The present example, especially rare as it in pristine condition, belongs to a very select group of early Ming wares which Brankston describes as 'among the finest pieces ever decorated with blue. The dragons leap among the waves with fierce energy'. Cf. Early Ming Wares of Chingtechen, pp. 28-29.
Only two other examples with this precise decoration appear to have been published. The first is illustrated by du Boulay, Christie's Pictorial History of Chinese Ceramics, p. 120, fig. 1 sold in our London Rooms, 1 April 1968, illustratrated by Adrian Joseph, Ming Porcelains, Their Origin and Development: pl. 28 and later sold in Hong Kong, 20 May 1986, lot 15. The second from the Capital Museum, Beijing, is illustrated by Liu Liang-yu, Ming Official Wares, vol. 4, p. 99.
These differ only very slightly from closely related examples in excluding a miniature wave border around the base of the bowl and stem. Cf. the example of this latter type from the Grandidier Collection, now in the Musee Guimet, Paris, illustrated in Oriental Ceramics, Kodansha Series, 1981, vol. 7, col. pl. 18, and in Sekai Toji Zenshu, vol. 11, fig. 85. The difference is so slight though significant that it is reasonable to suspect that only two artists were involved in decorating the stembowls.
Related versions with four dragons around the bowl and a fifth on the stem are included in the Illustrated Catalogue of Ming Dynasty Porcelain in the National Palace Museum, pl. 79 and Brankston, Early Ming Wares From Chingtechen, pl. 18. A version with nine dragons around the bowl was sold in Hong Kong, 27 October 1992, lot 33.
Dishes decorated with a similar effect of dark blue dragons against a paler wave ground are more commonly found. One from the Seligman Collection is illustrated in Far Eastern Ceramics in the Victoria and Albert Museum, col. pl. 48. A second from the Edward T Chow Collection was sold in Hong Kong, 25 November 1980, lot 3, while Brankston, op. cit, illustrates another, pl. 17, from the Hochstadter Collection. One from the Linburn Collection now in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts is illustrated by Valenstein in A Handbook of Chinese Ceramics, p. 154, fig. 149. Others include a dish from the Percival David Foundation illustrated in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration, col. pl. 32; a dish from the British Museum, illustrated by Lion-Goldschmidt, La Porcelaine Ming, p. 85, fig. 58; and the example illustrated in Mayuyama Seventy Years, vol. I, p. 260, fig. 783.
The variety of the treatment of dragons in blue and white during this period is rich indeed. They occur on plain white grounds, in conjunction with anhua decoration, against pale blue backgrounds as in the present example, in reserve and in pale blue with incised work on darker backgrounds in direct opposition to the present version.
Two shades of blue on the same object must have been technically demanding and it is interesting that the effect was not included among the many imitations of early Ming designs made during the Qing Dynasty. However the alternative Early Ming combination of copper-red or iron-red dragons and other mythical beasts over underglaze-blue grounds was commonly imitated on saucer-dishes and other wares from the Kangxi period onwards, (cf. Oriental Ceramics, Kodansha Series, vol. 6, col. pl. 29, from the Percival David Foundation).