Among Chinese connoisseurs one dynastic period is revered above all others for the refined beauty and classic simplicity of its ceramics. That period is the Song dynasty (960-1279), during which ceramic vessels with simple, elegant forms were enhanced with subtly colored monochrome glazes. A variety of such wares were appreciated by members of the Song elite and the imperial court, but historical texts tell us that five special types were held in particular esteem - these have been known through the centuries as the 'Five Classic Wares of the Song'. They are Ru ware, Ding ware, Jun ware, Guan ware and Ge ware. The beautiful little dish in the current sale is a rare example of Ge ware, exemplifying all its aesthetic qualities.
Ge ware and Guan ware have been the subjects of intense research both within China and elsewhere in recent years, bringing these wares to the forefront of interest among scholars and collectors alike. Both Guan ware and Ge ware are characterized by glazes which were deliberately crackled to achieve a fine network of lines over the surface of the vessel. One of the reasons that these crackle lines were admired was that they were reminiscent of the fissures in jade, the most prized of all natural materials. Ge and Guan wares were not only appreciated in their own era, but have been treasured by Chinese emperors of succeeding dynasties, as well as by less exalted collectors right up to the present day. The high regard in which such pieces were held by the Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736-95), for instance, is demonstrated by the fact that dishes similar to the current example appear in several informal portraits of the emperor. One such portrait is the famous Anonymous painting entitled 'One or Two?', of which there are three versions in the Palace Museum, Beijing. One of these is illustrated in the catalogue of the exhibition The Qianlong Emperor - Treasures from the Forbidden City, National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2002, p. 112, no. 59. The Qianlong emperor is shown seated on a day-bed in front of a screen on which is hung a portrait of himself, and surrounded by precious objects from his famous collection of antiques. One of these is a small crackled dish similar to the current piece.
The great value placed upon Song crackled dishes like the current example can also be seen in their preservation in the Palace Museum collections. The current dish is very similar in shape and color to a slightly smaller Ge ware dish in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum - Ko Ware of the Sung Dynasty, Book II, Hong Kong, 1962, no 52. The Taipei dish has, however, been fired on its foot rim, rather than on spurs. Another Ge ware dish in the National Palace Museum, illustrated in the same publication, no. 47, shares similar form with the current piece, but is larger and heavier with some discoloration to the glaze. This Taipei dish, however, bears an inscription applied on the orders of the Qianlong emperor crediting the dish with having been made in the famous Xuanhe reign period (AD 1119-25) of the Song dynasty - under the auspices of the great Imperial collector and antiquarian, Emperor Huizong. The inscription tells us that it was applied to the dish in the Qianlong bingshen year (equivalent to AD 1776).
A number of Guan ware dishes of this form, which have been fired on spurs, have also been preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. These have been illustrated in the Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Sung Dynasty Kuan Ware, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1989, nos. 118-24. Further examples of similar form, but which have been fired standing on their foot rims, are illustrated in the same volume, nos. 125-31. The Percival David Foundation, London, also has in its collection both Ge and Guan ware dishes of this form, fired on spurs. These are discussed by R. Scott in 'Guan or Ge Ware? A re-examination of some pieces in the Percival David Foundation,' Oriental Art, vol. XXXIX, no. 2, 1993, pp. 19-20. The David Foundation dish closest in potting and glaze color to the current piece is illustrated in fig. 1. This David Foundation Guan ware dish bears a Qianlong inscription dated AD 1776 - the same date as the inscription on the National Palace Museum Ge ware dish mentioned above. Both the London and Taipei collections include a number of pieces which have had Qianlong poetic inscriptions incised into their base glazes.
Examination of these Qianlong inscriptions highlights the subject on which there has been active debate among scholars and connoisseurs - the difficulty of determining whether a particular piece should be described as Guan ware or Ge ware. Certainly to judge from the Qianlong emperor's inscriptions, he was inconsistent in his attributions. Traditionally it is said that Ge ware acquired its name from the Chinese term gege, meaning elder brother, since it was believed to have been made by the elder of the two Zhang brothers. Distinguishing between Ge and Guan ware is not greatly aided by the historical texts, which merely say that they looked similar to one another. A symposium held by the Shanghai Museum in October 1992 brought together all the leading Song ceramic scholars from China and abroad to discuss Ge ware and the ways to distinguish it from Guan ware. The most widely recognized distinguishing features of Ge ware were felt by these scholars to be that its glaze has the so-called 'iron wire and golden thread' crackle and softly opaque glaze, so elegantly displayed by the current dish. The debate regarding their exact period of production and kiln site still rages, but some Chinese archaeologists now suggest that, like Guan ware, these beautiful and refined Ge wares may have been made at kilns just outside the walls of the Southern Song palace at Hangzhou. Certainly this lovely dish has all the qualities we would expect of a vessel intended for imperial appreciation.