It is extremely rare to find the rose depicted on early 15th century lacquer. It might be suggested that this example depicts herbaceous peonies which, in many ways, are similar, having simple lancelot-form leaves and full multi-petaled blossoms. Although there is a peony-like quality to the flowers on this dish, a number of features require explanation. These include the spiralled center of the blooms and the shape of the buds themselves. An article by Regina Krahl, "Plant Motifs of Chinese Porcelain, Part I", Orientations, May 1987, throws light on this problem. In her discussion of the rose, p. 57, she notes that the blossoms and the leaves are "not unlike the herbaceous peony", and that neither the rosehips nor thorns are always depicted, perhaps the most useful indicator in the differentiation of these two flowers. However, she goes on to mention the "spiralled innermost petals of the bloom" in roses, which can be seen on a blue and white dish, c. 1400; illustrated as fig. 13, p. 57, and which is very prominent in both the blossom and the buds of this lacquer dish. The swollen flower receptacle at the base of the blooms and buds is also consistent with the shape of a rose rather than a peony.
Krahl also mentions that designs based on real plants are not always realistically drawn, thus such specific details as those mentioned above add weight to the argument that these are indeed roses. Few lacquer pieces depicting roses are published and those that are are often mistakenly called peony. The nearest equivalent to this example can be found in the Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya, Japan, illustrated in "Carved Lacquer", Exhibition Catalogue, 1984, Nezu and The Takugawa Museum, pl. 44. Almost identical in size, the decoration also bears close comparison with the exception of two long-tailed birds superimposed on a very similar design. It also bears the six-character Yongle mark, but the flowers are called peony. The reverse border also depicts similar blossoms.
In the same exhibition catalogue, pl. 95, a small box and cover is illustrated from the Shoju-raigo-ji, Shiga Prefecture, depicting a single bloom with "spiralled centre". This bears the mark of Zhang Chang Zao, a famous carver of red lacquer. He is discussed by Sir Harry Garner, 'Lacquer and Furniture', in T.O.C.S., vol. 30, 1955-57, pp. 34 and 35.
A box and cover bearing a Xuande mark and mistakenly described as carved with camellia appears to be the only example depicting a rose sold at auction. See Christie's London, December 14th/15th, 1983, lot 6.
Only few other pieces depicting a rose, each as part of a much larger design, appear to be published. All are boxes and covers in red cinnabar lacquer, each bearing a six-character Yongle mark. One is illustrated in "Dragon and Phoenix, Chinese Lacquer Ware, The Lee Family Collection", Tokyo, Exhibition Catalogue, 1990, The Museum of East Asian Art, City of Cologne, pl. 40, burid to one side amongst chrysanthemum, peony and camellia, and correctly described as a rose. Another, from the Ostasiatiska Museet, Stockholm, Sweden, is illustrated in "Oriental Lacquer Arts", Tokyo National Museum, Exhibition Catalogue, 1977, pl. 502, and in this instance is a small rosebud forming a mere fraction of the design which depicts two phoenix above peony and chrysanthemum. The same publication depicts further dishes with floral designs, pl. 509, 510 and 513. A third is illustrated by Nakano in The Panoramic Views of Chinese Patterns, where a rose blossom is included in a frieze of various flowers on the sides of the box.
It seems that most Yongle and Xuande marked red lacquer was made primarily in the form of boxes and covers, or dishes. The largest group of 15th century official wares consists of pieces with floral decoration. A large number of boxes and covers in the National Palace Museum, Beijing, dated to the Yongle period, display similar carving; see Carved Lacquer in the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1971, pls. 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38. See also pls. 29 and 30 for a dish (no measurement given) described as decorated with pomegranate sprays and very similar in carving.
A dish illustrated by Wang Shi-xiang, Zhangquo Gudai QiQi, Beijing, 1987, pl. 50, decorated with peony, and a box and cover illustrated in "Chinese Lacquer in the National Palace Museum", Exhibition Catalogue, Taipei, 1981, no. 16, both show a great similarity in the tightness of design, the leaves touching each other with little empty space between them, each highlighting the consummate skill of the craftsman.
