Lord Matsudaira Fumai's 'Kinuta' Vase: A Rare and Beautiful Treasure of Historical Importance
International Academic Director Asian Art Departments
This superb celadon vase exemplifies the finest Longquan celadon wares, which have been revered both in China and Japan for more than seven hundred years. At its finest, as on the current vase, Longquan celadon glaze is thick, translucent and has a rich texture reminiscent of jade. The glaze on the current vase also displays the ideal soft bluish-green color, which was so difficult for potters to achieve, but has always been greatly admired by connoisseurs. This particularly fine glaze type is often known by the Japanese name 'kinuta', which in fact is the term for a mallet, but which refers to mallet-shaped vases, such as the current example, which were imported into Japan in the Southern Song (AD 1127-1279) and Yuan (AD 1279-1368) dynasties, and became associated with this, the most desired, glaze color.
The particular version of the mallet-shaped vase represented by the current vase is rare among surviving Southern Song and Yuan dynasty Longquan wares. In the Northern Song dynasty the mallet form with wide flattened mouth was made in two of the ceramic wares associated with the imperial court. A small number of Ding wares were made in this form, and an example with reduced mouth is in the collection of the Percival David Foundation. Perhaps more significantly, Ru wares of the type made specifically for the Northern Song court, have been found in this form. A mallet-shaped Ru ware vase with wide flattened mouth was excavated in 1987 at the kiln site of Qingliangsi, Baofengxian, Henan province, while the National Palace Museum, Taipei has two similar Ru ware vases with damaged mouths. In 2004 this vase form was among the pale celadon vessels, related to Ru ware, excavated from a kiln site at Zhanggongxiang, Ruzhou, Henan, just south-east of Ruzhou City. It has been suggested by several scholars that this shape, despite resembling a paper mallet, may in fact have been introduced to China as a glass vase or bottle from the Islamic west, possibly Iran. Fragments of glass vessels of this shape were found in 1997 among the excavated material from the cargo of the Intan wrecked ship excavated off the Indonesian coast. This ship is believed to date to the Northern Song period.
The Northern Song ceramic vessels of this mallet form have no handles, and some Southern Song Longquan examples are also handleless. For example, a Longquan vase without handles was excavated in 1964 from a Southern Song tomb in the Sima Bridge area of Chengdu in Sichuan province. Links with the Northern Song imperial Ru wares are also suggested by the fineness and bluish tone of the glaze on Longquan mallet-shaped vases like the current example, and by the fact that this form was also produced in Southern Song imperial Guan ware at the Laohudong kilns, in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province.
However, the potters at the Longquan kilns in the Southern Song dynasty began to embellish the form by adding decorative handles on either side of the columnar neck. Most frequently these handles were in the shape of birds, which are usually identified as phoenixes. An example of this type is preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. Much rarer are Longquan vases with the type of handles seen on the current vessel. These are in the shape of yulong (dragon-fish) with fish-like bodies and dragon-like heads. Dragon-fish are mentioned in Chinese literature as early as the Bronze Age, and appear in legends related in the Shanhaijing (Classic of Mountains and Seas). They were included in painted and incised decoration on ceramics of the Tang dynasty, from kilns such as Changsha and Yue, but do not seem to occur in three-dimensional ceramic form until the Song and Liao dynasties. By the Song dynasty handles such as these depicted a carp in the process of turning into a dragon. This evokes a legend, which dates from at least as early as the Eastern Han dynasty, that tells of the carp swimming up river to the Dragon Gate. If it is successful in leaping over the gate it turns into a dragon. This legend soon came to represent the success of the Chinese scholars, who studied hard to pass the civil service examinations, and if they achieved the highest grade would attain an official post.
As mentioned above, vases with dragon-fish handles are quite rare, and the current vase is even more rare for being unusually large, as well as having an unusually fine glaze. The majority of Longquan mallet vases are significantly smaller. A Longquan mallet vase with dragon-fish handles, excavated in 1983 from a Southern Song tomb in Songyangxian, is only 16 cm. high, while the fine example from the Barlow collection, which had been exhibited in Manchester in 1936 and in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition in 1947, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is only 16.8 cm. high. The example in the Meiyintang collection is 16.3 cm in height, while one of the vases of this type in the Carl Kempe collection is 20 cm. high and the other measures 26 cm. Two other known examples of dragon-fish-handled Longquan vases are of similar size to the second Kempe vase. One from the Njoo collection is 26 cm. high, and another example, which was excavated from the wreck of a vessel which sank off the Sinan coast of Korea in about 1323 on its way to Japan, is 25.7 cm. high. (Fig. 1) The only other published example of a Longquan mallet-shaped vase with dragon-fish handles that comes close to the majestic size, 28.5 cm., of the current vessel is the vase from the Brodie Lodge collection, which is 28 cm. high, and was exhibited in London in 1960 (Fig. 2).
