AN EXCEPTIONAL BLUE AND WHITE YONGZHENG DRAGON VASE
ROSEMARY SCOTT, INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART
The distinctive form of this superbly painted vase appears to have been greatly appreciated by the Yongzheng emperor, since it was made in a number of different colours during his reign. Amongst the Yongzheng vases of this type still preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, are a monochrome copper red example (illustrated in Qing dai yuyao ciqi, volume 1, part II, Forbidden City Publishing, Beijing, 2005, pp. 40-41, no. 10) (fig. 1); an example with flambé glaze (illustrated ibid., pp. 298-299, no. 135); an example with imitation Ge type glaze and three small biscuit-fired rams on the foot (illustrated ibid, pp. 368-369, no. 170); and a white glazed example with extended foot and two three-dimensional figures standing on either side of the shoulder (illustrated ibid, pp. 198-199, no. 85). A fifth Yongzheng example of this form in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, is identical to the current vase, being decorated in underglaze blue with a five-clawed and a three-clawed dragon amongst waves, sharing the same minor decorative bands as the current vase (illustrated ibid., pp. 24-25, no. 2). The only other Yongzheng blue and white vase of this form and decoration that appears to have been published is the vessel formerly in the collection of W.W. Winkworth, and now in the Au Bak Ling collection.
The form of these vases, with widely flared foot and two low-relief 'bow-string' lines around the neck, may have been inspired by holy water flasks of the early Ming dynasty, of the type represented by lot 1803 in the current catalogue. The holy water flasks, associated with Buddhism, have a flange around the neck, and it may be that the two narrow, low-relief bands around the neck of the current vessel and its counterparts are vestiges of that flange. It is interesting to note that on a minyao holy water bottle with underglaze blue decoration, which was excavated from a tomb at Jingdezhen dated to the Xuande-Zhengtong period (illustrated in Zhongguo taoci chuanji 19 Jingdezhen minjian qinghua ciqi, Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1983, no. 12), the flange is reduced in size and above it is a narrow low-relief band that could have suggested the double band to the later potters. Whether the early Ming dynasty vessel was used for holy water or for herbs is not certain, but the Yongzheng vessels appear to have been used as flower vases.
The choice of decorative motifs on the current vase is particularly interesting. Around the neck of the vessel is a beautifully painted design of blossoms floating on the waves. This design, is known in Chinese as luo hua liu shui , fallen flowers on flowing water. This phrase, which comes from a Tang dynasty poem, caught the imagination of artists, and the theme appears regularly in paintings and on the decorative arts. The annotated version of the Gegu yaolun , compiled by Wang Zuo in 1459, mentions silk brocade from Suzhou being made with this design. It can be seen on imperial porcelain as early as the Chenghua reign (1465-87), when it was used to decorate doucai cups (see Tsui Museum of Art, A Legacy of Chenghua, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 270-271, no. C19). The design was taken up once more on doucai porcelains of the Kangxi and Yongzheng reigns, such as the delicate bowl in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum 38 Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 223, no. 204). As can be seen in the current vase, the design was also applied to blue and white imperial porcelains in the Yongzheng reign.
The theme of the decoration on the body of the vase is even more interesting, and shows two dragons amongst waves. The upper dragon has five claws, while the lower dragon, who looks up at him, has only three claws. The five-clawed dragon represents the emperor, while it is likely that the three-clawed dragon represents the crown prince, who is receiving instruction from his father. Parallels can be drawn between this design and the famous hanging scroll on silk, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, entitled Spring's peaceful message, which was painted by the Italian Jesuit missionary artist Giuseppe Castiglione, known at the Chinese court as Lang Shining (illustrated in The Qianlong Emperor - Treasures from the Forbidden City, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2002, p. 30-31, no. 2). The painting shows a younger man bending slightly from the waist in a gesture of respect, and receiving a floral spray from an older man. The majority of scholars believe that this painting is intended to depict Prince Hongli (the future Qianlong emperor) receiving the sprig of blossom from his father, the Yongzheng emperor. Certainly the Qianlong emperor identified himself as the young man in an inscription which he wrote on the painting in 1782, when he was 71 years old. Both the painting on silk and the decoration on the current porcelain vase suggest the respect of the young prince for his father, the emperor, and possibly anticipates the transfer of the mandate of heaven and the responsibility for the good of the empire that went with it. Assuming that this is the correct interpretation of the decoration on the vase, then this vessel and the two other known examples must have been ordered by the emperor to commemorate some special occasion.
THE PROPERTY OF AN AMERICAN GENTLEMAN