Other dishes almost identical in size and bearing Yongle marks and makers' marks are illustrated in the Nezu and Tokugawa Catalogue, ibid., pls. 76, 78, 80 and 82. Each bears strong floral designs at its center and reverse border. Two were from the museum's collection, one from a private collection and the other (pl. 76) from the Tokyo National Museum.
Until recently it was generally accepted that Sir Harry Garner's remarks in "Chinese Lacquer", p. 95, about the incised or carved Yongle or Xuande marks were probably correct. He believed that they were added at a later date by court officials, indicating the reign to which the piece could be ascribed. It was assumed that, until a more plausible reason for the poor quality of the calligraphy, and the reason for the poor quality of various re-inscribed Xuande marks superimposed on earlier Yongle marks could be put forward, this opinion must stand.
Since the date of that publication more information has come to light which may change this view. Chiang Fu-tsung, the director of the National Palace Museum, writes in his foreword to the Special Exhibition Catalogue of Lacquer Ware at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1981, "Our carved lacquers are of Ming and Qing date, as shown by their reign marks; the wares produced at the Kuo-yuan Palace workshops during the reign of the Ming Emperor Yongle were of special excellence and are recorded in historical works". One of them, a Ming work entitled Ti-ching ching-wu (An Account of the Wonders of the Imperial Capital) has this to say: "The Imperial wares produced during the Xuande reign (1426-35) were inferior to those of previous eras, and the artisans were frequently punished for this. Because of this, athey would privately purchase earlier wares in the Imperial collection and change their reign marks to those of the present reign for presentation to the enmperor". However, it is important to note that most of the pieces bearing these marks do genuinely belong to the early 15th century.
Gao Shiqi (1645-1704), a high official, scholar and collector writing in the Qing Dynasty, also records the Kuo-yuan Palace workshops, and states that the bottom of the vessel was finished with polished black lacquer during manufacture and the words 'Da Ming Yongle Nianzhi' were engraved on it with a needle. The Imperial workshop was active during the Yongle and Xuande eras (from the Jinao tuishi biyi in Suo Yuming, Research on Chinese Lacquer Art, Taipei, 1977, p. 42.
Garner mentions that most Yongle marks, as in the current example, are placed on the lefthand edge of the base and invariably incised with a needle, while the Xuande marks are incised with a knife and filled in with gold. Garner does not rule out the possibility that some Yongle-inscribed pieces might belong to the end of the 14th century, some years before Yongle came to the throne.
Garner further considers important lists of objects dating from 1403, 1406, 1407, 1433 and 1434, which include lacquers, all of which were sent to Japan from China in the early 15th century. The lists are preserved in the Myochi-in Temple, a sub-temple of the Tennyu-ji Temple in Saga, Japan. It seems the list was first published in 1955 by T. Makita. The most important list as far as we are concerned here is the 1403 list, which describes in detail fourteen lacquer dishes. Fourteen hundred three was the date Yongle came to the throne. Amongst these dishes are a group depicting dense floral decoration, their reverses carved predominantly with a scroll-border design rather than a floral border. The dishes described are normally ascribed to the late 14th century.
The date introducing floral borders on the reverse was usually accepted as early in the 15th century, allowing for a 2-3 year production period, but the inclusion in the 1403 list would seem to indicate earlier introduction of the floral border. That this point is still open to discussion is obvious in two examples Garner cites. He illustrates a large red lacquer dish from the British Museum, pl. 45, almost identical in size (32.6 cm.), carved with two peacocks on a ground of tree peony which stylistically bear comparison with the present example and for which he suggests a late 14th century date. The reverse has a floral border. On the other hand, he illustrates another lacquer dish from the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, pl. 34 (31.2 cm. diam.), which bears close comparison and to which he ascribes an early 15th century date.
It therefore seems acceptable to date this dish at least to the reign of Yongle, with the possibilty that it might be a little earlier.
Other Yongle-marked red lacquer pieces which bear comparison are one box and cover, sold Christie's New York December 12, 1982, lot 377; another sold Christie's London, December 14, 1983, lot 7; another sold Sotheby's Hong Kong May 17/18, 1988, lot 341; a dish sold Sotheby's Hong Kong November 16, 1988, lot 272; and a large dish dated to the 14th century and marked Zhang Chang, from the British Rail Pension Fund