Here be dragons

Here be dragons

The Forbidden Palace was full of fearsome clawed creatures flying through the clouds, not least on this unique Qianlong Meiping vase, which leads this season’s Chinese works of arts sale at Christie’s Hong Kong

The distinctive shape of the meiping vase — small mouth, slender neck and broad or rounded shoulders tapering to a narrow circular foot — visually mirrors the standing human form.

The name, however, means ‘plum vase’ — probably, says Chi Fan Tsang, Christie’s International Director of Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, ‘from its early days in the Song dynasty [960-1279] when it was used to store plum wine’.

Often displaying a single branch of plum blossom, vases of this shape were also popular during the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644): the elegant shoulder form was a feature of the 'Sweet white' porcelain favoured by the Yongle Emperor (1403-1245), for instance. By the time of the Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), however, when this magnificent Qianlong meiping was made, monochrome celadon glazes were the preferred colour at court.

A fine and magnificent carved ‘Dragon’ celadon-glazed meiping, Qianlong six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1736-1795). 13 in (33 cm) high. Estimate HK$50,000,000-80,000,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 29 November at Christie’s Hong Kong
A fine and magnificent carved ‘Dragon’ celadon-glazed meiping, Qianlong six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1736-1795). 13 in (33 cm) high. Estimate: HK$50,000,000-80,000,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 29 November at Christie’s Hong Kong

The 60-year reign of Emperor Qianlong was a golden age for art and culture. ‘The Manchu Qing dynasty had consolidated its power and broken its historical links with its Han Ming predecessors,’ says Tsang. ‘Its military power was at its height, its economy was thriving, and no expense was spared on the ceramics commissioned at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen.

The superb quality of this vase suggests it was made during the first 10 to 20 years of Qianlong’s reign, under the supervision of the great ceramicist Tang Ying (1682-1756), says Tsang. Celadon glazes — which have their origins in the Tang dynasty (618-907) — were perfected at the time, after being developed by potters under Qianlong’s grandfather, the Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722), using smaller quantities of iron than previously.

‘The fluid carvings and soft translucent blue-green glaze are testament to a master craftsman at work’ — Chi Fan Tsang

The present vase was a show piece designed expressly to decorate the palace halls and please the Emperor, says Tsang — and it’s fair to assume it succeeded handsomely on both counts.

In Chinese cultural imagery, the dragon is a symbol of the beneficent emperor, and often depicted emerging from the crested waves and flying among the clouds as it rises from winter hibernation at the spring equinox and brings rain to water the crops.

Here, a ‘three-clawed front-facing dragon stands upright above two lively but slightly subordinate five-clawed dragons’ — which Tsang describes as ‘popular Confucian imagery that represents the tradition of a respected elder passing on his wisdom and classical values to the next generation’.

The epic drama of coiling dragons, swirling clouds and rolling waves is further accentuated by the beauty of the pale sea-green celadon glaze and the skill with which it has been applied, she says.

‘The carvings had to be crisply rendered in relief so that the translucent glaze pooled in the deeper recesses, creating a colour contrast that heightened the drama of the scene. The fluid carvings and soft translucent blue-green glaze are testament to a master craftsman at work.’

This is not the first time this vase has come to auction. In 1982, it was consigned by an American collector, Albert Keller, and sold for US$60,500, which was an expensive price at the time. The meiping subsequently became part of the Jingguantang Collection, the personal collection of the Hong Kong entrepreneur, philanthropist and Chinese antiques connoisseur Dr. Tsin-Tong Tsui (1941-2010). In 1996, when the collection was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, the meiping achieved HK$3,540,000.

The meiping is rare and probably one of its kind. ‘There are no other known examples,’ says Tsang. ‘The closest comparison is a large 58.9 cm-high globular vase, or tianqiuping, in the Beijing Palace Museum, which has the same dragon-and-clouds design, and the overlapping plantain leaves around its tall cylindrical neck are closely related to the leaves on the present meiping.

Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing

Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing

‘Single-glaze ceramics have been admired and appreciated by generations of collectors, but interest has increased in recent years. The wonderful variations in shape and colour glazes are easy to display in modern homes and they blend the concepts of antique and contemporary art beautifully.’ says Tsang. 

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This magnificent carved ‘Dragon’ celadon-glazed meiping will be offered as a highlight of the Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale on 29 November 2022 at Christie’s Hong Kong.