Jade Shears and Shimmering Feathers
An Exquisite Falangcai Bowl
By Rosemary Scott
International Academic Director Asian Art Departments
One of the great masterpieces of Qianlong porcelain is included in this third part of the Robert Chang collection. The exquisitely beautiful falangcai bowl with its decoration of blossoming apricot, willow and spring swallows exemplifies a perfect balance of form and colour combined with the most skilful painting from the imperial ateliers. The arrangement of the decoration not only provides a perfect hand scroll format, but displays the individual elements to their best advantage, as if the viewer were looking up and seeing the branches, flowers, leaves and birds against the clearing sky.
The current bowl is almost certainly a pair to the bowl with complementary decoration and bearing the same inscription in the collection of the Percival David Foundation, London (fig. 1). A small vase in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei bears the same inscription as the bowls. This vase includes willow, blossoming apricot and swallows in its decoration (fig. 2), but also includes rocks, bamboo and paradise flycatchers. Due to the small size of this vase, the painting of the apricot blossoms is less subtle than on the Chang and David Foundation bowls. A further bowl in the National Palace Museum, Taipei incorporates swallows and blossoming apricot, but without willow and combined instead with bamboo (fig. 3). This bowl bears a different inscription to that on the other bowls and the Taipei vase. The inscription on the Taipei bowl without willow reads:
This has been translated as:
'Faces revealed as the wind gently parts the branches;
The drizzling rain creates a misty beard on them.'
The current bowl, the bowl in the Percival David Foundation, and the vase in the National Palace Museum all bear a more poetic inscription, which reads:
and may be translated as:
'Jade shears dart through the flowers
As a Daoist immortal in shimmering feathered gown with the moon returns.
The phrase yu jian or 'jade shears' refer to the tails of the swallows, which resemble the form of scissors. The phrase ni chang or 'rainbow gown' is a more complex literary reference. Specifically these two characters provide a reference to a song called Ni chang yu yi (Gown of shimmering feathers) which was supposedly composed by the Tang Emperor Xuanzong (AD 712-756) who was inspired to write it when he heard the melody Zi yun qu (Song of the Purple Clouds) whilst walking in the Moon Palace with a Daoist monk during the Moon Festival in the first year of his reign. The Gown of Shimmering Feathers was to become a favourite of the emperor's beautiful concubine, Yang Guifei. In the dance that was performed to this music the dancers wore dresses adorned with peacock feathers to represent fluttering Daoist fairies in flight.
The great Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi (AD 772-846) romanticized this dance in his poem Ni chang yu yi ge (Song of the Gown of Shimmering Feathers), which begins with the lines:
'I used to wait upon the Emperor Xianzong during the Yuanhe reign,
Accompanying him to the imperial banquets in the Zhaoyang palace.
There were innumerable songs and dances,
But in the midst of all I loved the Gown of Shimmering Feathers dance the most.'
Bai Juyi also refers to this particular dance twice in his epic poem, Chang hen ge, 'Song of Eternal Regret', which tells the story of the Tang emperor's passionate love for his favourite concubine Yang Guifei, his sorrow when he was unable to prevent her execution by his soldiers, and his search thereafter for her spirit. The first mention of the phrase Ni chang yu yi in the poem is as an indication of a time of pleasure brought to an end by war
'Then from Yuyang the sound of battle drums shook the earth,
The Gown of Shimmering Feathers dance was stopped by sounds of war.'
The second reference occurs in the part of the story when the emperor's envoy, a Daoist monk from Linqiong, finds Yang Guifei's spirit in the form of an immortal called Tai Zhen. Part of the description reads:
'The wind billowed and fluttered the immortal's sleeves,
As if she still danced the Gown of Shimmering Feathers dance.'
The Ni chang yu yi ge obviously held a special place in Bai Juyi's heart, since he also refers to it in another poem, 'Song of the Lute Player', in which its is also intended to evoke a happier time.
