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AN IMPORTANT AND EXTREMELY RARE BLUE AND WHITE 'KUI DRAGON' JAR
AN IMPORTANT AND EXTREMELY RARE BLUE AND WHITE 'KUI DRAGON' JAR
AN IMPORTANT AND EXTREMELY RARE BLUE AND WHITE 'KUI DRAGON' JAR
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PROPERTY SOLD TO BENEFIT THE ROBERT CHANG ART EDUCATION CHARITABLE FOUNDATION
AN IMPORTANT AND EXTREMELY RARE BLUE AND WHITE 'KUI DRAGON' JAR

XUANDE SIX-CHARACTER MARK IN UNDERGLAZE BLUE WITHIN A DOUBLE CIRCLE AND OF THE PERIOD (1426-1435)

Details
AN IMPORTANT AND EXTREMELY RARE BLUE AND WHITE 'KUI DRAGON' JAR
XUANDE SIX-CHARACTER MARK IN UNDERGLAZE BLUE WITHIN A DOUBLE CIRCLE AND OF THE PERIOD (1426-1435)
The jar is finely potted with a slightly compressed globular body rising to a vertical neck and lipped rim, supported on a low and broad foot, finely painted in rich saturated cobalt of inky-blue tone with areas of 'heaping and piling' to depict a striding three-clawed kui dragon with a long snout, curled horns pointed back toward its sinuous, muscular upper body and forelegs, its bifurcated foliate scroll tail extends from behind its wings, its jaws open wide with a floral sprig extending from its tongue. The foot is decorated with a band of petal panels, and a cloud collar with ten flower sprays on the shoulder below a ruyi band at the neck framing stylised trefoils. The reign mark is well written on the base.
7 1/4 in. (18.3 cm.) high, box
Provenance
Sold at Christie’s London, 12 December 1988, lot 173, and illustrated on the catalogue front cover (fig. 2)
The Robert Chang Collection
Exhibited
Christie's London, An Exhibition of Important Chinese Ceramics from the Robert Chang Collection, 2-14 June 1993, Catalogue, no. 12

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Marco Almeida (安偉達)
Marco Almeida (安偉達) SVP, Senior International Specialist, Head of Department

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Lot Essay

THE ROBERT CHANG XUANDE KUI DRAGON JAR
SOLD TO BENEFIT THE ROBERT CHANG ART EDUCATION CHARITABLE FOUNDATION

AN EXCEPTIONALLY RARE XUANDE KUI DRAGON JAR
Rosemary Scott Senior International Academic Consultant Asian Art

This vibrantly-painted jar is an exceptionally rare example of Xuande porcelain decorated with kui dragons. The kui dragons (??kuilong) which dominate the decoration on the jar derive from the makara of Hindu origin. In Sanskrit makara means ‘sea dragon’ and in Hindu beliefs it is the vehicle for the river goddess Ganga, who is the personification of the River Ganges and is worshipped as the goddess of purification and forgiveness. Varuna, the god of the sea, who is associated with justice and truth, is also depicted riding a makara. In both Hindu and Buddhist iconography makara protected gateways and thresholds to palaces and temples. The kui dragon which appears on Chinese works of art from the Yuan dynasty onwards is distinct from the kui dragon, of different origin, which appears on Chinese cast bronze vessels of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The makara-derived kui dragons enter the Chinese artistic repertoire with the dissemination of Buddhism.

