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Acquired in Japan in the 1930s.
THE PROPERTY OF A SCANDINAVIAN COLLECTOR
This rare and exquisite pair of doucai 'chicken' bowls reflects the tastes and interests of the court during the reign of the Yongzheng emperor. As in the case of the current bowls, the imperial porcelains of the Yongzheng reign are often distinguished by their delicacy and refinement. This is particularly notable on porcelains decorated using the doucai technique of underglaze blue outlines and overglaze enamels. The cobalt blue, while exhibiting clarity and a good depth of colour, often has a subtle softness that differentiates it from the blues of the preceding Kangxi reign and the succeeding Qianlong reign. The overglaze enamel colours are used with restraint. The greens tend to be quite pale, and the iron red is used sparingly to highlight only certain parts of the design.
In keeping with the Yongzheng emperor's interest in antiques, these bowls take their decorative scheme from the famous doucai so-called 'chicken' cups of the Ming dynasty Chenghua reign (1465-87). However, since the bowls, which have a diameter of 15.3 cm., are larger than the small cups, which have a diameter of approximately 8.2 cm., the variety of plants has been increased on the bowls. In addition to the peonies and lilies depicted on the cups, the bowls include plantain, papyrus, and asters in order to create a harmonious design over the slightly larger surface. The other significant difference between the Chenghua doucai 'chicken' cups and the Yongzheng doucai cups and bowls is the use of a glossy black enamel for the roosters' tails. On the Chenghua vessels the tails are painted in underglaze cobalt blue and overglaze khaki-brown enamel. The Yongzheng tails are also fuller and more naturalistically painted than their Ming dynasty counterparts.
There are several classic early Ming dynasty doucai designs that were revisited in the Yongzheng reign. The 'chicken' cup design was perhaps the most admired, but others, such as ducks on a lotus pond, were also applied to imperial Yongzheng porcelains. An example of the latter is illustrated by M. Beurdeley and G. Raindre in Qing Porcelains, Thames and Hudson, London, 1987, p. 97, no. 134. The rooster, hen and chicken design was particularly appreciated partly because of the attractiveness of the design and partly because of the message conveyed by the motifs, but also because the Chenghua 'chicken' cups had been greatly admired since they were first made, and even as early as the 16th century they changed hands for hundreds of taels of silver.
The combination of roosters and peonies is a particularly popular theme on Chinese ceramics because they form an auspicious rebus. The sound of the words in Chinese, provide a rebus for 'a successful official with riches and honours'. The term for rooster in Chinese is gongji, while the word for crowing is ming. Together they give gongming, which sounds like the phrase meaning 'successful official'. The peony is often known as the flower of riches and honours (fuguihua). Thus, roosters with peonies suggest gongming fugui, a successful official with riches and honours. 'Chicken' cups were described as 'wedding cups' by the 17th century writer Gu Yingtai (1620-1690) in his Bowu yao lan (General Survey of Art Objects). The subject, showing a family group of rooster and hen with many offspring, would have been entirely suitable for this purpose. The current bowls would equally have been appropriate for use or as gifts on the occasion of a wedding.
It is known that the Chenghua emperor appreciated paintings with the theme of hens and chickens. One of the artists whose paintings are believed to have inspired the 'chicken' cups is the 10th century painter Huang Chuan (a painting in the Yale University Collection entitled Fowl and Birds by a Willow Pool, illustrated by O. Sirén in Chinese Painting, vol. 3, London, 1956, pl. 136, is attributed to this artist). Perhaps more significantly there is a painting of hen and chickens by an anonymous Song dynasty artist, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which bears a poetic colophon by the Chenghua emperor (illustrated by Ts'ai Ho-pi, 'Chenghua Porcelain in Historical context' in The Emperor's broken china - Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, London, 1995, p. 22, fig. 1). In this colophon the Chengha emperor praises the hen's loyal and virtuous care for her chicks - feeding them, grooming them and protecting them. It may be that the Chenghua emperor equated the hen's virtuous care for her chickens with his own care for his subjects. Such an interpretation might also have appealed to the Yongzheng emperor.
The current 'chicken' bowls have a number of similarities, both in terms of painting style and choice of additional motifs, in common with the Yongzheng doucai 'chicken' cup sold in our Hong Kong rooms on 29 April 2002, lot 562. A number of Yongzheng doucai 'chicken' cups are known, including examples in the Hong Kong Museum of Art (illustrated in Three Decades of Acquisition at the Art Museum, Hong Kong, 2002, p. 226; a cup from the Sedgwick Collection (included in the exhibition The Arts of the Ch'ing Dynasty, Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1964, no. 194; and one from the E.T. Chow Collection (illustrated by M. Beurdeley in La Ceramique Chinoise, Fribourg, 1974, col. pls. 71 and 72). Yongzheng doucai 'chicken' bowls are much rarer. One of similar size to the current vessel was sold in our Hong Kong rooms on 30 October 1995, lot 748, and another in the collection of the Umezawa Kinenkan Museum is illustrated by Taru Nakano in Tenkai shashin ni yoru Chugoku no monyo (The Panoramic Views of Chinese Patterns), Heibonsha, Tokyo, 1985, pl. 75.