This rare Tang dynasty bowl is of elegant five-petalled flower form with repoussé decoration depicting a three-clawed dragon amongst clouds or waves in the central interior roundel. On the base there is an inscription reading: jin zhan, which may be translated as: 'tribute bowl', and another inscription which gives the weight of the vessel. The inscription 'tribute bowl' suggests that this bowl is one that was intended to be sent as tribute to the emperor. Over time the second inscription has been rendered difficult to read. The first character is either jiu (nine), or wu (five). The second character is liang, meaning tael. There may be a third character, which is probably yi (one), which would in all likelihood have been followed by a fourth character, now no longer visible, zhu. In China a tael of silver weighed about 40 grams, while a zhu was a small coin valued at one twenty-fourth of a tael and equivalent in weight to one hundred grains of millet. Similar inscriptions indicating the weight of the vessels can be seen on some of the gold vessels excavated from the so-called Belitung wreck - a ship which foundered off the coast of Indonesia on its way from China to the Islamic West in the second quarter of the 9th century. One of the gold dishes is illustrated by R. Scott in 'A Remarkable Tang Dynasty Cargo', Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, Vol. 67, 2002-2003, p. 20, Fig. 16 and note 29, where the author notes that the inscribed weight of that dish is given as seven taels two zhu, and suggests the possibility that the high value items in the cargo may have been part of an official, possibly even an imperial, gift.
The form of the dragon on this bowl is very distinctive. Firstly its posture is distinctive with its arched body, head turned back, and its long tail wrapped round one of its hind legs. There are also distinctive features such as its pointed snout and the flaming pearl that appears behind its neck. Dragons with these same characteristics can be seen on a Tang silver plaque or box base excavated at Dingmaoqian in Jiangsu province (illustrated in Tang dai jin yin qi, Wenwu chubanshe, Beijing, 1985, pls. 224 & 225). Another item bearing this type of dragon is a lobed Tang silver mirror in the collection of the Shaanxi Historical Museum (illustrated in World of the Heavenly Khan - Treasures of the Tang Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2002, p. 90). Interestingly this mirror also bears a four character inscription reading: qian qiu wan sui (a thousand autumns, ten thousand years), which was an imperial birthday wish in the Tang dynasty, and suggests that, like the current bowl, the mirror was destined for the imperial court. This particular style of dragon was also transferred from silver to ceramics, and can be seen in sprig-moulded relief in the centre of some fine splash-glazed wares recovered from the Belitung cargo, illustrated by R. Scott in 'A Remarkable Tang Dynasty Cargo', op. cit., p. 18, Fig. 11.
The depiction of the clouds or waves that provide the background to the dragon in the centre of the current bowl is both distinctive and unusual. However the same depiction of clouds or waves can be seen providing the background to a makara or dragon fish in the centre of a Tang dynasty shallow silver dish excavated at Liulin, Yaoxian, Shaanxi province (illustrated in Tang dai jin yin qi, op. cit., pls. 174 and 175). This dish too is inscribed with the characters shi (ten) and shi er (twelve), which probably refer to its weight, and chang ming (long life), an auspicious wish that suggests that it may have been intended as a gift or tribute. The distinctive cloud or wave ground can also be seen providing the second band on a silver stem cup or dou base excavated from a Tang dynasty tomb in Lin'anxian, Zhejiang province (illustrated in Tang dai jin yin qi, op. cit., pls. 271 and 272).
Like the current bowl, the Shaanxi dish has a band of petals encircling the central roundel. The dish also has this band around the outer horizontal rim. Around the turned-down vertical rim, however, it has a band of alternating half-florets, which is the same decorative band that is seen around the rim of the current bowl. This decorative band was popular not only on Tang dynasty metalwork, but also in textiles, as can be seen from the upper frieze on the fine silk Tang dynasty Buddhist banner sold by Christie's London in May 2007, lot 171.
The lobed five-petal shape of the current bowl is typical of the flower forms which came to prominence in precious metalwork and lacquer in the second half of the Tang dynasty, and was carried on into the Song dynasty when they also became popular in ceramics. A silver bowl of similar form to the current example, from the collection of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, is illustrated in Chinese Gold & Silver in American Collections, Dayton, Ohio, 1984, p. 53, no. 19. This latter bowl has a high foot, but another similarly-shaped silver and gilt bowl from the Carl Kempe Collection, like the current example, no longer has a foot (illustrated in Chinese Gold and Silver in the Carl Kempe Collection, Ulricehamns, Sweden, 1999, p. 164, no. 120).