'Delicately she fingered the strings, slowly she strumed and plucked them;
First she played The Gown of Shimmering Feathers then The Six Minor Notes.'
In each case the reference to ni chang looks back to a joyous 'golden age', and this was undoubtedly part of the reason for its inclusion in the inscription on the current bowl. The Qianlong Emperor regarded himself as someone who was a scholar of Chinese literature and would have been familiar with these references from the work of one of the Tang dynasty's most revered poets. The use of this reference in the inscription on the current bowl was therefore both a compliment to his scholarship and a suggestion that his reign was another 'golden age', rekindling the best of former times.
The iconography of the decoration on the current bowl has also been chosen with great care - apricot, willow and swallows all being imbued with auspicious meaning. Interestingly, the combination of peach and willow was condemned as vulgar by the Ming dynasty's great arbiter of taste Wen Zhenheng (AD 1585-1645) in his Zhang wu zhi (Treatise on Superfluous things, written c.1615-20), but no objection ever appears to have been raised to the combination of apricot and willow.
The willow chui liu (Salix babylonica) is found all over China, planted in gardens, along lake shores and waterways. Traditionally different parts of the tree were used for making ropes, baskets, tea, medicines and balms. Willow leaves were regarded as a sign of spring, vitality and light, in the sense of combating darkness, and were very popular with Tang and Song painters, while willow could also be used as a rebus for gaiety and pleasure. Because of its delicacy, beauty and suppleness the willow is sometimes seen as an emblem of beautiful women. The waist of a slender woman is often compared to a willow, while her eyebrows are likened to willow leaves. Xiao Man, one of Bai Juyi's beautiful concubines, for example, was famous for her willow-like waist. Willow is also believed to be able to repel demons, and hence willows trees are often planted at the door of a house to protect it from evil spirits. In the famous painting 'Home Again!' by Qian Xuan (ca. 1235- after 1301) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the scene depicted can be viewed as rendering in images the poem 'Home Again!' by Tao Qian (AD 365-427), whom Qian Xuan greatly admired. The scholar is shown in a boat approaching his home, around the gate of which are willow trees. The first two lines of Qian Xuan's inscription on his painting read:
'In front of his gate he planted five willows,
By the eastern fence, he picked chrysanthemums.'
In Buddhism the willow is a sign of humility, and in Buddhist rituals water was sometimes sprinkled using a willow branch to increase its purifying effect. Brooms made from willow were often used to sweep the tombs of ancestors in acts of filial piety at the time of the Qing Ming Festival. Willow was also thought to be able to ward off blindness and was sometimes used to adorn women's hair in springtime. Willow branches were given to friends who were about to undertake journeys, to offer protection during their travels.
Apricot xing (Prunus armenica) was cultivated in China for its fruit at least as early as 500 BC, and has been popular thereafter for its ornamental properties. Apricot trees were planted in gardens and in temple and palace courtyards. Sometimes apricot has been confused with, Hongmei or red plum (Prunus alphandi) its closest botanical relative, and Song literati were quick to distinguish the more restrained plum from the 'playful sexuality' associated with apricot. Apricot seems to have been deemed almost frivolous because, unlike plum meihua, it did not brave the winter frosts, but waited until spring to blossom. In south China when the branches are laden with fruit (bai guo) they are called bai guo zhi or 'a hundred apricot branches' and a branch of apricot came to represent a wish for a hundred sons. The apricot was also seen as a symbol of a beautiful woman and the delicate shape of a woman's eyes were sometimes compared to the ovoid shape of the kernel in the pit of the fruit. The kernels are often eaten as almonds are in the west. Various parts of the tree and fruit are used in Chinese medicine.
While Confucius had his school at Xingtan or Apricot Altar (modern Qufuxian in Shandong), the most famous mention of apricot is probably the Xing yuan ya ji (Elegant Gathering in the Apricot Garden) in April 1437. A number of China's social elite, including Grand Secretary Yang Shiqi (1365-1444), who recorded this occasion, met in a garden belonging to Grand Secretary Yang Rong (1371-1440). The event was the subject of a hand scroll painted by the court artist Xie Huan, which is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and proved a popular subject for artists and poets thereafter.
