Published already in 1939, this eighteenth-century, blue-and-white porcelain jar is exceptionally important as it features a figural scene well-known from Chinese and Korean paintings but seldom represented on ceramics: three worthies seated in a landscape and playing weiqi, a board game similar to chess called weiqi in Chinese and wigi, or baduk, in Korean but better known in the West by the Japanese name go. Although the bamboo and blossoming-plum branches depicted on eighteenth-century Korean blue-and-white jars frequently correspond closely to related themes painted on paper and silk, the figural decoration on such jars seldom finds such close counterparts in contemporaneous paintings, making this an extraordinarily rare and very important example.
Used as storage vessels and occasionally as vases for monumental floral displays at banquets and ceremonies, such large, broad-shouldered, narrow-waisted jars were popular in Korea from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. Some feature landscape decoration, while others sport floral designs, and yet others boast dragons, tigers, haetae v, or other auspicious beasts. The rarest and most desirable, however, feature majestic striding dragons or figural decoration with Daoist overtones.
Formally termed jun in Korean, such jars are often also called ho, just as they occasionally are characterized as gwan, all three terms referring to types of jars; those with dragon décor are known as yongjun (literally, dragon jars). This jar shape is sometimes also referred to as a “moon jar”—dal hangari in Korean—though that name technically should be reserved for large round jars whose globular shape recalls a full moon.
The jar’s form doubtless finds distant inspiration in meiping vessels created in China during the Northern Song period (960–1127). Despite the poetic name meaning “plum vase”, meiping (Korean, maebyeong) vessels were not vases for the display of cut branches of blossoming plum but were elegant storage bottles for wine and other liquids. Korean potters of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, during the Goryeo dynasty (918– 1392), gave the maebyeong form its classic interpretation, with broad shoulders, narrow waist, and lightly flaring foot. In fact, the graceful Goryeo interpretation of the maebyeong echoes in meiping vessels created in China from the fifteenth century onward, during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties.
Crafted in both porcelain and buncheong stoneware, the maebyeong form persisted into Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), following its own evolutionary path. Dated by inscription to 1489, a monumental blue-and-white porcelain jar with pine and bamboo décor in the collection of Dongguk University Museum, Seoul reveals that by the late fifteenth-century the maebyeong vessel had been transformed from slender-necked bottle into wide-mouthed jar; it further reveals that in the transformation from bottle to jar, such vessels saw both an increase in size and a change in proportions, the shoulder becoming ever broader, presumably to accommodate the jar’s wider mouth. As evinced by a porcelain jar embellished with a branch of fruiting grapevine painted in underglaze iron brown, the jar now in the collection of Ewha Womans University Museum, Seoul, early eighteenth-century potters gave the jar form the robust interpretation that would continue through the end of the dynastic era. Unique to Korea, jars with bulging shoulders and gently curved side walls that descend to a constricted base were ubiquitous during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries.
Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century examples have a short, vertical neck and an exaggerated profile, with massive shoulders and constricted waist, the profile incorporating a distinct S-curve. By contrast, jars from the nineteenth century—particularly those from later in that century—exhibit a more mannered profile with narrower shoulders, an attenuated body, a beveled foot, and a tall, cylindrical neck.
Those rare, eighteenth-century jars with figural decoration typically present an elderly scholar, often shown as a Daoist hermit, in a landscape seated on a rock under a pine tree, as revealed by a well-known jar in the collection of the National Museum of Korea, Seoul (museum number nam 479) . Other such jars occasionally depict the scholar lying on a flat-topped rock under a paulownia tree, as witnessed by another famous jar in the National Museum of Korea (ssu 32870). By contrast, the front face of this magnificent jar features three elderly worthies seated at a flat-topped rock under a pine and playing weiqi, a traditional Chinese board game that might be compared to chess. A fourth figure—an older male with a worker’s broad hat—stands to the (viewer’s) right of the seated gentlemen, immediately behind the pine trunk; holding a broom and small dustpan, he sweeps the away the accumulated leaves. Moving around the jar, a crane gracefully descends to the left of the three seated gentlemen, leading the viewer’s eye to the jar’s rear face, which features a landscape with a foreground lake backed by towering mountains. Described by a circle and framed above and below by wispy clouds, a full moon appears over the center of the mountain range. A flock of birds in flight, more wispy clouds, and the calligraphically painted leaves of an orchid plant combine to lead the viewer’s eye back around to the figures seated on the jar’s front face.
