The central design of ducks on a lotus pond became popular on porcelains painted in underglaze blue during the latter part of the Yuan dynasty, and this magnificent example is exceptionally vibrantly painted, while the balance between the three areas of the decoration is particularly good. This is a design that is very effective on large dishes such as the current piece, and is found on large dishes both with straight rims, as here, and with bracket-lobed rims like that in the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 34, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 12, no. 10 [fig. 1]). The design also appears to have been popular at the courts of rulers in Western Asia and South Asia, since a slightly smaller example from the Ardebil Collection is illustrated by J. A. Pope in Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, reprint London, 1981, pl. 7; another is preserved in the collection of the Topkapi Saray (illustrated by J. Ayers and R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics in the Topkapi Saray Museum, Istanbul, vol. II, p. 495, fig. 569); a further dish was found in Damascus (illustrated by J. Carswell in Blue & White - Chinese Porcelain Around the World, London, 2000, p. 55, no. 55); while fragments of several vessel bearing similar ducks and lotus decoration were found at the Tughlaq palace in Delhi (illustrated by E.S. Smart in 'Fourteenth Century Chinese porcelain from a Tughlaq Palace in Delhi', Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol. 41, 1975-77, pls. 75a, 79d, 81d [fig. 2], 85a, 86b and c, 87c, 88a, 89 a, c, e and f, and 90a). A comparable large dish with the same mandarin ducks theme on the interior but with lozenge diaper on the broad mouth rim was sold at Christie's New York, 1 December 1988, lot 288 [fig. 3].
A number of Yuan dynasty blue and white dishes are known which bear a similar design of lotus without the pair of mandarin ducks. However, the combination of lotus and mandarin ducks, seen on the current vessel, is especially auspicious. One word for lotus in Chinese is a homophone for the word for harmony, while another word for lotus is homophonous to a word meaning successive. Thus, combined with a pair of mandarin ducks, which symbolise fidelity, they form an appropriate wedding motif wishing the couple a harmonious marriage blessed by the birth of many illustrious sons.
The decoration on this dish represents one of the earliest examples of a particular composition of these motifs on porcelain which was to find imperial favour in China during the succeeding Ming dynasty. Ducks had been depicted with lotus plants on ceramics as early as the Tang dynasty - often on low-fired wares decorated with sancai glazes - but these ducks were usually shown in a formal design, rather than in a naturalistic setting and swimming. Such a formal design can be seen on a sancai pillow in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Porcelain of the Jin and Tang Dynasties, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 31, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 232-3, no. 212).
In the Song dynasty swimming ducks appeared in carved designs on high-fired ceramics from a number kiln sites, including those of Yaozhou and Ding. Some of these are shown on a lotus pond, and the water is usually depicted using undulating parallel lines. Several Ding ware dishes with this design are in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ting Ware White Porcelain, Taipei, 1987, no. 77). Although visually these ducks are convincingly placed upon the water, there is no indication of their effect on the water - no ripples related to their swimming.
It was not until the Yuan dynasty that the particular composition on the current blue and white dish showed water rippling in front of both ducks as they swam, like small bow waves, and even an indication of the flow of the water past the lotus plants. These ripples are important in changing a static design into one incorporating movement. This, more natural, treatment of these popular motifs is the one that was also adopted by the ceramic decorators at the imperial kilns of the Ming dynasty. These same ripples can be seen on the Xuande (1426-35) proto-doucai bowl in the Sa'kya Monastery, Tibet (illustrated in Gems of China's Cultural Relics, Beijing, 1993, no. 34), and on a Jiajing (1522-66) blue and white dish in the collection of the British Museum (illustrated by Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, p. 226, no. 9:25). Another aspect of the design on the current dish that was adopted by later ceramic decorators at the imperial Ming kilns was the grouping of the lotus plants in order to create a balanced design.
This dish is, therefore, an important example of fine Yuan dynasty blue and white porcelain appreciated in China and elsewhere in Asia. It is also important for its demonstration of changes in design, which provided inspiration for future imperial ceramics.