Created at the Ding kilns, this extremely rare vase dates to the Northern Song period, as indicated by the exceptionally meticulous finish, the white body, the ivory-hued glaze, and the occasional small glaze run in characteristic teardrop form. Unembellished, the vase relies upon tautness of form, harmonious proportions, and sublime glaze color for its aesthetic appeal.
With an ovoid body and a neck that is wide in proportion to the body, this Ding vase descends from the white-ware bottles fashioned in north China during the Tang dynasty, such as the example unearthed in Xi’an and now in the Xi’an Institute of Cultural Relics Preservation (See: Liu Yunhui, Zhou Kuiying, and Wang Xiaomeng, eds., Shaanxi, vol. 15 in Zhongguo Chutu Ziqi quanji / Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China, Beijing: 2008, p. 68, no. 68.) However, with a smooth, lustrous, evenly colored glaze, with walls of even thickness, and with a thin, everted lip that thickens at its outer edge, this bottle is more refined than those produced during the Tang, which explains its Northern Song date.
In fact, the thin lip with “rolled edge” finds parallels in those of other Ding-ware bottles and vases, including ones in both white and russet Ding ware. Originally decorated with designs in overglaze gold, a russet-glazed Ding bottle excavated in Hefei, Anhui province, in 1983 sports a thin, flat lip that thickens at its outer edge. (See Yuan Nanzheng, “Hefei chutu de ziding jincai ping” [A Russet Ding Bottle with Gold Decoration Unearthed in Hefei], Wenwu, 1988, vol. 6, pp. 86-87, fig. 1.) In addition, the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, includes a 10th- to 11th-century white Ding bottle with compressed globular body and long slender neck; its thin, everted lip terminates in a finely rolled edge virtually identical in appearance to that of the present vase. (See: Dingzhou Huazi: Yuancang Dingyaoxi baizi tezhan / Decorated Porcelains of Dingzhou: White Ding Wares from the Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2014, n.p.)
Most Ding bottles from the 11th and 12th centuries rest on a footring—i.e., the side walls descend to terminate in a footring that surrounds a countersunk base; on most such bottles the glaze extends virtually to the bottom of the footring and also covers much of the base and the interior of the footring, leaving only the bottom of the footring unglazed. (See: Zhongguo Taoci Quanji / Chugoku Toji Zenshu [A Compendium of Chinese Ceramics], vol. 9, Dingyao / Teiyo [Ding Ware], Shanghai, and Tokyo, 1981, pl. 58.) By contrast, this vase has a flat, unglazed base, and, on the exterior, the glaze stops two or three millimeters short of the base.
This vase’s flat base, rare among Northern Song Ding wares, recalls those of certain late Tang and Five Dynasties ceramics—particularly those of bottles and ewers from the Ding, Yaozhou Huangpu, and Lushan Duandian kilns. The bases of such pieces typically are flat, unglazed, and have a lightly chamfered edge; moreover, their glazes generally stop several millimeters short of the base: to wit, a 10th-century, white Ding ewer in the Harvard Art Museums has an unglazed, flat base (2009.102), as does a 9th-century, calabash-shaped bottle with brown glaze and blue splashes from the Lushan Duandian kilns, also at Harvard (2002.91), and as does a 9th-century, brown-glazed ewer from the Yaozhou Huangpu kilns and now at Harvard as well (2006.170.251). The last-named Harvard ewer finds a close counterpart in the dark-brown-glazed ewer from the Yaozhou Huangpu kilns that was excavated at the Famen-si Temple site, Shaanxi province, in 1984, and now is in the collection of the Shaanxi Archaeological Research Institute, Xi’an. (See: Gifts of the Tang Emperors: Hidden Treasures from the Famen Temple, Niigata: Niigata Prefectural Museum of Art, and Tokyo: 1999, no. 73.) The Harvard white Ding ewer (2009.102) resembles a Tang white-ware ewer excavated in 1985 in Lincheng county, Shaanxi province. (See: Liu Yunhui, Zhou Kuiying, and Wang Xiaomeng, eds., Shaanxi, vol. 15 in Zhang Bai, series ed., Zhongguo Chutu Ziqi quanji / Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China, Beijing: 2008, p. 41, no. 41.)
In association with the pieces mentioned above, the flat, unglazed base suggests that this vase dates early in the Northern Song period, perhaps to the 10th or possibly to the 11th century. The flat, unglazed base of a white Ding ware brushwasher or small dish in the Hebeisheng Dingxian Museum bears a brush-written inscription dated in accordance with 977—i.e., the second year of Taiping Xingguo—which, together with the Harvard white Ding ewer mentioned above (2002.102), indicates that at least some 10th-century Ding wares indeed were made with flat, unglazed bases. (See: Zhongguo Shanghai Renmin Meishu Chubanshe, ed., Zhongguo Taoci Quanji / Chugoku Toji Zenshu [A Compendium of Chinese Ceramics], vol. 9, Dingyao / Teiyo [Ding Ware], Shanghai, and Tokyo, 1981, n.p., pl. 49.) In addition, the curators of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, have assigned the long-necked white Ding bottle with everted lip and rolled edge, mentioned above, to the 10th to 11th century, further bolstering the credibility of the attribution of this vase to the early Northern Song period.
Produced at a number of small kilns in Quyang county (in western central Hebei province, about 100 miles southwest of Beijing), Ding ware is so named because Quyang county fell within the Dingzhou administrative district during the Northern Song period. Elegant forms derived from contemporaneous silver and lacquer typify the ware, as do thin walls that result in pieces of unusually light weight. The smooth, fine-grained bodies are pure white and only slightly translucent, transmitting a warm orange light when they transmit light at all. Thin and pale, their honey-colored glazes impart a warm ivory hue, as exemplified by this vase. Gaining imperial favor in the tenth or early eleventh century, Ding ware was the most preferred ware at the Imperial palace during much of the Northern Song period.
Ding vessels from the tenth and early eleventh century are usually undecorated. Ding vessels from the late eleventh and early twelfth century typically sport incised and carved decoration, while those from the mid-twelfth through the thirteenth century characteristically boast mold-impressed decoration.
Collectors of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties ranked Ding ware among the “five great wares of the Song”, along with Jun, Ru, Guan, and Ge wares. Celebrated for their porcellaneous white wares, the Ding kilns also produced pieces with russet and black glazes. Although not imperial kilns per se—that is, they were not operated by the government and did not produce ceramics exclusively for the imperial household—the Ding kilns nevertheless supplied substantial quantities of ceramic ware to the palace in the late tenth, eleventh, and early twelfth centuries.
Ding wares were fired in small, mound-shaped kilns known in Chinese as mantou yao , or “dumpling kilns”, the name resulting from their similarity in shape to that of Chinese dumplings, or mantou. Although fired with wood in the late Tang (AD 618–907) and Five Dynasties (AD 907–960) periods—their earliest phase of development—the Ding kilns came to rely on coal as fuel beginning in the tenth century. As a reducing atmosphere is difficult to achieve when firing with coal, most Northern Song Ding vessels were fired in an oxidizing atmosphere, which explains the ivory hue of the glaze.
Robert D. Mowry,
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus, Harvard Art Museums, and Senior Consultant, Christie’s