THE JINXIANG TING JAR
Rosemary Scott, Senior Academic Consultant, Asian Art Departments
This superb jar is strongly potted and very skilfully painted in deep cobalt blue with a well composed narrative scene depicting a pavilion and figures in a garden. Not only the figures, but the plants and architectural elements of the design have all been painted by an artist of exceptional ability. This vessel is one of eight surviving narrative jars dating to the mid-14th century of the Yuan dynasty. Although narrative scenes can be found on several Yuan dynasty vases, only two meiping vases, one in the Nanjing Museum (illustrated by Tsugio Mikami, Sekai Toji Zenshu, 13 Liao, Jin, Yuan, Shogakukan, Tokyo, 1981, p. 210, fig. 201) and one in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (illustrated, ibid. p. 210, fig. 202) are of the same quality, with fully developed landscapes in which the action of the figures is set.
Jars of guan form, like the current vessel, provided an ideal 'canvas' for the ceramic decorator, and the main decorative band on this group of eight jars was used to depict narrative scenes from Yuan zaju drama, which was a very popular art form in the Yuan period. Zaju drama, which developed during the Yuan dynasty, has been described by some authors as being a kind of 'variety show', but this gives the wrong impression. Each production seems to have been devoted to a single story, which was told through songs, poetic dialogue, dance and stage action, all of which was performed with musical accompaniment. While the poetic arias of the productions were composed in a more classical or literary form of Chinese, the dialogue was in the common vernacular familiar to all those who attended the performances. Hundreds of plays on themes such as romance, heroism, villainy, political intrigue, and filial devotion, were written during the Yuan dynasty, many of them being based on earlier stories, myths, legends and anecdotes, which were already familiar to the audience.
The stories of these zaju dramas were performed on stages set up on city streets, or in booths set up in the city or at private residences on the occasion of a banquet. They were usually told in four acts with additional introductions. Although a character most frequently introduced him or herself to the audience at the beginning of the production, such introductions could also appear between acts and were used to remind the audience of important characters or set the scene for subsequent action. The productions were aimed at a popular audience, not just the refined tastes of the literary elite, and, as well as containing vernacular dialogue, often included scenes of fighting, providing a good excuse for displays of martial arts. While some of the stories were romantic tales, others were based on legendary or historical characters. The authors of these plays were storytellers, however, and did not seem to feel the need to adhere too closely to historical fact, embellishing the stories for dramatic effect and in order to make them more appealing to their audience. It is interesting to note that female figures dominate the decoration on the current jar and several other vessels in this group, since this is in keeping with one of the major changes to drama in the Yuan period. On the Yuan stage actresses were much more prominent than they had been in earlier periods, and in many cases it was female characters who were most important to the narrative.
The importance of theatre in the Yuan dynasty is reinforced by several archaeological finds. In 2003 a tomb was excavated near Xi'an, Shaanxi province, belonging to man with the surname Han who had been buried in AD 1288 along with his wife who had died in 1286. The tomb contained extensive murals showing scenes from the daily life of upper class Han Chinese in the Xi'an areas during the Yuan dynasty. It has been reported that one of these murals, on the western wall of the passage leading to the tomb chamber, depicts a troupe performing a zaju drama (reported in China Cultural Relics News, 3 October 2003). It may also be significant that the famous underglaze-red and blue porcelain granary bearing the epitaph of Madam Ling, dated AD 1338, which is now in the Jiangxi Provincial Museum, appears to have a theatrical performance depicted on the upper storey of the building (illustrated Wang Qingzheng et al., Underglaze Blue and Red, Multi-art press, Hong Kong, 1993, p. 38, no. 7).
Each of the eight surviving Yuan blue and white narrative jars is decorated with a different story from popular drama. The jar in the Idemitsu Museum, Tokyo (illustrated ibid. pp. 68-9, figs. 54-5) depicts the story of the Chinese court lady, Wang Zhaojun, who came to the palace as a concubine. She failed to bribe the court painter Mao Yanshou, who painted an unflattering portrait of her and so she was not chosen as a consort by the emperor. She was forced to marry a barbarian king in order to preserve peace between China and the Eastern Xiongnu. The story is told in the early 14th century drama: Han Gong Qiu (Autumn of the Han Palace, often called The Sorrow of Han), by Ma Zhiyuan, and earlier in the 11th century poem by Ouyang Xiu (AD 1007-1072). On the jar Wang Zhaojun is shown being led away to her new home in the west, with her lute held tightly in her arms. It is to the accompaniment of this lute that she sings of her longing for her homeland.