A Song dynasty President of the Board of Works, Song Zijing (AD 998-1061), who was also a literatus, associated apricot blossom with returning home and wrote:
'On the homeward journey the red apricot blossom stretched for ten li, The Zhuang Yuan rides his horse as if its hooves had wings.'
Apricot is a symbol of the second month of the lunar calendar, the month of the imperial examinations, and has thus become the 'successful candidate's flower'. When combined with swallows yan, the name for which is pronounced the same as that for a banquet yan, they have come to denote the wish for a scholar to be successful in the imperial examinations and attend the banquet given by the Emperor.
Even on their own Spring swallows have traditionally been regarded as auspicious in China. Beijing used to be known as the City of Swallows in the early 20th Century because so many nested in and around the ancient buildings in the capital. Swallows are a sign of spring, and symbolize success in the future, happiness and the arrival of children. Swallows tend to build their nests in cracks and crevices in buildings, therefore are seen as repairing them, thus bringing new life to the old. When swallows nested in a building it was regarded as a good omen for success or renewed prosperity of the family to whom the building belonged.
When seen in panoramic view the decoration on the current bowl provides a perfect hand scroll in the bird and flower genre so loved by the Chinese court. Although the emphasis in theoretical discussion of painting in the Tang period had often concentrated on figure painting, in the Song dynasty the emphasis was on landscape painting on the one hand, and bird and flower painting on the other. The members of the famous Song dynasty Emperor Huizong's (r. AD 1101-1125) Academy (Tu Hua Yuan) were particularly trained in a very naturalistic style of bird and flower painting using colour. Deng Chun, author of the Hua Ji, published in AD 1167, which was a collection of biographies of Northern Song painters, noted that the emperor used to set exercises for the painters in the palace to test their skill in various kinds of bird and flower painting. As an ardent Daoist and a very keen observer of nature Huizong expected the paintings by artists at his court to be correct in every detail, even to the extent of knowing whether a pheasant stepping onto a rock would lift its right or its left leg first.
Huizong's admiration for bird and flower painting is demonstrated by the fact that of the 6,396 works from the period Three Kingdoms to Song included in the Xuanhe hua pu (Xuanhe catalogue of paintings), which was a catalogue of paintings in Huizong's own collection and compiled on his orders, some 2,786 were of bird and flower paintings. Among the artists listed was Xu Chongsi (active 10th-11th century, and grandson of Xu Xi), with 142 of his works being mentioned, mostly bird and flower paintings, including some of apricot blossom. It is Xu Congsi to whom some scholars, including Nie Chongzheng, give credit for initiating the 'boneless' style of painting. It is interesting to note that Huizong's surviving bird and flower paintings all employ the technique known as mogu or 'boneless' which eschews the use of ink outlines and relies solely on the subtle use of colour to create the form of the individual elements.
Huizong was the ultimate aesthete, an enthusiastic antiquarian and an outstanding literatus, among whose passions included painting, and calligraphy, and also botany and ornithology. All four of these were incorporated into his work Five-coloured Parakeet on Blossoming Apricot Tree now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (fig. 4). This hand scroll in colours on silk, which probably dates to the 1110s, combines a fine example of bird and flower painting with an inscription in the Emperor's distinctive shoujin (slender gold) calligraphy. The inscription notes that the painting commemorates this parakeet being brought to Huizong's court as a tribute gift from the far south. When the Emperor saw the parakeet flying about amongst the spring apricot blossoms he decided to paint it himself as a record of the occasion. Huizong was particularly fond of apricot blossom, and, after his abdication, when he was taken north as a prisoner of the invading Jin tartars he wrote a poem about apricot blossom, reminding himself of the beautiful trees that grew in the garden of his palace at Kaifeng.
