This classic bowl with its dark stoneware body and delicately crackled glaze exemplifies the sophisticated elegance of wares made at southern Chinese kilns for the refined Southern Song court. The Five Great Song Dynasty Wares are traditionally Guan, Ge, Ding, Jun and Ru. Each of these wares has its own characteristics, and in the case of Guan and Ge wares the simple forms combined with a rich blue-grey crackled glaze produce ceramics of deceptively simple beauty. The simplicity is deceptive because these wares were unusually difficult to make. The variations in color and translucency of these glazes, as well as the density of their crackle are greatly dependent on the application of the glaze and the control of the atmosphere and temperature in the kilns in which they were fired. One of the reasons these crackle lines were so admired was that they were reminiscent of the fissures in jade, the most prized of all natural materials.
Traditionally it is said that Ge ware acquired its name from the Chinese term gege, meaning elder brother, since it was believed to have been made by the elder of the two Zhang brothers. Distinguishing between Ge and Guan ware is not greatly aided by the historical texts, which merely say that they looked similar to one another. A symposium held by the Shanghai Museum in October 1992 brought together all the leading Song ceramic scholars from China and abroad to discuss Ge ware and the ways to distinguish it from Guan ware. The most widely recognized distinguishing features of Ge ware were felt by these scholars to be that its glaze has the so-called 'iron wire and golden thread' crackle and softly opaque glaze, so elegantly displayed by the current dish. The debate regarding their exact period of production and kiln site still continues, but some Chinese archaeologists now suggest that, like Guan ware, these beautiful and refined Ge wares may have been made at kilns just outside the walls of the Southern Song palace at Hangzhou. Certainly this lovely dish has all the qualities one would expect of a vessel intended for imperial appreciation.
The subtle form of the present dish shows the restrained use of a flower form often seen in cups, bowls and dishes of the Southern Song period. In this instance the dish is in the shape of a mallow, perhaps the most popular of all the flower forms adopted at that time. However, rather than carrying the petal form down the sides of the bowl, the potter has merely everted the rim slightly and then gently indented it to indicate the six mallow petals. This elegantly simple form not only serves to highlight the beauty of the glaze, but also serves to encourage the crackle lines in pleasing arrangements.
The great value placed upon Song crackled wares like the current dish can be seen by the preservation of numerous examples in the Palace Museum collections. The current dish is particularly similar in shape and color to a slightly larger (19.1 cm.) Ge ware dish in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum - Ko Ware of the Sung Dynasty, Book II, Hong Kong, 1962, pls. 47 and 47a. As can be seen from the illustrations, the glaze on the Taipei dish exhibits a very similar crackle pattern to that of the present example. The Taipei dish, however, bears an inscription applied on the orders of the Qianlong Emperor crediting the dish with having been made in the famous Xuanhe reign period (AD 1119-25) of the Song dynasty, under the auspices of the great Imperial collector and antiquarian, Emperor Huizong. The inscription tells us that it was applied to the dish in the Qianlong bingshen year (equivalent to AD 1776).