Another jar, now in the possession of the Pegasus Trust (illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall in Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, British Museum Press, London, 2001, p. 54, fig. 2) depicts scenes from San Gu Mao Lu, 'Three Visits to the Thatched Hut', which is one of the episodes from the San Guo Zhi Yan Yi, 'The Romance of the Three Kingdoms'. In this episode three visits are made to the sage, Zhuge Liang, in order to persuade him to support Prince Liu Bei, the ruler of the kingdom of Shu, in his struggle against Cao Cao, ruler of the kingdom of Wei. Twice Liu Bei is turned away from the thatched hut, but on the third occasion Zhuge Liang agrees to help him, as the prince has proved his enlightenment and determination.
A fourth jar, now in a private Asian collection and exhibited at the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, in 1997 (see Blue and White in East Asia, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1997, no. 3), is decorated with scenes from Xi Liu Ying by Zheng Guangzu depicting Zhou Yafu and the emperor. Zhou Yafu was the son of Zhou Bo, who was prime minister to Emperor Wen (r. 179-156 BC). Zhou Yafu served Wen's successor, Emperor Jing (r. 156-41 BC), under whose rule the king of Wu started the rebellion of Seven Kingdoms. Loyal to the Emperor, as his father had been, Zhou Yafu put down the rebellion. Another jar decorated with scenes from Xi Liu Ying was in the collection of Baron Ito in Japan, but was destroyed during the Second World War (see Kikutaro Saito, Kobijutsu, 1967, no. 18, p. 39, fig. 16). Although these two Xi Liu Ying jars depicted different scenes from the story, it seems that their decoration may have been influenced by the same printed, and illustrated, edition of the tale, since a similar elaborate design is seen on the cloth back drop behind the figures on both jars.
The theme of the decoration on the fifth jar, in the Boston Museum of Fine Art (see Zhu Yuping in Yuan Dai Qinghua Ci, Wenhui chubanshe, Shanghai, 2000, p. 229, no. 8-57) is the Yuan dynasty drama Yu Chi Gong Jiu Zhu, 'The Saviour Yuchi Gong', by Shang Zhongxian, which tells the story of the Tang dynasty general Yuchi Gong who protected Li Shimin, Prince of Qin, second son of the Emperor Gaozu, from assassination. The event took place in third year of the Wude reign according to the Tang Shu. The enemy general Shan Xiongxin galloped towards Li Shimin with his spear outstretched, but Yuchi Gong disarmed him using only a single iron staff. Li Shimin later became Emperor Taizong, which is why an attendant depicted on the jar holds a banner bearing the characters Tang Taizong.
The sixth jar, now in a private Asian collection (illustrated by Zhu Yuping, op.cit., p. 229, no. 8-59), depicts an episode from one of China's most famous romantic tales - Xi Xiang Ji, 'The Romance of the Western Chamber', by Wang Shifu. This story concerns the love affair between the heroine, Cui Yingying and the hero Zhang Gong. The lovers meet in the garden of the Monastery of Universal Salvation, where Yingying is staying with her mother Madam Zheng and her maid, Hongniang, mourning the death of her uncle. Scholar Zhang takes a room in the western wing of the monastery so that he can be near to Yingying. The monastery is invaded and Madam Zheng offers Yingying's hand in marriage to anyone who can save them. Although Scholar Zhang does save them Madam Zheng refuses to honour her promise. The lovers begin a clandestine relationship, aided and abetted by Yingying's maid, but on learning of Yingying's affair with the penniless scholar Zhang, her mother is very angry and sends Zhang away to try and achieve success in the examinations in the capital. Only after he has succeeded in passing at the highest level can he return and the young lovers are reunited.
