This tiny cup — exquisitely decorated with a scene of plum blossom, bamboo shoots and bees in flight — may be only 6.3 cm in diameter, but it’s generating considerable excitement among connoisseurs and collectors
There are only a handful of pieces in existence that are comparable to this falangcai cup. Certain clues in its shape and form, as well as the four-character Yongzheng mark on its base, suggest that it was potted in an imperial kiln, most likely over three centuries ago during the early Yongzheng period (1722-1735).
Small, deep, footless cups with straight mouth rims like this are more typical of the preceding Kangxi reign. The distinctively refined use of enamel colours on this cup, however, suggests a later sophistication of style. The dark outlines of individual flowers are extremely fine, with petals subtly shaded in the centre — an intricacy achieved through painting directly onto a colourless glaze, the design subsequently preserved against the ruby ground.
The scene on this cup was made to be enjoyed in the way that one enjoys the complete composition of a painting. When turned in the palm, the movement recalls the unrolling of a handscroll. Set against the ruby ground, the plum blossom, branches, bamboo sprays, lichen and two bees in flight form a unified mise en scène, rather than acting simply as a pattern repeated on multiple planes.
The plum blossom was a popular motif in Chinese art and represents the five blessing of longevity, health, wealth, happiness and a peaceful death. The green bamboo spray symbolises scholarly integrity and virtue. The final motif of the two buzzing bees is one rarely found on Yongzheng ceramics, yet carries its own auspicious symbolism — the Chinese word for bee, feng, sounding similar to the words for ‘harvest’ and ‘to confer’ (a blessing).
The soufflé-like texture of the ruby-red ground was achieved by blowing the pink enamel through a bamboo tube, with gauze covering one end of it. Incredible breath control must have been required to control dispersal of the enamel around the most intricate areas of the design. Under magnification, one can see that the definition of the ruby-red enamel against the outlines of the flowers, bees and bamboo shoots is astonishingly precise.
The cup was formerly in one of the most prestigious Chinese private collections of the 20th century. It belonged to the Shanghainese connoisseur and collector J. M. Hu (Hu Jenmou, also known as Hu Huichun, 1911-1995), who took as his studio name Zande Lou (The Studio of Transitory Pleasure). J.M. Hu had a keen sense of the educational role of art and an important group of ceramics from his collection was donated to the Shanghai Museum, while he also supported institutions such as the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and was a founder member of the Min Chiu Society in Hong Kong.