The admiration for bird and flower painting, and indeed an appreciation of apricot blossom continued into the Southern Song court. A pair of album leaves by the esteemed Academy painter Ma Yuan (active ca. 1160- after 1225) has been preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Although Ma Yuan is primarily known as a painter of landscapes and figure painting, one of these album leaves depicts peach blossom, and the other apricot blossom (fig. 5) in all their ethereal beauty as if seen against the evening sky. Only the Apricot Blossom album leaf bears Ma Yuan's signature, but both bear poetic couplets by Empress Yang, consort of Emperor Ningzong (r. 1195-1224), who refers to herself as Yang Meizi (Younger Sister Yang). The couplet inscribed on Apricot Blossom has been translated by James Cahill as reading:
'Meeting the wind, they offer their artful charm;
Wet by the dew, they boast their pink beauty.'
The great Song dynasty painter, calligrapher, poet and statesman Su Shi admired the bird and flower painting of the academician Ai Xuan from Jinling (Nanjing), and considered that "Paintings representing human figures are divine shen; paintings representing flowers, bamboos, birds and fishes are marvellous miao, paintings of palaces and utensils are works of skill qiao. Landscapes belong to a superior class ....'. One of the poems written by Su Shi on a picture representing broken branches by Secretary Wang from Yanling in Henan includes the lines:
'.... the birds are fluttering among the branches moving the flowers, which are moist with rain. A pair of birds on the point of soaring, a rustle among the thicket of leaves!'
The theme of dew or rain-soaked flowers is one that recurs in many poetic references to blossom, and the apricot flowers and willow leaves on the current bowl also display a clarity of colour which suggests that they have recently been moistened by rain or dew, giving them a freshness that emphasises the feeling of Spring regeneration. The 'boneless' style initiated by Xu Congsi and so admired by the Song Emperor Huizong was continued in the Qing dynasty by artists such as Yun Shouping (AD 1633-1690). Yun Shouping's friend Wang Hui (AD 1632-1717) wrote on his 1688 painting 'The Fragrance of a Nation' in Clearing Spring that Yun's flowers 'emit fragrance and glow with lifelike colour'. It seems likely that the flower paintings of Yun Shouping influenced the finest painting on porcelain in the imperial ateliers of both the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors, and Wang Hui's comment on Yun's work could equally be applied to the painting of the apricot blossom on the current bowl. One of the album leaves in Yun Shouping's Landscape, Flowers, and Plants in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (fig. 6), depicts peach blossom and willow. The delicate colouration and single brush stroke for each willow leaf in Yun's work has resonance for the willow leaves on the current bowl, as does Yun's use of colour on his pink peach blossom compared with that of the apricot blossom on the porcelain bowl. On another of Yun Shouping's album leaves, leaf number nine from the AD 1685 ten leaf album Flowers and Plants (fig. 7), also in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, Yun tackled the same subject, and inscribed the painting:
'Li Bo once wrote, "Wind blowing the willow flowers fills the inn with fragrance."
Since men in former times admired that fragrance,
How can I not use my brush to capture its spirit? Nantian.'
On the final leaf of the same album Yun shou Ping points out that Nantian is himself.
Even the Jesuit missionary artist Lang Shining (Giuseppe Castiglione) undertook birds and flower painting for the Qianlong Emperor. The second leaf in an album of flowers, which is preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing is a painting of two swallows perched on a branch of pink blossom (fig. 8). Although in the case of the album leaf, which is painted in ink and colours on silk, the flowers are peach, rather than apricot, this nevertheless provides further clear evidence of the emperor's appreciation of subjects of this type.
Thus the beautiful bowl in this sale is important not only as a remarkable example of the finest enamel painting from Qianlong's imperial atelier, but also for its links back to Tang poetry and to the first great imperial patron and literatus, the Song dynasty emperor Huizong, who provided the inspiration for many aspects of Qianlong's own artistic and literary patronage. The decoration on the bowl can be viewed as individual auspicious elements or can be taken in combination to provide wishes for prosperity, good health, success in examinations, and the continued blessings and beauty of Spring.