This water pot has an exceptionally well-potted spherical form. Small compressed globular water pots with celadon glazes were made in Zhejiang province as early as the Southern Dynasties period (AD 420-589). One such vessel, excavated from a 5th century tomb in Yongjia county and now in the Wenzhou Museum, is illustrated in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China, vol. 9, Zhejiang, Beijing, 2008, p. 87. Similar compressed globular water pots, with or without three small feet, were also made at the Ou kilns and the Yue ware kilns in the Tang dynasty. Examples from the Wenzhou Museum and the Cixi Museum are illustrated ibid, pp. 126 and 127 respectively. However, in the Five Dynasties period well-potted spherical water pots can be found amongst vessels from prestigious kilns which found favour with the imperial court. A mise celadon water pot of this spherical form, and of very similar size to the current Ge ware vessel, was excavated in Lin’an county in 1996 from the Kangling Mausoleum (dated AD 939), illustrated ibid., p. 143. A fine 10th-century spherical white-glazed water pot with incised lotus decoration, slightly smaller than the current Ge ware vessel, is in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum. This white water pot, which is illustrated in Sekai toji zenshu, vol. 11, Sui Tang, Tokyo, 1976, pp. 115-6, pls. 92-3, is inscribed on the base with the characters xin guan (new official). Although the Tokyo water pot has no neck or raised mouth rim, a small Ding ware spherical water pot (7.5 cm high) with a very short neck was excavated in 1969 from the foundations of the Jingzhongyuan Temple pagoda, dated AD 995, illustrated by the Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Treasures from the Underground Palaces - Excavated Treasures from Northern Song Pagodas, Dingzhou, Hebei Province, China, Tokyo, 1997, no. 90. A larger spherical Ding ware water pot with longer neck and thickened rim, also from Jingzhongyuan Temple pagoda, is illustrated by Liu Tao in Song Liao Jin jinian ciqi, Beijing, 2004, p. 5, fig. 1-29. Thus, by the early Northern Song dynasty, late 10th century, the spherical form for small water pots was already established as desirable amongst the Chinese elite.
A Guan-type water pot of similar size to the current vessel, with a spherical body, but standing on three short, splayed legs, is illustrated in Mayuyama Seventy Years, vol. 1, Tokyo, 1976, p. 161, no. 467. A Guan or Ge ware spherical water pot, also of similar size to the current vessel, was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong on 13 January 1987, lot 570. A water pot with Guan-type glaze, of slightly smaller size compared to the current vessel, and of compressed globular form, is illustrated in Chinese Ceramics, Song and Yuan Dynasty, Taipei, 1988, p. 515. A slightly larger 13th century spherical celadon-glazed water pot from the Longquan kilns, with floral surface decoration, is in the collection of Sir Percival David (illustrated in Illustrated Catalogue of Celadon Wares in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, revised edition, 1997, pp. 29-30, no. 232), and was exhibited in Arts de la Chine Ancienne at the Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, in 1937, exhibit no. 447. Nevertheless, few examples of similar vessels from any of the classic kilns of the 10th-13th century have survived into the present day.
Since the Ming dynasty, Ge wares have been regarded as one of the 'Five Great Wares of the Song Dynasty', along with Ru ware, Ding ware, Jun ware, and Guan ware. These wares remain the most revered wares of the Song dynasty (AD 960-1279), a period which Chinese connoisseurs have traditionally admired above all others for the refined beauty of its ceramics – typified by vessels with elegant forms, enhanced with subtly colored monochrome glazes. A variety of such wares were appreciated by members of the Song elite and the imperial court, as well as by later collectors, but texts tell us that these five types were held in particular esteem. Ge ware and Guan ware have been the subjects of extensive research by Chinese scholars and those from other countries in recent years, and they continue to be at the forefront of interest amongst scholars and collectors alike. Both Guan ware and Ge ware are characterized by subtly-colored glazes which were deliberately crackled to achieve a fine network of lines over the surface of the vessel. One of the reasons that these crackle lines were admired was that they were reminiscent of the fissures in jade, the most prized of all natural materials.
The high regard in which such pieces were held by the great Qing dynasty imperial collector, the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795), for example, is demonstrated by the fact that Ge ware dishes appear in several informal portraits of the emperor. One such portrait is the famous painting entitled 'One or Two?', of which there are three versions in the Palace Museum, Beijing. One of these is illustrated in the catalogue of the exhibition, The Qianlong Emperor - Treasures from the Forbidden City, at the National Museums of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2002, p. 112, no. 59. The Qianlong emperor is shown seated on a day-bed in front of a screen on which is hung a portrait of himself, and surrounded by precious objects from his famous collection of antiques. One of these is a small crackled dish, which appears to be Ge ware. The admiration of the Qianlong Emperor for Ge wares can also be seen in the inscriptions that he applied to pieces in his collection. A recent exhibition at the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included eight Ge wares bearing Qianlong inscriptions (illustrated in Obtaining Refined Enjoyment: The Qianlong Emperor’s Taste in Ceramics, Taipei, 2012, nos. 35-7, 40-1, 43, 45, and 93). The same exhibition displayed a page from Qianlong’s hand-painted album Precious Ceramics of Assembled Beauty, which showed a Ge ware dish along with a discussion of the piece and various imperial seals (illustrated ibid., p. 203).
The Palace Museum, Beijing, has in its collection a censer, identified as Ge ware, which bears a Qianlong inscription (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum – 33 – Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (II), Hong Kong, 1996, no. 51). The popularity of Ge and Ge-type wares at the courts of the Qing emperors is emphasised by the number of such pieces from the Qing Court Collection which are preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing. Some 40 examples are published in Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (II), op. cit.
Examination of the Qianlong inscriptions highlights the subject on which there has been considerable debate among scholars and connoisseurs - the difficulty of determining whether a particular piece should be described as Guan ware or Ge ware. Certainly to judge from the Qianlong emperor's inscriptions, he was inconsistent in his attributions. 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. However, the debate regarding exact period of production and kiln site still rages. In light of the excavations carried out at the Xiuneisi kiln at Laohudong, 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, while others suggest that they may have been made at kilns nearer to the centre of Longquan production. Undoubtedly Ge wares, like the current water pot, display all the qualities that might be expected of vessels intended for imperial appreciation.
International Academic Director, Asian Art