This qingbai vase’s shape and decoration were inspired by a Western Zhou bronze, ritual hu wine vessel that likely was made in the late 9th or early 8th century BC. Like the bronze on which it is based, this porcelain vase claims a pear shape, its surface divided into three decorative registers and its elaborate handles projecting outward and terminating in phoenix heads. (A pair of closely related bronze hu vessels, each with a cover, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988.20.4a,b–5a,b. Another hu vessel, formerly in the collection of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and lacking a cover, was sold at Christie’s New York, 19 March 2009, lot 526.) In both bronze and porcelain vessels, strapwork bands divide each side of the bulging body into quadrants, each of which boasts two highly stylized, C-form creatures with a small head at each end of the “C” form. Two of the heads within each quadrant sport beaks, the other two muzzles. The diamond-shaped element that appears at the center of this vase’s principal register of decoration recalls the small relief pyramid that marks the intersection of the horizontal and vertical strapwork bands on the related bronzes. Probably highly stylized zoömorphs, horizontally oriented C-forms occupy the narrow register that encircles the shoulder on both bronze and porcelain vessels. Such abstract C-forms find distant antecedents in the decorative scheme of the 10th-century BC Yan Ho Yu food vessel, which was discovered in 1955 and now is in the Historical Museum, Beijing. (See: Wen Fong, ed., The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People’s Republic of China, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980, p. 227, no. 53.) Although typically undecorated in most Western Zhou bronze hu vessels, the uppermost register on a few such bronzes boasts triangular forms like those on this porcelain vase. Such triangles ultimately derive from the similar forms that frequently occupy the uppermost register of Shang-dynasty bronzes with flaring lips, such as the zun wine vessel in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 43.25.1, and the similar zun vessel from the Sze Yuan Tang Collection sold at Christie’s New York, 16 September 2010, lot 813. Such triangular forms also appear on the Shang-dynasty Xi Jia wine vessel, which was recovered in 1968 and now is in the collection of the Henan Provincial Museum, Zhengzhou. (See: Wen Fong, ed., The Great Bronze Age of China: An Exhibition from the People’s Republic of China, cat. no. 26, illustrated on p. 158.) Original to this qingbai vase, the small perforation at the base of each handle most likely permitted a free-turning ring, perhaps of metal, to be suspended from each handle.
The potters who designed and created this superb qingbai vase likely drew inspiration not from actual bronze vessels but from images in the woodblock-printed catalogues compiled and published during the Northern Song period. In fact, the Xuanhe Bogu Tu (Illustrated Catalogue of Antique Objects in the Xuanhe Collection), which was compiled by Wang Fu (1079-1126) and completed in 1123, features a line drawing of a bronze hu vessel that is virtually identical to the present qingbai vase, from the shape and decoration to the phoenix-headed handles. (See: Wang Fu, Xuanhe Bogu Tu [Illustrated Catalogue of Antique Objects in the Xuanhe Collection], completed in 1123; present reprint, Chongqing, 2010, p. 204, fig. 1.)
Beginning late in the Northern Song period (960–1127) and continuing through the Southern Song (1127–1279) and into succeeding eras, potters at many Chinese kilns fashioned incense burners and flower vases in the form of ancient Chinese bronze ritual vessels and ceremonial jade implements.
The association of later ceramics with Bronze Age antiquities came about as the Imperial Court, and then the literati, began to collect ancient bronzes and jades. Vessels in antique shapes offered a new and stylish alternative to the previously popular vessels whose shapes had been inspired by blossoms, melons, calabash gourds, and other naturally occurring forms. In addition, on rare occasions, when learned friends of taste and sophistication would gather for an afternoon of poetry, painting, and collection viewing, a collector might press several of his collected antiquities into service as vases and censers, using an ancient bronze gu, zun, or hu wine vessel as a flower vase, for example, and an ancient bronze ding or liding cooking vessel or a gui food-serving vessel as a censer. The collectors and their guests knew that in antiquity such bronzes were used as vessels for food and wine in funerary ceremonies, but they nevertheless repurposed them to serve their own needs and tastes. Realizing that too frequent use would damage, or even ruin, their collected antiquities, however, such collectors began to rely on related pieces made in ceramic ware, thereby giving rise to the tradition of censers and vases in the shape of ancient bronzes.
The first such archaizing vessels were made at the Ding and Ru kilns late in the Northern Song period, with the Yaozhou kilns quickly following their example. In the Southern Song period, many kilns in Zhejiang and Jiangxi province followed suit, including those at Jingdezhen, in northeastern Jiangxi province, where this qingbai vase was made.
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus, Harvard Art Museums, and Senior Consultant, Christie’s