Margaret Gristina with the rare Xuande ‘dragon bowl’ made almost 600 years ago

Live like a Rockefeller — An imperial blue and white ‘dragon’ bowl

Margaret Gristina, Senior Specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, examines this ‘exquisite’ 600-year-old emblem of the long relationship between the Rockefellers and China

On 13 September 1863, the young entrepreneur John D. Rockefeller, Sr. recorded in his ledger book a charitable donation of $10 to a charity in China. It was a considerable sum for a 24-year-old who had yet yet to launch his prodigious career in the oil industry, but ‘Senior’ always had a strong humanitarian streak.

His gift is the first recorded connection between the Rockefeller family and China, a connection that, in the 155 years since, has become indelible, encompassing the spheres of business, philanthropy, diplomacy and, of course, fine art.

In 1917, for instance, the Rockefeller Foundation financed the opening of Peking Union Medical College (PUMC) in Beijing, which remains one of the country’s top medical schools. Later, it also underwrote the restoration of the Ming Tombs, near Nanjing; and the excavations at Zhoukoudian in the 1920s, where the fossils of 'Peking Man' (or Homo erectus) were discovered.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr, and trustees at the Peking Union Medical College in 1921. Photograph courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

John D. Rockefeller, Jr, and trustees at the Peking Union Medical College in 1921. Photograph courtesy of the Rockefeller Archive Center

Senior’s son, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., actually travelled to Asia with his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, to speak at PUMC’s dedication ceremony. In later life their son, David Rockefeller, remembered how ‘Mother and Father… returned with a wonderful array of Asian art that completely entranced me…. Mother, who was just beginning to collect art, had been deeply influenced by the experience.’

‘The Xuande emperor was known as the first Ming emperor to be a serious patron of the arts, one of his interests being the perfection of the production of porcelain’

The couple soon added to their collection of Chinese textiles, furniture and porcelain with acquisitions through the renowned dealer Yamanaka, as well as New York dealers. One of their particularly fine services of Qing-dynasty export porcelain was donated to the Rhode Island School of Design in 2015.

David would maintain the strong family links with China in a variety of ways. In his capacity as CEO of Chase Bank, he was asked by President Richard Nixon to join the National Council on US-China Trade in 1973, the same year in which he became the first American financier invited to visit the new People’s Republic of China. His interventions played an important part in a thawing of relations between the countries after more than two decades of hostility.

Like his parents, David was a keen admirer of Chinese art, and one of the finest pieces in his collection was a rare Xuande-period ‘dragon bowl’ dating to between 1425 and 1435 AD. The Xuande emperor was the fifth of the Ming Dynasty, and his 10-year rule is considered one of the most sophisticated periods in the history of Chinese blue and white porcelain.

'It really is an exquisite work, created during the very short reign of the Xuande emperor,' says Margaret Gristina, Senior Specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘He was known as the first Ming emperor to be a serious patron of the arts, one of his interests being the perfection of the production of porcelain. This bowl represents the finest porcelain made up until this date. The decoration in underglaze blue is skilfully rendered with two dragons chasing a flaming pearl in brilliant tones of cobalt blue. The five-clawed dragons represent imperial authority, and the pearls signify wisdom and enlightenment.’

The six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1426-1435)

The six-character mark in underglaze blue within a double circle and of the period (1426-1435)

Close inspection of the bowl’s interior, meanwhile, reveals two additional dragons, rendered in a special technique known as anhua — meaning ‘hidden decoration’, in which subtly curved imagery becomes visible only when held to the light. An almost identical bowl, but with a cloud motif on the interior rather than a dragon, resides in the National Palace Museum, Taipei.

‘On one level, this is simply a beautiful work of art,’ says Gristina. ‘I am especially fond of the wonderful details, such as the dragons’ curly eyebrows and freely flowing manes. 

‘Crucially for connoisseurs,’ she continues, ‘this bowl is a gorgeous example of Ming porcelain at its very best. It has a perfect balance of composition, combined with the freely painted imperial dragons which were soon to become iconic images of imperial power on Chinese porcelain.’