AUSPICIOUS 'SEA CREATURES' - A RARE CHENGHUA BLUE AND WHITE DISH
ROSEMARY SCOTT, INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART
This rare dish is decorated with an unusual design which appears on blue and white imperial porcelains of the Xuande (1426-35) and Chenghua (1465-1487) periods, and which enjoyed a revival in the late Ming period. The motifs which make up this design are collectively known as the hai shou, 'sea creatures'. There are a range of different creatures that appear as part of this group, including winged elephant, qilin, fox, turtle, goat, winged horse, winged dragon, lion, sea mollusc, deer, antelope, dog, flying fish, flying shrimp, and other completely unidentifiable creatures.
The late Chen Ching-kuang of the National Palace Museum, Taipei undertook research into the use of this motif on Chinese imperial porcelains, and a paper by her on the subject was published in 1993 (Chen Ching-kuang, 'Sea Creatures on Ming porcelains', in The Porcelains of Jingdezhen, Rosemary Scott (ed.), Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia No. 16, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 1993, pp. 101-122). She noted that a number of the animals can be identified with creatures mention in the ancient text, Shan hai jing, which was compiled by Liu Xiang and his son Liu Qin in the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), and revised by Guo Pu in the Eastern Jin period (AD 317-420), but includes material from earlier times. (In 1983 a symposium was convened in Chengdu, Sichuan province to discuss new research into the Shang hai jing, and the proceedings were published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Further Studies on the Shan Hai Jing, Sichuan, 1986.) The ying winged dragon, the xuan nine-tailed turtle, the tianlu heavenly deer, and others are mentioned in the Shan hai jing and can be identified with animals on the porcelains. These and the other sea creatures are all regarded as auspicious. Significantly, Chen noted that the Shan hai jing saw a revival of interest during the Chenghua period and this may have encouraged the use of the sea creature motif, which was already becoming popular in the previous Xuande reign. In discussion of the porcelains in the collection of the National Palace Museum which bear this motif, Chen noted that in the Xuande reign the motif was found on stem cups that also bore Sanskrit inscriptions linked to Tibetan Buddhism. It may be of interest to note that the elephant, the winged goat and the lion also appear on the doorways of the Porcelain Pagoda at the Bao'en Temple, built by the Yongle emperor in honour of his mother near Nanjing, as well as in other Buddhist contexts.
An underglaze-blue decorated bowl with similar sea creature decoration to that on the current dish, having nine sea creatures on the exterior and a single creature within a roundel on the interior, was excavated from the early Chenghua stratum at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in 1987, illustrated (Tsui Museum of Art, A Legacy of Chenghua - Imperial Porcelain of the Chenghua Reign Excavated from Zhushan, Jingdezhen, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 108-9, no. A10). A similar bowl in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei was exhibited in 2003 (see Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ch'eng-hua Porcelain Ware, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2003, p. 43, no. 17), where it could be seen that the interior roundel contained a winged elephant very similar to that on the current dish. Vessels with underglaze-blue and overglaze enamel decoration in doucai style with sea creatures as part of their design were also found in the Chenghua excavations at the imperial kiln site, although to date none of these appear to have a full set of nine different creatures. These doucai vessels include jars and dishes (see A Legacy of Chenghua - Imperial Porcelain of the Chenghua Reign Excavated from Zhushan, Jingdezhen, op. cit., pp. 306-7, no. C109, and pp. 316-7, no. C114). A similar jar, with the character tian on the base, from the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was exhibited in 2003 (see Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Ch'eng-hua Porcelain Ware, op. cit., p. 129, no. 115).
Winged elephants amongst waves appear in the central roundel of blue and white dishes decorated with the sea creatures as early as the Xuande reign, as demonstrated by the large dish excavated in 1982 from the Xuande strata at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen (see Imperial Porcelain - Recent Discoveries of Jingdezhen Ware, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1995, p. 49, no. 62). A Chenghua blue and white dish from the Qing Court collection, which is slightly smaller than the current example, but which shares the same design, including a similar winged elephant in the internal roundel with undecorated interior walls, is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (II), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 11, no. 9, see fig. 1). In this publication the nine sea creatures are named as: dragon, horse, lion, turtle, elephant, deer, goat, conch and qilin. The same museum collection has another, larger blue and white Chenghua dish and a bowl with the sea creatures design, on which the animal in the central interior roundel is a winged dragon, and the interior walls are decorated with another five creatures amongst waves (illustrated ibid., p. 12, no. 10, and p. 23, no. 21, respectively).
A dish with the same decoration as the current vessel is illustrated on an imperial Scroll of Antiques dated to the 6th year of Yongzheng (AD 1728) in the collection of the Percival David Foundation. This part of the scroll is illustrated in Christie's catalogue of The Jingguangtang Collection, Hong Kong, November 3, 1996, between lots 581 and 582. The current dish was included in the Exhibition of Chinese Blue and White Porcelain 14th to 19th Centuries, held by the Oriental Ceramic Society, London from December 16th, 1953 to January 23rd, 1954. The dish, which was owned by the British scholar Soame Jenyns at the time, was exhibit 117. The catalogue for this exhibition appears in the back of some volumes of Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, 1951-53, vol. 27, final appendix.