Japanese patrons admired fine Chinese Longquan celadon wares from the time they were made, in the Southern Song dynasty. There was an active trade in ceramics between China and Japan in the 12th-14th centuries, and even today sherds from Chinese celadon vessels can be found along the shore at Kamakura - testament to the large numbers of such pieces that were shipped to Japan in that period. Many of the Chinese ceramics sent to Japan would have been shipped from the port of Ningbo in Zhejiang province, and a neck sherd of a Longquan celadon vase with dragon-fish handles of the same type as the current vase, has been found at the site of the ancient wharf at Dongmenkou in Ningbo.
While Tang dynasty Chinese ceramics had been admired in Japan, the Kamakura period (AD 1185-1392), coinciding with the Southern Song dynasty, saw a renewed vogue in Japan for Chinese art. Indeed, one Japanese scholar has noted that in the Kamakura period:
"the majority of the art and decorative art objects used in the ceremonies, interior decoration and tea drinking events of Buddhist Temples and the military class were objects imported from China."
These objects were called karamono (Chinese things). Excavated evidence for their popularity can be seen in profusion not only in Kamakura itself, but at a variety of historical sites throughout Japan. Significant numbers of Song and Yuan dynasty Chinese ceramic sherds have been excavated at the Ichijo-dani site in Fukui prefecture, the Kusadosengen site in Hiroshima, several sites in Kyoto, and the port city of Hakata. In addition, some of the major Japanese temples still have in their possession Song dynasty Chinese ceramics, which have been preserved over the centuries. It is interesting to note that the Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto has in its collection a Longquan celadon vase of the same form as the current example, with dragon-fish handles. It is particularly significant since this temple also has a long association with the tea ceremony and was much visited by the great 16th century tea master Sen no Rikyu (AD 1522-91).
Longquan vases of this mallet shape, but of the slightly more numerous version with bird handles, have also been preserved in Japanese collections, and some have been given particular status by the Japanese authorities. In the Bishamon-do in Kyoto a vase of this type, which bears the name Bansei (Ten Thousand Cries), has been designated a Japanese National Treasure. Another of the bird-handled Longquan mallet vases, now preserved in the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, has been designated an Important Cultural Property. Longquan bird-handled vases can be found in various other collections in Japan, such as the Tokyo National Museum, the Nezu Museum, the Hatakeyama Memorial Museum, The Goto Museum and the Yomei Bunko. The latter has also been designated an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese authorities.
The current vase is accompanied by two letters, one of which notes that the vase had been in the possession of the "lord of Unshu province," Matsudaira Fumai (1750-1818), the seventh daimyo of the Matsue fiefdom in Izumo province (an alternate name for Unshu province), and also a renowned tea master who amassed an extensive and highly regarded art collection. The two letters record an attempt by an individual, acting as negotiator on behalf of the actual owner of the vase, to sell it to a prospective buyer.
The first letter (Fig. 3) is dated first month, fifth day and may be translated as follows: 'The large vase with Kinuta celadon glaze has a pair of fabulous dolphin handles. The vase was once owned by the lord of Unshu province, who purchased it from the antique dealer Fushimiya in Edo. It has a small section repaired in gold lacquer, but it is extremely rare. Tonight after your return I will come over and let you handle the piece.'
The second letter (Fig. 4) may be translated as reading: 'It has a little damage, but it is extremely minor. I tried to negotiate to lower the price, but he did not give me any discount. I made the deal and the price is eight hundred and forty bu. He made some flattering remarks, that when flowers are arranged in the vase it glows, despite the blemish. As this is a flower vase of
Kitade type, it will be admired more than others. If there are any questions, I am happy to discuss.'
While the name of the mediator who wrote the letter, and that of the actual owner of the vase, are unknown, we do know the name of the letter's recipient: Bokushin (Fig. 5). Bokushin is the pseudonym of Sousen Kizu (1775-1855), a late Edo tea master and chief priest at Gansenji, a temple in Osaka. Following his tenure as chief priest, Sousen Kizu moved to Edo city, at which time he met Matsudaira Fumai and learned about the tea ceremony. He became a tea tutor of the Wakayama clan in Kishu province in 1832. Sousen Kizu, along with Fushimiya, is recorded as among those who helped Matsudaira Fumai build his famous art collection.
