The form of this magnificent porcelain ewer undoubtedly has its origins in other materials. A clue to this may be seen in a very early version of the form, which was excavated in 1962 in Beijing and is now in the Capital Museum (fig. 1). This Yuan dynasty qingbai ewer was included in the exhibition, Treasures from Ancient Beijing, Christie's New York, 2000, no. 8. Although the 14th century vessel tapers slightly towards the mouth and the crown-like vertical flange rises from the back of the mouth rather than the front, the link is clear. The salient point about the Yuan porcelain vessel is that the potter has applied non-functional porcelain straps and studs, suggesting that the original media for such vessels might have been wood or some other material that needed to be held together with leather or metal straps fixed with metal studs. Interestingly, the horizontal bands representing these straps remained a feature of both the metal and porcelain versions of this ewer form into the 18th century and beyond.
The columnar Tibetan ewer does not appear to have been favoured during the Ming dynasty, when the so-called 'monk's cap' ewers were more prominent, even during those reigns when Tibetan Buddhism flourished. However, with the reign of the Qing dynasty Kangxi emperor, and his renewal of interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, vessels of this duomu or liammu ewer form appeared in metalwork and in porcelain, usually decorated with enamels. The Tibetan name for this type of vessel means 'container for butter', but they were also used for milk or wine. There is a rare Kangxi porcelain example decorated in splashed sancai, sometimes called 'tiger skin' glaze in Tibet, cf. Treasures from Snow Mountains - Gems of Tibetan Cultural Relics, Shanghai Museum, 2001, no. 107 (fig. 2). A Kangxi on-biscuit enamelled ewer with floral scroll decoration was exhibited in the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, and illustrated in Tausend jahre chinesische Keramik aus Privatbesitz, Hamburg, 1974, no. 111. Another Kangxi famille verte example decorated with panels containing bird and flower scenes is in the Grandidier Collection in the Musée Guimet, illustrated in The World's Great Collections - Oriental Ceramics, vol. 7, Musée Guimet, Paris, Kodansha, Tokyo/New York, 1981, no. 132. None of these three Kangxi ewers have handles, but instead they have rings - some with animal masks - on the side opposite the spout, and presumably to allow the fixing of a metal handle. A further Kangxi on-biscuit famille verte ewer in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California has Louis XIV ormolu mounts, including a metal handle which hides any traces of such rings, see M. Beurdeley & G. Raindre, Qing Porcelain, Thames and Hudson, London, 1987, p. 269, no. 371; as does the Louis XVI ormolu mount on a pair of rare monochrome aubergine-glazed ewers in a private Paris collection illustrated by the same authors, ibid., p. 269, no. 370.
While a number of metalwork and cloisonné enamel on metal duomu ewers from the Qianlong reign are known, porcelain examples are very rare. They do, however, all share a feature that differentiates them from the Kangxi vessels. The Qianlong porcelain ewers have porcelain dragon-shaped handles. The most complex of these handles can be seen on the current vessel and on similar ewers in the National Palace Museum, illustrated in Monarchy and Its Buddhist Way, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1999, p. 218, no. 120 (fig. 3); and the Palace Museum Beijing, illustrated in Kangxi Yongzheng Qianlong, Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 422, no. 104, which have been decorated to look like wood, while their bands are gilded to look like metal - a reference to the original materials for this form. These Taipei and Beijing vessels also share with the current ewer similar decorative treatment of the upper flange. Although they have a phoenix spout, like the current piece, the form is different.
A spout of similar form to that on the current example can be seen on a Qianlong famille rose ewer in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - Porcelains with Cloisonné Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 114, no. 98 (fig. 4). The Beijing ewer, however, has a much simpler dragon handle than that on the current ewer or the vessel in Taipei and the faux bois Beijing ewer. On the famille rose Beijing ewer, only the dragon's head is modelled. This ewer does share with the current vessel decoration which combines floral scrolls with elements from the Eight Buddhist Emblems. A Qianlong porcelain ewer donated by Dr. K.S. Lo to the Hong Kong Museum of Art and included in the exhibition The Wonders of the Potter's Palette, 1984, no. 70 (fig. 5), is very close in style to the current ewer. They are both enamelled in imitation of cloisonné enamel with a turquoise-ground and each decorative element outlined in gold. Both have gold reign marks and both have similarly moulded and decorated phoenix spouts. However, while the colours of the handles are similar, the Hong Kong ewer has the simpler form of dragon handle. An example of the cloisonné enamel on metal ewers that provided the inspiration for the decoration of the Hong Kong and current porcelain vessels can be seen in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated op. cit., National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1999, no. 118 (fig. 6). All the Qianlong porcelain duomu ewers have similar Buddhist lion finials on their lids, and the current example, the Beijing and the Hong Kong ewers are all coloured pink with green manes and tails.
Both the metal duomu ewers and these porcelain examples were made in response to the Qianlong Emperor's fervent interest in Tibetan Buddhism. Although it was undoubtedly politically expedient for the Qianlong emperor to take an interest in Tibetan Buddhism, surviving documents make it clear that his interest was genuine and his understanding profound. He practiced Buddhist meditations every day, and even went to the lengths of having Rol pa'i rdo rje teach him Sanskrit and Tibetan. The latter granted the Emperor the Samvara initiation in 1745, and in the same year Qianlong ordered the conversion of his place of birth, the Palace of Complete Harmony, into a Lamaist Temple. In 1755, to commemorate his army's victory in Dzungaria, the Emperor commanded the construction of the Puning Monastery at the Summer Palace in Jehol, present day Chengdu, which was modelled on the Samye Monastery in Tibet. One of Qianlong's more ambitious projects was the building of the Putuozongcheng Temple at Jehol, which is also known as the 'Little Potala' since it was modelled on the Potala Palace in Lhasa. The construction of this extensive temple took from 1767 to 1771.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Qianlong's Tibetan Buddhist activities came in 1780, the year in which he celebrated his 70th birthday, when the Panchen Lama came to China, both Jehol and Beijing, and bestowed on the Emperor the Mahakala and Cakrasamvara initiations. The rituals for these coincided with his birthday and indicated that Qianlong had formally 'entered the Buddhist realm'. In August of that year the Panchen Lama was received at the Jehol Summer Palace and was housed in the Xumifushouzhimiao, which had been modelled on the Tashilhunpo Monastry - the Panchen Lama's residence in Tibet. In the Forbidden City itself, Qianlong created a private chapel, the Yuhuage (the Pavilion of Raining Flowers), which was built just south of the Zhongzhengdian (the Hall of Central Uprightness), and was modelled after the Buddha Hall of the mTho gling Temple in Tibet. This Chinese building incorporated many features of Tibetan monasteries, and although it looked like a three-storied structure from the outside, in fact had four storeys - one for each of the four categories of attainment in Esoteric Buddhism.
All these events and imperial buildings would have required fine ritual vessels, be they porcelain or other media, to be made at the imperial workshops, as would those made as imperial gifts to high lamas. While metal vessels are relatively robust and a number have been preserved in the Palace collections and in Tibet, very few of these large porcelain duomu have survived. This impressive ewer serves as a rare testament to the devotion of an emperor and the remarkable skill of the potters who served him.