The scenes depicted on the seventh jar, formerly in the Manno Collection and previously in the collection of the Tokugawa Family (see Manno Art Museum, Selected Masterpieces of the Manno Collection, Osaka, 1988, no. 102), have been identified as coming from the Bai Hua Ting, 'The Hundred Flowers Pavilion', another Yuan dynasty romantic drama. The hero, Wang Huan falls in love with a beautiful courtesan, He Lianlian, but he is poor. Lianlian's mistress therefore sells her to a rich merchant, Gao Miao. However, eventually Wang Huang is successful, the rich merchant is disgraced, and He Lianlian and Wang Huang are able to marry.
An eighth jar was recently discovered in a Dutch collection and sold in our London Rooms on 12 July 2005, lot 88, for a record price. The scene on this jar from the van Hemert collection is from Yue Yi to Qi, 'Yue Yi Planning [the Conquest] of Qi'. The story concerns the conflict between the states of Yan and Qi. General Yue Yi was sent by the ruler of the state of Yan to conquer the state of Qi. The state of Qi employed the famous strategist Sunzi to counter Yue Yi's attack and to regain the land already lost to Yan. Sunzi is captured in battle and the official Su Dai is sent as emissary from the state of Qi to to ask the help of Wang Yi, a famous strategist also known as Guiguzi, in seeking to free Sunzi.
The narrative scene on the current jar may be identified by the characters Jinxiang Ting, 'Pavilion of Fragrant Brocades', which is inscribed over the pavilion doorway. This indicates that the story depicted the story of Meng Yuemei xie hen Jinxiang Ting, 'Meng Yuemei writes of her regrets in the Pavilion of Fragrant Brocades', by Wang Zhongwen, who came from Dadu, which was the Yuan dynasty capital in the vicinity of modern Beijing. Like the theme of the other narrative jars, Meng Yuemei xie hen Jinxiang Ting was a story known to many in the 14th century through performances of zaju drama. This story of a troubled romance takes place during the reign of the Tang emperor Xuanzong, and relates the tale of Scholar Chen and Meng Yuemei. While he is visiting the Meng family garden, scholar Chen Gui comes across the beautiful Meng Yuemei. They fall in love at first sight, and pledge to marry. However Yuemei's father finds out about the proposed marriage and demands that Chen goes to the capital and gets his jinshi degree so that he can obtain an official position. Scholar Chen succeeds in getting his degree, but unfortunately falls foul of the wicked General An Lushan. Chen is demoted and sent to a post far away in Shanxi province. On the way to his new post Chen meets another girl, and despairing of ever seeing Meng Yuemei again, he marries his new acquaintance.
Yet more tragedy is in store for the heroine, however, since Meng Yuemei's father also incurs the wrath of General An Lushan and is first demoted and then forcibly embroiled in the notorious An Lushan Rebellion. The family are captured by the rebels, but Yuemei and her maid escape. In the aftermath of the rebellion Mr. Meng finds Yuemei's maid and conscious that he has failed in his promise to Scholar Chen, he sends the maid to Chen in place of his daughter, as a way of keeping his side of the bargain. For her part the wretched Yuemei is sold into the household of the famous General Gu, to be a singer and entertainer. The general, however, is a sympathetic man and is kind to her. Eventually, on learning of her sad history, he sends her back to Scholar Chen so that the two will finally be able to marry.
Although the current jar is decorated with a different story to that on the van Hemert jar, sold in London, the two vessels have many points of similarity. The jars are of the same height and diameter, and their profiles share the same proportions. Both jars have very similarly painted wave bands around the neck and both have fluently painted peony bands around the shoulder. In fact all but one of the group of narrative jars have a wave band around the neck. The exception is the jar in the possession of the Pegasus Trust which has a so-called 'blackberry lily' scroll. The wave bands around the necks of the current jar and the van Hemert jar are painted in a particularly similar style to those on the 'David vases' in the Percival David Foundation, London, which bear inscriptions dating them to the 11th year of the Zhizheng reign, equivalent to AD 1351 (discussed by R. Scott in Imperial Taste - Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1989, pp 54-5, no. 27). Three of the jars, including the current example have peony scrolls on the shoulder, three of the jars have lotus scrolls around the shoulder, and one has a composite floral scroll. The eighth jar, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, has no shoulder band. Around its foot the current jar has a bold band of lotus petals containing a pendant tricorn lappet with a small circle beneath. This appears on six of the eight surviving jars, although the tricorn lappets on one of the other jars, decorated with scenes from the Xi Xiang Ji, 'Romance of the Western Chamber', appear in outline only, whereas most, including the current jar, are filled with deep cobalt blue pigment.
