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Of slightly tapering cylindrical form, crisply moulded at either end with a band of stiff leaves and key pattern, the body pierced with oval apertures, covered overall in a clear glaze
14¾ in. (37.2 cm.) long, box
Robert H. Blumenfield, Blanc de Chine. The Great Porcelain of Dehua, Hong Kong, 2002, p.32 B
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Lot Essay

Various types of flute were played in imperial China, and indeed flutes were included in formal court music, being part of both the Zhongheshaoyue and Danbidayue ensembles. Three different types of bamboo flute - the di, chi, and the xiao - from the imperial orchestras are preserved in the Palace Museum (illustrated in Daily Life in the Forbidden City, Viking/Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1988, p. 42, pls. 51 and 52). The current fine porcelain instrument is a very rare di or transverse flute (designed to be played horizontally rather than vertically), and appears to be the only surviving complete Dehua example, although fragments of similar transverse flutes are reported to have been found at the Dehua kilns in Fujian province. Indeed when P.J. Donnelly wrote Blanc de Chine - The Porcelain of Tehua in Fukien, in 1969, he noted the existence of transverse porcelain flutes but stated that he had yet to find a Dehua example. In discussing two vertical flutes from the collection of the late Professor Cheng Te-k'un, he notes that they apparently had their fundamental in d', which is a value that has only been found in late Ming dynasty instruments. Qing dynasty instruments had their fundamental in f'. (ibid, p. 126, pl. 68A). Robert Blumenfield in his 2001 publication Blanc de Chine - The Great Porcelain of Dehua, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, notes his search for an authentic Dehua flute, and his pleasure at finally being able to illustrate the current example (p. 32, plate B).

A late Ming-early Qing writer Zhou Lianggong in his circa AD 1653 treatise Min xiao ji, noted that "Vertical and transverse porcelain flutes from Dehua are lustrous white in colour, and their forms are also fine. However, no more than one or two in every hundred are in tune. When they are in tune, they have a mournful, clear sound, which is far better than that of a bamboo [flute]." The current flute was successfully played by Professor Ye Wencheng of the Department of Anthropology at Xiamen University during a seminar on Fujian ceramics held jointly by the Oriental Ceramic Society, the British Museum and the British Academy in London in October 1995, demonstrating that the flute had good pitch. While flutes were usually made of bamboo, P.J. Donnelly (op. cit., p. 127) mentions flutes made of both jade and iron, in addition to porcelain. He also discusses the considerable difficulties of producing a flute with good tone using porcelain, which shrinks considerably when fired. Indeed it is worth noting that a porcelain instrument cannot even be tested for tone until it has been fired, by which time adjustments can no longer be made. This gives an indication of the exceptional skill of the potter who was able to produce porcelain flutes of good tone. In addition the current example has finely rendered leaf and key-fret bands at both ends of the instrument.

A Dehua porcelain xiao flute designed to be played vertically is preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan - taoci juan, Taipei, 1993, p. 408, no. 818). This flute is 57 cm. long and has six holes, five on the upper surface and one beneath. It has a silk tassel attached to the upper end. This is longer than the transverse flute, but with fewer holes. Another Dehua flute, of similar type to the Palace Museum example, is in the collection of the Percival David Foundation (illustrated by Margaret Medley in Oriental Ceramics -The World's Great Collections - Vol. 6, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1982, fig. 199). The David Foundation flute is undecorated except for a gilt band at either end and an imperial yellow silk knot and tassel attached above the line of holes. It is 43.2 cm. long and dates to the mid-17th century. A further Dehua vertical flute made to look like bamboo is in the Koger Collection (illustrated by John Ayers, Blanc de Chine - Divine Images in Porcelain, China Institute Gallery, New York, 2002, p. 72, no. 23). This flute also has a phoenix design towards the top of the instrument and the characters feng ming (the call of the phoenix) below. These xiao flutes normally had a more mournful tone than di flutes, like the current example, which tend to have a brighter sound.

One of the Eight Daoist Immortals, Han Xiangzi, is usually depicted with a flute. Sometimes he is shown playing the flute, as on a Jiajing doucai cup in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in Empty Vessels, Replenished Minds: The Culture, Practice, and Art of Tea National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2002, p. 94, no. 73). In these cases the flute he is shown playing is a transverse flute. Han Xiangzi, who is traditionally believed to have been the nephew of the Tang dynasty scholar and statesman Han Yu, is also the patron deity of musicians.



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