The theme of children at play - specifically boy children - was an enduringly popular theme on Chinese ceramics. Boy babies playing among lotus scrolls can be seen on Song dynasty (960-1279) Ding wares and qingbai wares. One name for lotus in Chinese is pronounced lian, which sounds like the word for successive, the implied auspicious wish symbolised by this design being a succession of sons. In later depictions of children playing, such as that on the current vase, at least one of the boys usually carries a lotus flower or a lotus leaf. The depiction of children engaged in various games in a garden landscape gained particular favour at the court in the Chenghua reign (1465-87), and several vessels decorated in underglaze blue and also in underglaze blue and overglaze enamels in doucai style are preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (see Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ch'eng-hua Porcelain Ware, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2003, pp.45-7, nos. 19-21, and pp. 192-3, nos. 200-201). The popularity of this motif continued well into the 16th century, and was seen intermittently thereafter.
Lively depictions of boys playing in gardens came to the fore again on the imperial porcelains of the 18th century, particularly during the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-95), when they were decorated in famille rose or fencai enamels. The Palace Museum, Beijing has several Qianlong vases bearing this decoration in its collection, including a tianqiuping (see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 39 - Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 101, no. 87); an ovid vase (see ibid., p. 105, no. 91); a spherical vase (see ibid., p. 106, no. 92); a baluster vase (ibid., pp. 138-9, no. 121); a lidded cylindrical jar (see ibid., p. 146, no. 128); a cylindrical vase (see ibid., p. 150, no. 132). Qianlong vases with famille rose decoration depicting boys playing in a garden are also in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (see Porcelain of the National Palace Museum - Enamelled Ware of the Ch'ing Dynasty, Book II, Cafa company, Hong Kong, 1969, pp 37-41, pls. 5-5d). The National Palace Museum also has a cylindrical lidded jar decorated with the same theme in doucai style (see ibid., pp. 25-9, pls. 2-2f). The design also continued into the Jiaqing period (1796-1820), and the Palace Museum Beijing has a slightly larger vase of similar form to the current example, but with moulded relief decoration and somewhat more simplified landscape (see op. cit., pp.190-91, no. 168).
The children on the vase are engaged in a range of activities, including mock battles and riding hobby-horses. At the neck boys hold the figures of the two imperial creatures - dragon and phoenix - on red poles. Indeed many of the items that the boys are holding or playing with have auspicious connotations. One boy holds a red pole on the top of which is a sun rising through coloured clouds. The sun, pronounced yang, reinforces the yang (male) theme of the decoration. The coloured (rosy) clouds provide a rebus for good luck. Several boys hold poles topped with auspicious animals, such as qilin, which are symbolic of happiness. Chinese tradition also credits the qilin with the power to bring many sons as well as ensuring that they will become successful scholars. The qilin is also regarded as a wise and just creature, and will only appear during the reign of a ruler who is also wise and fair-minded.
Another boy holds a pole topped by the figure of an elephant with a vase on its back. The elephant is an important creature within the Buddhist faith, but also has good secular associations. The word for elephant in Chinese xiang is pronounced in the same way as one of the words for happiness. It is a symbol of strength and intelligence, and because it lives to a great age is also regarded as symbolizing triumph over death. The elephant held by the boy on this vase has a saddle cloth and a vase on its back, which provides a rebus for 'perfect peace and harmony in the universe'. Some of the children dangle large prawns over the side of the bridge. Prawns symbolize liveliness, virtue and happiness, and so reflect some of the characteristics that parents would wish for their sons.
The children on this vase are skillfully painted in a very lively style, within a well conceived landscape. Their facial expressions and their dress are both painted with great care, making this a particularly charming, as well as a spectacularly large, 'boys' vase.