This small, exceptionally thinly potted cup is from one of the imperial sets of wine cups depicting the Flowers of the Twelve Months. A complete set of twelve month cups in the collection of the Percival David Foundation is illustrated by R. Scott in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration - Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, Percival David Foundation, London/Singapore, 1992, p. 113, no. 122.
Each of these cups was decorated in a particularly finely painted version of the wucai palette, with rocks and clumps of grass painted in a soft underglaze blue, while the majority of the decoration is rendered in overglaze famille verte enamels.
The status of these cups can perhaps be judged by the fact that at the end of the inscription, which accompanies the flower painting on each cup, there is an underglaze blue seal character which reads: shang. This character may be translated as 'enjoy', for example to enjoy or appreciate the flowers. However, in this context it is more probable that it should be translated as 'reward', with the implication of being bestowed by a superior (in this case the emperor) as a reward for meritorious service.
The flower depicted on this particular cup is apricot blossom (xinghua), the flower of the second lunar month. Since this was the month in which the imperial examinations were held, apricot blossom has also become the 'successful candidate's flower', as well as being a symbol of a beautiful woman. The poetic inscription written on the other side of the cup in underglaze blue reads:
'Qingxiang he suyu, jiase chu qingyan'
This may be translated as:
'Its clear fragrance harmonizes with the scent of over-night rain,
Its beautiful color surpasses the brilliance of sunshine reflected off the haze.'
The couplet is taken from the poem, In Reply to Zhangsun Yi for Sending me Apricot from Lanxi, by the Tang dynasty poet Qian Qi (AD 710-780).
Cups from these Twelve Months sets have always been greatly prized for their delicacy, the artistry of their decoration, and for the pleasing relationship between the designs and the poems chosen to complement them. If, in addition, they were received from the emperor as gifts in honor of services rendered to the throne, they would have been even more greatly treasured.