Japanese sources often title this theme “Three Stars Playing Chess”—i.e., the theme of three elderly men playing weiqi under a pine tree, occasionally with a fourth gentleman resting against a rock a short distance away. In the context of Chinese and Korean painting, the Japanese nomenclature is ambiguous, however, as “Three Stars” , when used as a title in China, occasionally refers to a painting that depicts Confucius (551–479 BC), Laozi (6th century BC), and the Buddha (traditionally, c. 563–c. 483 BC) engaged in an imagined, but historically impossible, conversation. With his crooked walking stick, long beard, and elongated head with cranial protuberance, the central figure at the weiqi board on this jar indeed bears a striking resemblance to conventional, if fanciful, portraits of Laozi, but the other two figures clearly are neither Confucius nor the Buddha; if the central figure isn’t actually Laozi, then he likely is a Daoist hermit. In short, this scene can best be generically titled “Three Elders in a Landscape Playing Weiqi”. A game of strategy, weiqi was considered one of the “Four Elegant Pastimes” in traditional China, along with playing the qin, or classical zither, painting, and doing calligraphy; those four have been considered appropriate leisure time activities for learned, cultivated gentlemen since Tang times (618–907). Weiqi originated in China at least as early as the fifth century BC and is regarded as the world’s oldest board game. As weiqi is mentioned in the Analects of Confucius—indeed, it is assumed that Confucius himself played weiqi—the game traditionally has enjoyed the highest level of cultural acceptance. It spread to Korean in the fifth or sixth century AD and then on to Japan by the seventh century.
In fact, the theme represented on this jar derives from Chinese paintings depicting the “Four Elders of Mt. Shang”. Such paintings visually recount the story of four elderly gentlemen who retreated from public life at the end of China’s Qin dynasty (221–206 BC) in order to escape the dynasty’s turbulent end; they fled to Mt. Shang, in Shaanxi province, where they lived in seclusion and pursued their scholarly interests. These legendary gentlemen came to symbolize the proper mode of behavior for scholars and statemen in times of tyranny, political turbulence, and dynastic decline—i.e., the noble retreat to the solitude of the countryside—and thus became a favored theme in Chinese literature and painting. (In modern parlance, they would be termed “culture heroes”.) Indeed, retreat from the “dusty world”, eremitism, and life as a recluse had already become a celebrated theme in Chinese thought and literature by the time of Tao Yuanming(c. 365–427), as revealed by his famous poem Guiqulai, or “Returning Home”.
Chinese paintings on the theme of the “Four Elders of Mt. Shang” typically depict the elderly scholars playing weiqi while seated under a pine in an idyllic mountain landscape. The subject gained popularity in China at least as early as the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), as evidenced by a meticulously rendered hanging scroll by an otherwise unknown painter surnamed Zhu and now in the collection of the Nezu Museum, Tokyo. The theme’s popularity continued through the Ming dynasty and well into the Qing. In fact, a 1761-dated hanging scroll on the theme by Huang Shen (1687–1770) and now in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing suggests the type of Chinese literati painting that influenced portrayals of the subject in Korea, where the theme became popular during the Joseon dynasty.
The scene represented on this jar shows a strong visual kinship to a privately owned, nineteenth-century, Korean folding screen that depicts the “Four Elders of Mt. Shang”. Although this jar dates to the eighteenth century and the screen to the nineteenth, the scenes on both works likely derive from a once well-known but now lost painting by the mid-Joseon painter Yi Gyeong’yun (1545–1611). Like the jar, the screen features as its central theme three elderly men seated around a flat-topped rock in a pine grove and playing weiqi. The screen further features a fourth gentlemen who sits by a rock a little to the (viewer’s) left of the main group and gazes at a deer standing beside a babbling brook; two servants appear in the foreground of the screen’s left half, each tending a small stove to heat water for tea. A crane descends at the right edge of the screen to join another crane standing on the ground. Thus, although the composition of the screen is more complex than that of the jar, the essential elements of the two depictions are virtually identical, as is the mode of representation.
In depicting the “Four Elders of Mt. Shang”, Chinese painters emphasized traditional virtues, particularly noble retreat to a humble mountain abode in troubled times—and, in peaceful times, finding solace in the company of friends in a secluded country villa or garden and passing the time cultivated, tradition-sanctioned activities; though adopting that basic approach, Korean artists added such auspicious wishes for long life as the deer and cranes—which, together with the pine, are symbols of longevity—and they also infused the scene with Daoist overtones by presenting the central figure as, or in the guise of, Laozi. Additionally, they incorporated something of the spontaneity and whimsicality of Korean folk painting.
Its bold form, vibrant brushwork, and silvery hued cobalt blue in both light and dark tones make this an exemplary eighteenth-century jar, while its virtually unique subject matter and its kinship to contemporaneous figural paintings mark it as a one-of-a-kind work. The rarity, importance, fine condition, and early—indeed enviable—publication record elevate this magnificent jar to the rank of major masterpiece of Korean blue-and-white porcelain.