny bubbles in the glaze that make for its lustrous shine.
In short, there were a number of descriptions about how ge ware looked or should look like, some of which were also used in fact, for describing guan ware. However, by then, ge had become a connoisseur’s term for a certain highly prized type of crackled-glazed ware. The early Ming consensus on ge, established in Cao Zhao’s important guide for connoisseurs, had firmly set the tone for future appraisals.
As the different physical aspects of ge were discussed, the geographical location of the kiln remained a mystery. The Dayao and Xikou kilns in Longquan were suggested. Recent finds from the Yuan dynasty strata at the Laohudong kilns near Hangzhou however, yielded shards resembling descriptions of ge in classical texts, which may perhaps point to a slightly later, Yuan, date for some ge. Interesting to note, is that the Laohudong site is also known for having produced guan ware and that could possibly support an assumption that both ge and guan were manufactured at similar kilns. As long as there is no conclusive evidence about a Southern Song ge kiln, the debate will be open for further interpretation.
Perhaps originally an accidental error, it was yet a tour de force to recreate the coveted crackled glaze. An extremely complicated technique was set in place, where the application of multiple layers of glaze and successive firings were necessary before a meticulously controlled cooling process could begin, to provoke the actual crackling. During the phase of cooling after the last high firing, the glaze contracted more than the body. Further crazing or crackling could occur even after, when the piece had left the kiln, see Nigel Wood, Chinese Glazes. Their Origins, Chemistry and Recreation, London, 1999, pp. 85-7. Since the outcome was invariably different, no piece was ever the same, which may have added to the attraction of ge ware.
The present piece is a testimony to classic ge ware as described in Chinese literature. It displays the coveted jinsi tiexian, with its fine underlaying network of rust-brown (golden threads) and large dark-stained (iron wire) crackles. The four tiny marks on the base, in literature referred to as ‘sesame seeds’, point to the use of spurs. The more usual form for ge brush washers is a flower shape with five or more sides, but of this particularly exquisite square shape with indented corners, only a few washers appear to be recorded:
One is in the Palace Museum in Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (II), Hong Kong, 1996, no. 21, where it is attributed to the guan kilns, but then the same piece is also illustrated and described as ge in Bian Yiwen, Zijincheng de jiyi. Tushuo Qinggong ciqi dang’an. Wenfang juan. Wenfang ci tezhan [Recollections of the Forbidden Palace. A file of Qing Palace ceramics illustrations and descriptions. The Study Room volume], Beijing, 2016, p. 155, there it is further listed as one of ‘…a pair of geyao square-shaped washers’, ‘ …handed over to the Imperial Household Workshop on the 22nd day of the 9th month in the 62nd year of Qianlong (corresponding to 1797)’, together with another washer listed as ‘…handed over to the Imperial Household Workshop on the 24th day of the fourth month in the 52nd year of Qianlong (corresponding to 1787)’.
One in the Percival David Collection is included in Illustrated Catalogue of Ru, Guan, Jun, Guangdong and Yixing Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 1999, no. 68, where it is called a water pot and dated to the Yuan or Ming dynasty, with a note “…probably in imitation of Song crackled wares”.
One brush washer is included in the exhibition catalogue Iron in the Fire, The Oriental Ceramic Society, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1988, cat. no. 42. The same piece is also illustrated in Giuseppe Eskenazi in collaboration with Hajni Elias, A Dealer’s Hand: The Chinese Art World Through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, London, 2012, pl. 267, from the collection of Dr. P.H.D.S. Wikramaratna. It was subsequently sold in these rooms, 2nd April 2018, lot 3046.
Only four others have been sold at auction: one from the Edward T. Chow collection in our London rooms, 16th December 1980, lot 293; the second, from the Muwen Tang collection, included in Lidai Wenwu Cuizhen/Selected Treasures of Chinese Art. Min Chiu Society. Thirtieth Anniversary Exhibition, Hong Kong, 1990, cat. no. 111, in our these rooms, 20th May 1986, lot 9 and again in our London rooms, 12th November 2003, lot 3; the third, from the Bai Ma Xuan collection in our New York rooms, 21st September 2005, lot 49, previously at Christie’s Hong Kong, 24th October 1993, lot 703; the fourth, originally in the collection of Dr P.H.D.S. Wikramaratna (1916-2010), illustrated in Giuseppe Eskenazi in collaboration with Hajni Elias, A Dealer's Hand: The Chinese Art World Through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, London, 2012; Chinese version, Shanghai, 2015, reprint, 2017, pl. 267, sold in these rooms, 2nd April 2018, lot 3046.
Since ge ware was so highly regarded, it is not surprising that it was imitated at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi province. The crackles in the glaze were often deliberately stained to enhance its decorative effect. The best Ming examples carry Xuande and Chenghua reign marks and were admired in their turn. In the Qing dynasty, during the Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1736-95) reigns, imitating ge was particularly en vogue. Tang Ying (1682-1756), the Yongzheng Emperor’s supervisor at the imperial kilns, noted that ‘ge glazes on an iron body were amongst the ceramics emulating antique wares’ and that they ‘had been sent especially by the Emperor to be copied at Jingdezhen’, see Suzanne Valenstein, A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, New York, 1975, p. 215.
The best appraisal of ge ware may be the poem of the Qianlong Emperor inscribed inside the rim of a ge vase, now in the Percival David Foundation, illustrated in the Foundation’s catalogue, op.cit., no. 94 :
“Despite the pattern of hundreds of intermingling crackle lines, its texture is fine and smooth to the touch. This is the work of the talented Elder Brother. One discovers that the value of these undecorated wares is the same as that of unpolished gems. How could one compare this and the more elaborate products of Xuan(de) and Cheng(hua)? Each has its own individual charm.”
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