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Longtime readers know my fondness for Chinese porcelain. Today’s post features an especially characteristic (and magnificent) style of ceramic art object from the Tang Dynasty–one of the golden ages of Chinese civilization. Founded by the shrewd and intelligent Li family (whom you might remember from this thrilling & violent post), the Tang dynasty lasted from 618 AD-907 AD and was one of the most powerful and prosperous imperial dynasties. At the apogee of the Tang era, China had over 80 million families and exerted near hegemonic control throughout Southeast Asia and Central Asia. Additionally, China served as a cultural model for Japan and Korea, where traditions established a thousand years ago still linger, and it controlled North Korea outright for a generation after winning a war against the Goguryeo and Baekje kingdoms (and their Japanese allies).
Alien visitors to Earth in the 9thcentury AD would have had no difficulties choosing where to land in order to talk to the most prosperous and advanced people of the time. During this period great medicinal breakthroughs were made, gunpowder was invented, and printing became commonplace. The silk-road trade, which had been created during the Western Han era, grew in importance and magnitude.
During the Northern Dynasties period (317-581AD) porcelain camels were first created as grave goods so that merchants could take some of their trade empire with them to the next world (a Buddhist innovation—since previous Chinese potentates were inhumed with actual human and animal sacrifice rather than porcelain stand-ins). The sculptures are modeled in the shape of Bactrian camels, which were the principle mode of transportation through the great southwestern deserts of China. Caravans of silk, porcelain and other luxury goods would set out through the barren wastes headed ultimately for Persia or Europe.
Tang camels are magnificently expressive works of art. Rich tricolor glazes of gold, green and brown were dribbled over the animals and then fired, giving an impression akin to abstract expressionism. Although initially stiff and geometrical, the camels become more lifelike as the Tang dynasty wore on. A new sense of realism pervaded art and the camels are portrayed bellowing to each other or striding through the desert sand. Sometimes the camels include riders like Chinese merchants or Sogdian handlers (equipped with Turkic peaked hats). Tang porcelain camels make it easy to imagine the exotic trade routes of medieval China, where the wealth of the world poured into the middle kingdom across an ocean of sand.
The eleventh Emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Jiajing emperor, who (mis)ruled China from 1521 to 1567, was a tremendously devout taoist. During the Jiajing reign, Taoist symbolism became omnipresent in art and culture–especially near the end of the emperor’s reign when his fanatical search for immortality began to bring ruin to China. Jiajing porcelain is distinct in that the robust naturalism of earlier Ming blue and white ware is replaced by increasingly fanciful imagery. Cranes, dragons, phoenixes, immortals, and flaming pearls all float through a dreamlike magical world. Sorcerers and magicians frolic happily through scerene forests filled with deer, pine, fungi, and bamboo (all of which are symbols of immortality or longevity). Frilly clouds complete the picture of whimsical abandon. Even the shape of porcelain became more fanciful: to quote the website Eloge de l’Art par Alain Truong, (which contains many fine photographs of Jiajing porcelain, several of which are used here), “The double-gourd is a popular symbol of longevity and is associated with the Daoist Immortal Li Tiegui, who is depicted holding a double gourd containing the elixir of immortality.” The vase at the top of the article, which shows a lighthearted scene of people playing in a garden is double gourd shaped. Here are some additional examples of Jiajing porcelain:
Another lovely blue and white double gourd vase also reflects the Jiajing zeitgeist. On this vase, an auspicious crane flies throught the clouds above a powerful dragon.
This small jar portrays the four Daoist Immortals Li Tieguai, Liu Hai, Hanshan and Shide dancing in a pine forest beneath swirling clouds.
‘Shou’ is the symbol for longevity. This double vase presents numerous shou medallions of various sizes embedded in a matrix of clouds and flames.
Yesterday’s post concerning the Yuan dynasty was in preparation for today’s post about Yuan dynasty porcelain. The blue and white cobalt porcelain which has become famously emblematic of Chinese ceramics (to such an extent that “China” became the name of the country and the product in England) was first manufactured in the Middle Kingdom during the Yuan dynasty. The blue and white vases and plates from the Yuan dynasty are more robust and bold then the famous Ming blue and white ware which succeeded them, but the lovely pure aestheticism of great Chinese porcelain is fully there. The best pieces feature a lovely syncretism of cultural motifs and forms which come together around a central symbol.
My favorite works of Yuan porcelain are those with aquatic themes like this lovely rare fish jar from the middle of the fourteenth century. On the vase, four intricately painted fish swim gracefully through water poppy, duck weed, water clover, eel grass, and hornwort. The neck features waves lapping above a peony border while the base shows flaming pearls. With unerring skill the master painter who made this jar has noted the details of the natural world. The fish seem alive. Their expressions reflect the different personalities of the different species. To explain the complicated symbolic/poetic wordplay which underlies this vase (and many of the images featured in classic Chinese art) I will rely on the Christie’s auction website, where the vase was described prior to sale:
The fish on the current jar provide a…complex rebus, since they appear to be qing black carp (mylopharyngodon piceus); (hongqi) bai predatory carp or redfin culter (culter erythropterus); lian silver carp (hypopthalmichthys molitrix); and gui or jue Chinese perch or mandarin fish (siniperca chuatsi). The names of these fish combine to provide rebuses which suggest either qing bai lian gui ‘of good descent, modest and honourable’ or qingbai lianjie ‘of honourable descent and incorruptible’.
A fish, in this case a sea perch, is also the subject of this magnificent plate from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The perch gapes open his mouth to leer at visitors from a bed of eelgrass. Around the central scene is a particularly vivid cavetto of lotus blossoms. Archaeological discoveries indicate that the plate was manufactured at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi Province. Fish were a popular motif of Yuan porcelain because of a well-known Taoist maxim which compared people who had found their place in the flux of Tao to fish perfectly suited to living in their watery realm. The Han literati of the Yuan era had been displaced by Mongol elite and they frequently yearned for a more serene and central place in their world, an attitude quietly reflected by splendid aquatic porcelain.
The final jar (also made in Jingdezhen in Jiangxi during the mid fourteenth century) shows not a fish but a vigorous fish-eating duck. His feathers are standing up in a fierce crest and he has a wild look in his eye. A pair of mandarin ducks is the ancient Chinese symbol for love, trust, and happiness in marriage–however this is not a pair of mandarin ducks but a carnivorous merganser hunting alone among the water weeds (although it seems there might be another one on the other side of the jar). It’s hard not to wonder whether this unusual duck unconsciously represents the Han’s unhappiness in their marriage to their fierce Mongol overlords.