An Elegant Underglaze Copper-Red and Blue Mallet-form Vase
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director, Asian Art
Vases of this rare form appear decorated both in underglaze cobalt blue and also, like the current example, in underglaze copper red with underglaze-blue lines encircling the base. Both types have underglaze-blue six-character Kangxi marks. An underglaze-blue example in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 36 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), Hong Kong, 2000, p. 15, no. 11. An underglaze copper-red-decorated yaoling zun in the collection of the Tianjin Museum is illustrated in Porcelains from the Tianjin Municipal Museum, Hong Kong, 1993, no. 130. Another copper-red example, similar to the current vase, but with less well-controlled copper red, is in the collection of the Shanghai Museum, illustrated in Kangxi Porcelain Wares from the Shanghai Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1998, pp. 10-11, no. 7. A similar copper-red example in the Baur Collection is illustrated by J. Ayers in The Baur Collection, vol. 4, Geneva, 1974, no. A 528. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has two Kangxi vases of this form, one decorated in underglaze blue, and one, like the current example, in underglaze copper red. The latter appears slightly smaller and more delicately potted than the former. See Oriental Ceramics, The World's Great Collections, vol.11, Tokyo/New York/San Francisco, 1982, no. 119. Further copper-red examples include one from the Collection of Frederick J. and Antoinette H. Van Slyke, sold at Sotheby's, New York, 31 May 1989, lot 197, and two from the J.M. Hu Collection, sold at Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 29 October 2000, lot 14, and 23 October 2005, lot 351.
The elegant form of these vases, with their long, slender, slightly waisted necks rising from pronounced shoulders, is particularly associated with the Kangxi reign. In Chinese the name often given to this form is yaoling zun, or 'hand bell vase'. The reference is to bronze bells, which formed part of the repertoire of Chinese instruments used in formal secular and religious music, although pottery bells of similar, if less refined form, were made in China as early as the Neolithic period. A greater number of ceramic bells were made during the Warring States period, and the body of the current porcelain bell is close in form to some of the large, handsome, glazed stoneware bells made in Zhejiang province, such as the example in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco illustrated by He Li, Chinese Ceramics, London, 1996, p. 68, no. 41.
However, in English the form is usually called mallet-form, in reference to earlier ceramic vases which took their shapes from mallets or paper-beaters. Song dynasty vases of this type, known as zhichui ping (paper-beater vase), which were particularly admired, were those of Ding ware (see Song Ceramics - Objects of Admiration, Percival David Foundation, London, 2003, pp. 20-21, no. 1) and Ru ware (see Porcelain of the National Palace Museum - Ju Ware of the Sung Dynasty, Hong Kong, 1961, pp. 30-31, pls. 3a & 3b; and pp. 32-33, pls. 4a & 4b).
However, the sides of the Kangxi porcelain form are slightly concave, in contrast to the convex sides of the Song wares, which are closer in shape to the wooden paper-beaters. In fact, the Kangxi vases are also more attenuated, and the yaoling zun seems to have been a new addition to the Qing dynasty porcelain repertoire in the Kangxi reign and was rarely seen thereafter. It has been noted by the British scholar John Ayers, in discussion of a similar vase decorated in underglaze cobalt blue, that the form of these yaoling zun resembles in form the white Lamaist pagodas of Mongolia and Tibet. See J. Ayers, Chinese Porcelain: The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, part II, Hong Kong Museum of Art, 1978, p. 76, no. 49. The vase is particularly close in form to that of the White Dagoba of the Lamaist temple in Beihai Park in Beijing, which was originally built in 1651 under the Shunzhi Emperor, but following its destruction in an earthquake in 1679, was re-built by the Kangxi Emperor in 1680.
It is not surprising to find that forms influenced by Lamaism or Tibetan Buddhism should be found amongst the porcelains of the Kangxi period. In his youth the Kangxi emperor was much influenced by his grandmother the Grand Dowager Empress Xiaozhuang, who was both a Mongol and a Lamaist Buddhist. Kangxi also compared himself, somewhat disingenuously, with a reincarnation of Kublai Khan in his relationship with his Tibetan Buddhist preceptor, Phagspa. During Kangxi's reign ten Chinese Buddhist monasteries were converted into Tibetan Buddhist monasteries. The Kangxi emperor built the Bishu shanzhuang at Chengde which was used as a retreat from the summer heat of Beijing and for hunting, but also to provide a more relaxed atmosphere in which to meet Mongol and Tibetan chieftains. In the area of Chengde Kangxi also built monasteries, and the great monastery at Dolonar was built near Beijing, which became designated as the center for Buddhism for South Mongolia. Interestingly, some of the policies adopted by Kangxi were known as 'respecting the Dalai Lama in order to pacify Mongolia'.
The underglaze copper-red decoration on the current vase is of a deep raspberry red and has spread slightly into the surrounding glaze, only in a very controlled way that adds richness to the overall design. It is interesting to note some of the special features of the underglaze decoration. On the one hand John Ayers has suggested that "the rosette motif has the flavour of Tibetan Buddhism", Ayers, ibid., p. 76. These rosettes can also loosely be linked to the whorls seen on bronze vessels, but the rising leaves or blades around the base of the vase indicate an even stronger link to ancient bronze vessels. Thus the vase provides an interesting decorative mix, reflecting dual influences - ancient bronze and Lamaism.