In both the Yuan and early Ming dynasties kui dragons were used in their protective capacity to decorate gateways and doorways. Kui dragons can still be seen in bas-relief on the famous marble ceremonial gateway, Juyongguan ???, at Changpingxian ???, Hebei province, which bears an inscribed date equivalent to AD 1243, but was probably completed in the 14th century. This Yuan dynasty gateway marked the boundary between Inner Mongolia and what is now Hebei province and was on the road between the Mongol capital of Khanbaliq (modern day Beijing) and Kubulai Khan’s Summer capital of Xanadu (?? Shangdu) in modern day Inner Mongolia. On the southern exterior face of the gateway, the lower voussoirs are carved with kui dragons (see W. Watson, Lart de lancienne Chine, Paris, 1979, p. 513, fig. 748). At the top of this arch Vishnu is shown seated on Garuda and flanked by human-headed serpents, and it is below these that the kui dragons appear. The same arrangement is depicted on the famous polychrome glazed tile door frames from the Da Baoensi ????pagoda (Porcelain pagoda) at Nanjing, which was commissioned by the Ming dynasty Yongle Emperor in AD 1412 and completed on the orders of his son, the Xuande Emperor, in AD 1431. One of these door frames has been erected in the Nanjing City Museum (see Empress Place Museum, Urban Life in the Song, Yuan & Ming, Singapore, 1994, p. 28). The same arrangement, with similar positioning of the kui dragons, can also be seen on a number of 15th century silk thangkas, including three exhibited in Heavens Embroidered Cloths One Thousand Years of Chinese Textiles, Hong Kong, 1995, pp. 136-141, nos. 28-30.

Until the Chenghua reign kui dragons were rarely painted on porcelains. However, excavations of the Xuande stratum at the imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen in 1984 unearthed a blue and white jar, slightly larger than the current vessel, with kui dragons in the main decorative band above encircling lotus petals (see Chang Foundation, Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1998, p. 13, no. 3). This jar bears a six-character Xuande mark written in underglaze blue within a double circle on its base. A similar, but unmarked jar was sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong in May 1989, where it was dated to the Yongle reign. A kui dragon, accompanied by a phoenix, was also painted in underglaze blue on a Xuande water dropper excavated at the Zhushan imperial kilns in 1982 (see Chang Foundation, op. cit., p. 120, no. F.5).

Only four Xuande-marked jars similar to the current vessel are known. One of these, formerly in the collection of Xun Yingzhou, is preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing and is illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 106, no. 100. (fig. 1) Another example is now in the collection of then Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. This jar had previously been in the distinguished collections of Wu Lai-hsi (??? Wu Laixi), Major Lindsay F. Hay, and Soame Jenyns, and had been sold by Sotheby’s London in May 1937 and again in June 1939. A third similar example is in the collection of the National Museum of China, Beijing and is illustrated in Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan guancang wenwu yanjiu congshu (Studies on the Collections of the National Museum of China) Ciqi juan: Mingdai (Porcelain volume: Ming dynasty), Shanghai, 2007, pl. 29. A fourth example was sold by Sotheby’s London, from the collection of an English Lady, in October 2017, lot 101.

Kui dragons are, as mentioned above, rare on porcelains of the Xuande reign, appearing only on a small number of blue and white pieces, but they appear on both blue and white and doucai porcelains in the Chenghua period, when they appear striding around bowls of various sizes (see The Emperors broken china - Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, op. cit., p. 58, no. 59, and Tsui Museum of Art, A Legacy of Chenghua, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 260-1, no. C86), and also forming roundels (see Tsui Museum of Art, A Legacy of Chenghua, op. cit., pp. 210-11, no. C61). Kui dragons also appear in underglaze blue on Chenghua doucai lidded jars of the type which bear the character tian on the base (see ibid., pp. 304-5, no. C108).

There are differences between the Xuande and Chenghua kui dragons, although both have proboscidiform snouts, which are always shown raised. They have only two front legs with clawed feet, while the back part of the body trails off in a succession of ornate scrolls. Their mouths are always shown open displaying both teeth and tongue, and they carry a scrolling plant stem in their mouths. However, the Xuande dragons appear more vital and powerful, and their long snouts terminate in a ruyi-shape, while the Chenghua version appears more pacific and has an elephant-like snout. It is also notable that the lower body of the Xuande kui dragons often appear to be scaly and reptilian.

The Chenghua porcelains decorated with kui dragons are usually ascribed to Buddhist use, since the Chenghua Emperor was a devout Buddhist. While Buddhism does not appear to have dominated the reign of the Xuande Emperor to the same extent, nevertheless he followed the lead of his grandfather, the Yongle Emperor, and continued, for example, to nurture good relations with the Tibetan Buddhist clerics. The Xuande Emperor also commissioned craftsmen to produce fine gilt bronzes Buddhist figures and additionally ordered vessels related to Buddhist usage from the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen. It is likely that jars such as the current outstanding example were intended to be used for imperial Buddhist ritual.

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