This extremely rare cup belongs to a group of Xuande wares that are better known from literature than from extant pieces. The delicately potted tuotai 'bodiless' porcelains of the Xuande reign are much praised in early texts, but few have survived. No fine Xuande cups of this form appear, for instance, to have been preserved in the Chinese palace collections. However, a virtually identical cup in the famous Carl Kempe Collection was published by Bo Gyllensvärd in Chinese Ceramics in the Carl Kempe Collection, Almqvist & Wiksell, Stockholm, 1965, p. 212, no. 721.
Even more significant was the excavation in 1993 of an identical cup from the site of the Imperial kilns at Zhushan, Jingdezhen (Xuande Imperial Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, p. 59, no. 53, and p. 230, no. 53). The excavators point out that, like the current cup, the excavated example is completely undecorated, but has an underglaze blue, six-character, mark written in two columns on its base. As in the case of the current piece, the excavated example has no double circle around the mark. The excavators note that, to date, this is the only example they have found on which the mark is not within a double circle.
Tuotai 'bodiless' porcelains seem first to have been produced in the Yongle (1403-24) reign, but although the Yongle vessels had finely potted sides, their bases and foot rings remained relatively heavy. The Xuande cups, however, have small, well-cut foot rings and extremely thin bases. Indeed the base of these cups is so thin that the reign mark on the exterior of the base can be read from the interior. Perhaps it was this translucency that led the imperial kilns to omit the normal double circle around the mark, since on a cup of this size it might detract from its jade-like purity. The resemblance to white jade is enhanced by the unctuous glaze, its appearance softened by tiny bubbles, that covers the cup's pure white porcelain body.
The exceptionally fine potting makes these cups extremely light and beautifully delicate. It also renders them very fragile, and it is perhaps not surprising that so very few have survived the more than five hundred years since they were made.