Opaque crystalline green glazes, like eel-skin, which belong to the tea-dust group, seem to have their origins in the Tang dynasty at kilns making black wares, but reached their peak of popularity on the porcelains of the 18th century. Their unique appearance is due to slight under firing of a glaze with significant iron and magnesium oxide content, which results in the development of fine pyroxene crystals during cooling. These give the glaze the attractive brown, greenish or yellowish micro-crystalline appearance, which was so prized at the Qing court. The perfection of this glaze on porcelain seems to have been achieved in the Yongzheng reign (1723-35), when the imperial kilns were at pains to produce elegant new glazes for the emperor's appreciation. In particular the Emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong (1736-95) seem to have admired the 'antique' quality that these tea- dust and eel-skin glazes imparted to the porcelains on which they were used.
The shape of this vessel is also an example of the Qing emperors' fascination with antiques. All three of the great Qing emperors - Kangxi (1662-1722), Yongzheng and Qianlong - avidly collected antiques, and had porcelains made in archaistic style. The shallow form with slightly flaring sides, standing on four legs is reminiscent of the Northern Song dynasty Ru ware oval narcissus bowls, such as those preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan (illustrated in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum - Ju Ware of the Sung Dynasty, Cafa Co. Ltd., Hong Kong, 1961, pp. 36-39, nos. 6, 7, 8 and 9). The admiration for them at the Qing court and the Qianlong Emperor's particular fondness for those narcissus bowls is attested to by the fact that three of the four National Palace Museum examples (ibid. nos. 6, 8 and 9) bear his poetic inscriptions incised into their bases. A similar, probably Ru ware, vessel containing a miniature rock and blossoming prunus tree is shown in the right-hand foreground of the famous scroll painting of Hongli Appreciating Art in the Palace Museum, Beijing (see The Golden Exile - Pictorial Expressions of the School of Western Missionaries' Artworks of the Qing Dynasty Court, Museum of Art, Macau, 2002, no. 41). Interestingly the planter in the scroll painting looks as if it could be round, like the current eel-skin vessel, rather than oval like the surviving narcissus bowls. The popularity of ceramic planters in ancient style in the Yongzheng reign is also attested to in paintings such as the Jun ware examples in the famous paintings of twelve Yongzheng beauties in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Interestingly, the current vessel was originally made with drainage holes in its base, like the Song dynasty Jun ware bulb bowls. Those holes in the base of the current vessel have at some time been filled with what appears to be copper, so that it would be watertight, like the Ru ware examples.
Although the Northern Song Ru ware narcissus bowls have relatively simple feet, the current planter follows a different archaistic tradition, giving the eel-skin planter feet animal masks like those seen on ancient bronze vessels. The choice of glaze on this porcelain vessel may also have been a reference to bronze. Other porcelain vessels made in archaistic bronze form also have tea-dust or eel-skin glazes. A large Yongzheng mark and period hu vase with quartered decoration, covered with tea-dust glaze is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Qing Porcelain of Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Periods from the Palace Museum Collection, Forbidden City Publishing/Woods Publishing, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 298, no. 127). A Qianlong gu-shaped vase with tea-dust glaze is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in Qingdai danseyou ciqi, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1981, p. 69, no. 30). Yongzheng tea-dust glazed pieces in forms without archaistic influence in the National Palace Museum collection include a teapot and a large cistern (ibid., pp. 70-71, nos. 25 and 26). A Qianlong mark and period tripod censer or planter with a wide flattened rim and elephant-shaped feet was sold by Sotheby's Hong Kong, 11th May 1983 (lot 140).