Progeny and Prosperity: A theme of 'Hundred Boys'
The present jar and cover is one of a pair from J.M. Hu Family collection, sold at Sotheby's New York, 30 September 1993, lot 238 and entered the Jingguantang collection where it was sold again at Christie's Hong Kong, 5 November 1997, lot 888. The other J.M. Hu jar and cover was sold at Sotheby's New York, 4 June 1985, lot 16, and it is now in the collection of the Tianminlou Foundation, illustrated in Chinese Porcelain, The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, vol. I, Hong Kong, 1987, pl. 35 (see fig. 1); where a panoramic view of the small boys is also illustrated, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 64-65.
The depiction of children in Chinese art has its roots in Buddhist beliefs influenced by Daoism. Chinese Buddhism saw the soul newly born into paradise as an infant, although this is not how it is described in the Sukhavati-vyuha, 'The Sutra on the Buddha of Eternal Life'. This change to the Indian view was almost certainly due in part to the influence of the Shangqing Daoist vision of the self in embryonic state. It was also the Chinese monk, Zhi Dun (AD 314-366) who first described the re-born soul as entering Sukhavati, 'The Place of Great Bliss', through the calyx of a lotus flower. By the Tang dynasty images of round-cheeked children were no longer confined to religious art, but began to appear in a secular context as an auspicious symbol.
In the Southern Song period, the imagery of boys at play, and set in a garden scene became a favoured theme in paintings popularized by the Southern Song court artist, Su Hanchen, who was active during early 12th Century. An example of Su Hanchen's painting is in the National Palace Museum collection, Taipei, entitled 'Boys at Play in an Autumn Garden', illustrated in Zhongguo Huihua Quanji, vol. 3, Zhejiang renmin meishu chubanshe, p. 140, no. 100 (see fig. 2). The Southern Song depiction of children with characteristic shaven heads, rounded faces and wide eyes evidently continued into the Ming period as can be seen from the children painted on the present jar. The theme of 'children at play' or 'a hundred boys' became symbolic of progeny and fulfillment of the Confucian ideal in the education, and advancement of sons. As such, this type of pictorial images was propagated on a wide range of decorative objects, including porcelain, jade, textile and lacquerware.
The present jar with its highly amusing format was probably inspired from earlier blue and white ceramics such as the blue and white bowl dated to the Yongle period exhibited at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Chinese Porcelain, The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection, 1987, illustrated in the Catalogue no. 15. Undoubtedly, the subject-matter was particularly pertinent to the ardent Daoist, Emperor Jiajing, who was recorded in the Ming Shi, 'Ming History', as to have had commissioned for a Daoist rite to take place in the Imperial Garden in the eleventh year of this reign (1532) for the intended purpose of praying for the birth of imperial sons.
Large imperial jars of this design complete with their covers are very rare. One example was excavated in 1980 at the Chaoyang District, Beijing, and now in the Capital Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Shoudu Bowuguan Cangci Xuan, pl. 121 (see fig. 3); another example was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 13 November 1990, lot 142, and presently in the Hong Kong Museum of Art; and the third, formerly from the Charles Russell and Mrs Alfred Clark collections, was sold at Sotheby's London, 6 June 1935, lot 97, now in the British Museum collection, illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, fig. 9:50, p. 238.
Jars without their covers are published: the first in the Osaka Museum is illustrated in Ming and Qing Ceramics and Works of Art, no. 159, p. 20; another in the Museum of Decorative Arts, Copenhagen, illustrated by D. Lion-Goldschmidt, La Porcelaine Ming, no. 124, p. 134; a third in Chinese Ceramics in the Idemitsu Collection, pl. 191; and a fourth in the Fengchengxian Museum, Jiangxi province, illustrated in Zhongguo Wenwu Jinghua Da Cidian, no. 766, p. 393. Compare also an example sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 19 March 1991, lot 526.