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The wucai fish jar: A gem of the Eastern Renaissance

Liang-Lin Chen, specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong, explains the ‘deceptively simple’ composition of this vessel made for the Jiajing emperor

In the Jiajing period, an era of the Ming dynasty that stretched from 1522–66, the production of wucai, or ‘five enamel’ vessels, reached new heights in both quality and quantity. Prior to the reign of the Jiajing emperor, Imperial kilns primarily produced small objects suitable for handling. But in the Jiajing reign, porcelain began to be produced on a larger scale — a major breakthrough in porcelain technology.

This fish jar is the earliest type of large polychrome-decorated porcelain made by the Imperial kilns. With a height of 46cm, it was made in sections. Painted in wucai with underglaze blue, it required firing at least three times because of its complex colour scheme. The technique conveys an auspicious message, wishing the Emperor ‘fortune as vast as heaven.’

This fish jar ‘is extremely important because of its direct connection with the Jiajing emperor’ says Liang-Lin Chen, specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Christie’s in Hong Kong. In addition to being an enthusiastic art patron, the Jiajing emperor ‘was a devout Daoist, and in Daoism, fish often represent the ideal state of Dao — the emperor even named himself the “fisherman of the Heavenly pond.”’

The composition of the designs on this vessel is ‘deceptively simple,’ the specialist continues. ‘All elements have been thoughtfully positioned to create a visual balance and rhythm, and there’s an emphasis on the interplay of complementary colours, sizes and shapes.’

Currently in the Le Cong Tang Collection, the fish jar will be offered on 27 November in the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale at Christie’s in Hong Kong, as part of Hong Kong Week.