The painting on the current jar is particularly fine, and aspects of the decoration provide interesting comparisons with other jars in the group, as well as suggesting the inspiration for certain elements of early 15th century porcelain decoration. Despite the popularity of roses in China from Han times, these flowers were rarely used to decorate early ceramics. A small number of these Yuan dynasty narrative jars, however, include roses in the landscapes of their main decorative bands. The current jar, the van Hemert jar, and a jar decorated with the story of the Bai Hua Ting, 'Hundred Flowers Pavilion', which was formerly in the Manno Art Museum collection, all clearly depict roses with thorns and serrated leaves. The links with the Bai Hua Ting jar are further established in the treatment of the figures. One of the female figures on the current jar wears what looks like a patchwork skirt and dark jacket with long trailing sleeves. A similarly dressed female figure appears on the Bai Hua Ting jar, and also on the Yuan dynasty meiping decorated with episodes from the Xi Xiang Ji, from the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London - although the latter figure wears a short jacket in contrast to the longer jackets worn by the jar figures. All three figures have their hair tied in two knots on top of their heads and decorated with hair ornaments.
The architectural elements on the current jar are very important, not only because they help to identify the theme of the jar's decoration, but for the comparisons they allow with contemporary and later porcelains. Among the interesting features on the current jar is a balustrade, which is decorated with waves painted in a style that directly relates to the wave band around the neck of this and other vessels in the group. Even more significantly, a similar balustrade appears on the Xi Xiang Ji jar. The similarities of very distinctive design elements, such as the female figures and the wave balustrades suggest either that the decoration on the various jars was inspired by the illustrations in woodblock printed editions from the same studio (or based on original drawings by the same artist), or that the jars themselves were made at the same workshop, or both. Certainly in the case of the van Hemert jar a directly comparable scene was found in a woodblock illustration of a pinghua dating to the Zhizhi reign (AD 1321-23). Pinghua were a colloquial literary form, probably derived from the scripts of storytellers, and were a sort of precursor of the Chinese novel. It is, of course, significant not only for the current jar, but also for the other vessels with well painted narrative scenes that the Jianyang area in northern Fujian province, which was a centre of book publishing in the 14th century, was so geographically placed as to have good communications with Jingdezhen, thus facilitating the influence of woodblock printed illustrations on the porcelain artists. Certainly the link between the narrative scenes on these jars and the illustrations in woodblock printed books has been clearly established, while detailed comparisons between the narrative jars and other well-known Yuan blue and white vessels suggest a mid-14th century private workshop at Jingdezhen specialising in high-quality special commissions.
One of the most remarkable architectural features depicted on the current jar is the chequered floor of the pavilion. No other vessels from this period incorporating this type of floor in their decoration appear to have been published, and yet distinctive chequered floors re-emerge in pavilions depicted on imperial blue and white porcelains of the Xuande reign. They can be seen on several fine Xuande-marked dishes bearing designs of court ladies and children in garden settings preserved in the National Palace Museum (see Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsuan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, pp. 352-355, nos. 149 and 150, and pp. 400-401, no. 173). A chequered floor can also be seen in the rear part of the pavilion painted on a Xuande-marked imperial blue and white stem cup in the C.P. Lin Collection (see R. Scott, Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration - Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, Percival David Foundation, London, 1992, p. 47, no. 37). This exceptionally fine jar is thus not only important for its relationship with other vessels in the small group of superbly painted narrative jars, it seems also to be an important predecessor of the fine Imperial underglaze-blue porcelains with figure subjects of the Xuande reign.