Sons, Wealth and Good Fortune:
An Exceptional Pair of Ruby-backed Cups
International Academic Director, Asian Art Departments
This exquisite pair of cups are not only the product of exceptionally fine craftsmanship, but are also some of the earliest porcelains to benefit from a remarkable technological advance, achieved at the behest of the Kangxi emperor (AD 1662-1722). At the very end of the Kangxi reign, about 1720, the imperial ateliers working on glass and enamels succeeded in creating a new enamel that was to revolutionise the palette of colours used on fine Chinese porcelains, and was to give its name to the European term for that palette. The colour was rose pink, and in their 1862 publication Histoire artistique, industrielle et commercielle de la porcelain, A. Jacquemart and E. Le Blant coined the phrase famille rose to describe the porcelain palette in which this rose pink was used.
The beauty of the Chinese rose pink, and the effectiveness of its even application can be seen very clearly on the pair of cups in the current sale, on which the pink has not only been used in the depiction of some of the fruit on the interior, but also to create the so-called 'ruby-back' on the exterior. Only a very small number of porcelain cups or dishes from the Kangxi reign with rose enamel on the exterior are known. A cup, of similar size and shape to the current cups, with cerise enamel on the exterior is in the Baur collection. This cup is undecorated on the interior, but, like the current cups, has a six-character Kangxi mark written in underglaze blue within a double circle on its base. A further pair of similar cups, also undecorated on the interior, is in the collection of the British Museum. A ruby-backed dish in the collection of the Percival David Foundation bears an underglaze blue five-character mark reading: You xinchou nianzhi (made in the xinchou year), which would be equivalent to AD 1721. A small bowl with ruby-back and floral decoration on the interior, bearing the same cyclical date, from the collection of the British Museum was illustrated by Soame Jenyns, while another ruby-backed bowl with the same cyclical date is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan.
However, more typical Yongzheng cup shapes, with more curved sides and without the sharp angle between sides and foot, can be seen with ruby-back and interior painted decoration in the Baur Collection, the Zande Lou Collection, and the Tianminlou Collection. Interestingly, while the Yongzheng ruby-backed cups of the same shape as the Kangxi examples have fruits and seeds as their interior decoration, those of more typical Yongzheng form have floral decoration. However, two Yongzheng-marked cups in the collection of the Percival David Foundation, which do not have ruby backs, but are instead decorated with poppies on the exterior, have fruit and seeds on their interior, similar to those on the Kangxi cups. There is also a Kangxi bowl in the Tsui Collection, which bears a Kangxi yuzhi mark and is decorated on the exterior with a floral design against a coral ground. Although it does not have a ruby exterior, the Tsui bowl is decorated on the interior with scattered fruit, seeds and nuts in similar style to those of the ruby-backed group.
The fruits and seeds on the interior of the current cups have been chosen with great care for their auspicious meaning. On the interior of both cups are depicted white melon seeds and lotus seeds. Melon seeds, which are known as guazi in Chinese represent sons and grandsons. Lotus seeds, lianzi in Chinese, provide a rebus for the successive birth of sons. According to Terese Bartholomew seeds also represent the germinating element, fertility and beginnings of all life. Lotus seeds and jujubes (in Chinese zaozi, which is a rebus for the early arrival of a son) are included in the cups of tea served by newlyweds to their parents on their wedding day. The first part of the word for lotus seed =, lian can be used with its article ke to provide a homophone for lianke which suggests passing civil service examinations one after another. The Chinese character for seed is zi, is the same as son and so many seeds duozi suggests many sons. Seeds are also symbolic of benevolence ren or virtue.
In addition to the seeds, both of the cups have two beans painted on the interior base. In Chinese the name for a kind of French bean (Canavalia ensiformis) is daodou, knife or sword bean, because the shape of its pod resembles the shape of a blade. Inside the cups it is the beans themselves, rather than the pod, that is depicted, but the intention is undoubtedly to use dao as a rebus. It is a homophone for dao, which can mean to attain, so depictions of beans may suggest that the sons and grandsons, represented by the seeds, will attain success in their careers. Dao can also mean to arrive, and so combined with the seeds suggests the arrival of sons and grandsons.
One of the bowls also has two golden fruit depicted on its interior base. These may be kumquats jinju, which represent good fortune as well as gold, and therefore wealth. Alternatively, they may be loquats pipa (Eriobotrya japonica), which also represent gold because of their colour. However loquats are additionally auspicious because the plant embodies the spirit of the four seasons in the progressive formation of its flowers and fruit.
The other bowl has two red fruit depicted on its interior base. Thus the two bowls together provide the two most auspicious colours gold, for wealth, and red for celebration. The word for red hong is also a homophone for a word meaning vast, so that together the gold and red fruit in the bowls suggest a wish for vast wealth. The red fruit somewhat resemble mulberries, but despite their links with sericulture and its association with wealth and privilege, it is more likely that the red fruit are intended to depict dried Chinese bayberries (Myrica rubra), also known as red bayberries. In Chinese these bayberries are called yangmei. The two bayberries would thus provide a rebus for yangyang, meaning numerous, which combined with the meaning suggested by the seeds would imply numerous sons and grandsons. Yang is also a homophone for a word for the male, positive, element, associated with the sun and therefore with light and warmth. This too reinforces the wish for sons and the element in which they flourish.
The carefully selected seeds and fruit that decorate the interior of these two cups, with their emphasis on the birth of sons and grandsons, their successful careers, wealth, and good fortune, suggest that these cups may have been intended for a wedding celebration. Traditionally some of the fruits and seeds depicted on the interior of these cups were, as noted above, placed in the cups of tea served to their parents by the bride and groom during the wedding festivities. The seeds and fruit were also among those traditionally scattered on the marriage bed in the hope that the couple would soon have many sons who would, in time, distinguish themselves and be a credit to the family. The possibility of these cups being intended for a wedding is also suggested by the exterior colour of the cups, which are a deep pink - a colour that could be described in Chinese as hong, which, as mentioned above, is the colour of celebration and is particularly associated with weddings. Certainly it would have been a very privileged bride and groom for whose wedding these cups were produced, since the newly created rose pink enamel coloured with gold, together with the delicacy and skill with which the cups were made, would have meant that they were rare and very expensive items even in the early 1720s.
THE PROPERTY OF AN AMERICAN GENTLEMAN