Matsudaira Fumai was an extremely able daimyo, who revolutionized the administration of his family's estates and secured their fortune. When young he had been critical of certain aspects of the tea ceremony, but later he reviewed it and decided to undertake a careful study of tea utensils. Matsudaira Fumai made a painstaking study in which he divided the utensils into omeibutsu (great famous utensils), and chukomeibutsu (rediscovered famous utensils). His investigations were later published in eighteen volumes under the title of Kokon Meibutsu Ruiju (Classified Collection of Famous Utensils of Ancient and Modern Times). This study prepared him to make his own collection of tea utensils, of which some 800 items are recorded in the Unshu Kuracho. These items are highly esteemed and are known as Unshu Meibutsu. Matsudaira Fumai developed his own personal style of tea ceremony, Fumai style, which in turn inspired a school known as Fumaiha, which remains influential to the present day.
Several tea houses are associated with Matsudaira Fumai, including the Meimei-an in Matsue City, and the Kanden-an, a mountain retreat which was built in 1792 to his specifications in the grounds of a villa belonging to the Arisawa family. The Kanden-an is particularly admired and has now been designated an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese authorities. Both the Meimei-an and the Kanden-an are thatched buildings distinguished by their compact elegance, and the graceful use of shadow within. It is fascinating to imagine that the current beautiful vase may have been used by Matsudaira Fumai in one of these famous tea houses.
Illustrated by Stacey Pierson in Song Ceramics - Objects of Admiration, Percival David Foundation, London, 2003, p. 20-1, no. 1.
Grand View: Special Exhibition of Ju Ware from the Northern Sung Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2006, pp. 114-5, no. 23.
Ibid., pp. 116-19, nos. 24 & 25.
Longchuan Celadon: The Sichuan Museum Collection, Leal Senado Temporary Exhibitions Gallery, Macau, 1998, p. 85, no. 8.
Du Zhengxian, Hangzhou Laohudong yao zhi ciqi jingxuan, Wenwu chubanshe, Beijing, 2002, pp. 53-63, nos. 28-34.
The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 33 - Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (II), Commercial press, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 110, no. 98.
Zhu Boqian (ed.), Celadons from Longquan Kilns, Yishujia chubanshe, Taipei, 1998, p. 149, no. 116.
Rose Kerr, Song Dynasty Ceramics, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2004, p. 94, no. 95.
Musée Cernuschi, L'Âge d'Or de la Céramique Chinoise, Paris, 1999, p. 118, no. 88.
Bo Gyllensvärd, Chinese Ceramics in the Carl Kempe Collection, Almqüist & Wiksell, Stockholm/Güteborg/Uppsala, 1962, p. 51, nos. 98 and 99 respectively.
This vessel was exhibited in Chinese Celadons and Other Related Wares in Southeast Asia, Singapore, 1979, pl. 73, left.
Illustrated in the exhibition catalogue Xin'an haidi wenwu (Cultural Relics from the Sinan Seabed), National Museum of Korea, Seoul, 1977, no. 3
Oriental Ceramic Society, The Arts of the Sung Dynasty, The Arts Council, London, 1960, no. 173, pl. 64, right.
Zhejiangsheng wenwu kaogusuo xuekan, 1981, pl. XI-8.
Hiroko Nishida, "The Collection and Appreciation of Chinese Art Objects in 15th-16th Century Japan, and their Legacy", Collecting Chinese Art: Interpretation and Display, S. Pierson (ed.). Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia No. 20, Percival David Foundation, London, 2000, p.10.
Daitoku-ji no meiho, Kyoto, 1985, pl. 96.
G. Hasebe (ed.), Sekai toji zenshu - Song, vol. 12, Shogakukan, Tokyo, 1977, pp. 90-1, no. 82.
Illustrated Catalogues of Tokyo National Museum - Chinese Ceramics, Tokyo, p. 91, no. 372.
S. Hayashiya and H. Trubner, Chinese Ceramics from Japanese Collections, Asia House Gallery, New York, 1977, no. 22.
Goto bijutsukan meihin zuroku, Tokyo, 1960, pl. 86.
G. Hasebe, op. cit., no. 210.