Homage to the Antique and Celebration of the New - A Yongzheng 'chicken cup'
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director Asian Art
The current Yongzheng doucai 'chicken' cup reflects the fervent admiration of the 18th century court for the doucai 'chicken' cups of the Chenghua reign (1465-1487), and the Yongzheng ceramic artist has been at pains to reproduce all aspects of the 15th century pieces with one exception, where new technology allowed the enamel painter to include an additional decorative flourish.
Chenghua 'chicken cups' were regarded by later generations as exceptionally desirable 'antiques', and down the centuries doucai chicken cups were consistently the most admired Chenghua porcelains. Indeed admiration for them was expressed relatively soon after the date of their manufacture. In a late Ming-early Qing publication - the Rong Cha Li Shuo by Cheng Zhe, the author lists prized wares from the past, and also notes that the most expensive and most attractive porcelains are the Chenghua 'chicken cups'. Cheng Zhe also states that during the Wanli reign (1573-1620) the emperor liked to use such vessels, and that a pair of these Chenghua cups was already worth 10,000 cash (see Ts'ai Ho-pi, 'Chenghua Porcelain in Historical Context', The Emperor's broken china - Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, London, 1995, p. 17). In his Biji, Shen Defu (1578-1642) noted that 'In ceramics the dearest are those of the Chenghua reign, then those from the Xuande reign. A cup used to count only several ounces [of silver], when I was a child I did not think of them as valuable treasures. A pair of Chenghua wine cups now fetches 100 ounces [of silver], and a Xuande incense burner almost as much.' (translated by Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things - Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991, p. 136-7).
The theme of the decoration on this cup - rooster, hen and chickens had already found imperial favour in the Xuande reign (1426-35), and the National Palace Museum has in its collection a Xuande painting of this subject, bearing both the Xuande Emperor's seal and an inscription from his brush (Illustrated by Ts'ai Ho-pi, 'Chenghua Porcelain in Historical Context', The Emperor's broken china - Reconstructing Chenghua porcelain, op. cit., p. 22, fig. 2). The attitude of the Chenghua Emperor to this theme is made very plain in the colophon written by him in 1486 on an anonymous Song dynasty painting of a hen and her chicks, which is also preserved in the collection of the National Palace Museum (illustrated ibid. p. 22, fig. 1). The Emperor praises the hen for guarding her chickens, responding to their cries, nourishing them, and defending them. It is likely that the nurturing aspect of this decorative scheme particularly appealed to the Chenghua Emperor, as it appear to have done to both the Kangxi and Yongzheng emperors. In the case of the Yongzheng Emperor, it is probable that this exceptionally conscientious ruler was inclined to draw a parallel between the care of the hen for her chicks and his own care for the welfare of his subjects and the Empire as a whole. The way in which the fowl on both the Chenghua and Yongzheng 'chicken cups' are drawn is both lively and natural, showing the birds in a family unit with the rooster and hen watching the chickens run around and peck at their food.
Very precise imperial copies of Chenghua 'chicken cups' had also been made in the reign of the Yongzheng emperor's father, the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722). A Chenghua 'chicken cup' and one from the Kangxi reign are in the collection of Sir Percival David (Illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Imperial Taste - Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Los Angeles and San Francisco, 1989, p. 73, no. 42 and p. 75, no. 44), and interesting comparisons may be made between the Chenghua, Kangxi and the Yongzheng 'chicken cups'. The David Chenghua and Kangxi cups are of similar size to the current Yongzheng cup, and all depict hen, rooster and chicks beside rocks, roses, palm or bamboo, and daylilies. All bear six-character underglaze blue marks within double squares. The layout of the design on the Chenghua and Kangxi cups is virtually identical, and there is a known version of doucai 'chicken cups' from the Yongzheng reign which is also extremely similar to this layout. One such cup was sold by Christie's Hong Kong on 27 May 2008, lot 1587, while the current cup belongs to a small group of Yongzheng vessels which include a slight variation.
All the Kangxi, and Yongzheng 'chicken cups' mentioned above were made with extreme care to emulate the soft blue, soft glaze and delicate enamels of the Chenghua originals, however the current Yongzheng cup adds one new element to the design. Close examination of Chenghua doucai 'chicken cups' provides a reminder of a missing enamel colour within the 15th century enamel palette - black enamel. Although the tails of the roosters on Chenghua 'chicken cups' look black at a distance, the colour is in fact created using underglaze blue covered with khaki-coloured enamel derived from iron. There was considerable difficulty in this period in producing a black enamel that was glossy and that did not rub off too easily - a problem that was not completely solved until the 18th century. In the case of the Kangxi 'chicken cups' the tails are painted in black enamel, but this enamel was neither glossy nor very stable and so had to be covered in a clear pale green or purple enamel in order to prevent it being rubbed off and to give it depth and gloss. It was not until the Yongzheng reign that a true glossy black enamel was developed - allowing the porcelain decorators to apply the colour in calligraphic styles - both for calligraphy itself, and in the painting of trees, rocks and the tails of roosters. In an apparent celebration of this new enamel, and the freedom it gave to the ceramic artists, the tails of the roosters on the current 'chicken cup' have been redesigned to emphasise the richness, fluency and movement of the birds' natural feathers. In order to do this the stance of one rooster was altered in order to present a fan-like shape to its tail.
It is significant that these Kangxi and Yongzheng 'chicken cups' adopt not only the general style of the Chenghua decoration, but also the style of the Chenghua reign marks. While some Qing dynasty 'chicken cups' were undoubtedly made with the dishonest intention to satisfy the burgeoning antiques trade in these wares, and bear spurious Chenghua marks, those described above do not. They bear the correct Qing dynasty reign names rather than adopting the Chenghua name. This makes it clear that these 'chicken cups' were not made as copies with any intention to deceive, but were commissioned as homage to the porcelains of the earlier reign. Not only the collection of antiques, but the commissioning of pieces in archaistic style was a major feature of the arts of all three of the great Qing emperors. The famous ceramicist Tang Ying, who was appointed from the Imperial household staff to take the role of resident assistant at Jingdezhen in 1728, became famous for his exemplary copies of ancient wares, which were praised as being of similarly high quality as the original wares, and it is tempting to see his influence in the production of cups such as the current example.
Since Song times, archaism has played an important part in shaping the Chinese arts. A leading scholar has noted that: 'Interaction with the past is one of the distinctive modes of intellectual and imaginative endeavour in traditional Chinese culture (Craig Clunas, Superfluous Things Material Culture and Social Status in Early Modern China, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1991, p. 91, n. 91; Murck, 1976, p. xi). Indeed as early as the Confucian Analects it was stated that: 'A man who can gain new insights through re-studying what has already been learned may serve as a teacher.'(Wei Zheng, Analects of Confucius, Book II). The new insights in enamel technology applied to knowledge through study of antique Chenghua porcelains have, in the case of the current Yongzheng 'chicken cup', produced a porcelain vessel of exceptional beauty.
PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION