This exceptionally large charger is decorated with a particularly charming theme. Although the two large birds each appear to have a peacock's tail, they are in fact phoenixes, which are also often depicted with the characteristic 'eye' feathers in their tails. The tree beneath which the standing bird appears is a wutong or paulownia tree, which is sometimes called the phoenix tree in Chinese, because mythology says that this is the only tree on which the phoenix will alight. The composition, with the lesser birds flocking towards the phoenix, is known in China as 'bainiao chao huang', a hundred birds pay hommage to the emperor. The phoenix is regarded as the emperor of birds, and tradition has it that when the phoenix flies all the other birds flock to it. It is also regarded as the most honorable of birds and appears only when peace and prosperity prevail in the country. The phoenix is a symbol of virtue, beauty and the empress. The two phoenixes seen on this charger also symbolise marital happiness. Phoenixes are often depicted with peonies, as on this charger, since the peony is also a symbol of beauty as well as wealth and rank. The same theme appears on an early 18th century rouleau vase sold by Sotheby's Hong Kong in May 1977.
Another interesting feature of the charger is the very painterly depiction of the trunk and branches of the paulownia tree. These have been painted with great skill, making excellent use of the ink-like black enamel. This approach to the painting of branches can be seen on a superb imperial falangcai Qianlong (1736-95) teapot in the collection of the Percival David Foundation (illustrated by R. Scott in For the Imperial Court - Qing Porcelain from the Percival David Foundation, American Federation of Arts, New York and Sun Tree Publishing, Singapore/London, 1997, pp. 128-9, no. 50), and on a magnificent imperial Yongzheng (1723-35) falangcai dish sold in our Hong Kong Rooms on 28 October 2002.