This magnificent basin belongs to a very small group of such large Yongle vessels, skillfully painted in the finest cobalt blue. Both the form and elements of the decoration of these basins have their origins in blue and white porcelains of the Hongwu reign. Two slightly larger basins of similar form were excavated from the Hongwu stratum at Dongmentou, Zhushan in 1994 (see Chang Foundation, Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1996, pp 76-79, nos. 5 and 6). The decoration on these two Hongwu basins differs considerably to that on the Yongle examples, except for the spiky lotus scroll on the exterior of first Hongwu vessel. Even this scroll, which also appears in the centre of a large Hongwu blue and white dish from the same site (see ibid., pp 126-7, no. 31), differs in detail from that on the Yongle basin in the use of unpainted areas within the outlines of petals and leaves. The use of sprays in approximate roundel form to decorate the interior walls of bowls encircling a central roundel can, however, also be seen on Hongwu blue and white vessels. Somewhat formalized sprays can be seen on the interior of a bowl excavated at Dongmentou in 1994 (illustrated ibid., pp 88-9, no. 11), while more naturalistic sprays, that are closer in style to the Yongle examples, can be seen on the interior walls of another bowl from the same excavation (ibid., pp 90-1, no. 12).
Although flowers had been a popular source of decorative motifs for centuries, the inclusion of fruit on the branch was a more recent phenomenon in the early Ming. Melons had been included in the landscape element designs in the centre of large Yuan dynasty dishes, like that in the collection of the British Museum (illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, BMP, London, 2001, p. 79, no. 1:39). However, other fruit were few and far between on pre-Ming porcelains. In the Yongle reign not only imperial blue and white porcelains, but also those monochrome white wares with tianbai glaze were decorated with fruiting sprays, as can be seen on a bowl in the British Museum with a pomegranate spray incised into the interior base and floral sprays on the interior walls (illustrated ibid., p. 101, no. 3:5). Sprays of fruit on the branch became a very popular decorative theme on fine Yongle blue and white wares of various forms. They appear, for example, scattered within the main decorative band on the famous lidded meiping in the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Zhongguo bowuyuan cang - Ming ciqing hua - shang juan, Forbidden City Publishing, Beijing, 2002, pp 40-1, no. 15); and around the cavetto of a dish with central floral decoration in the Ardebil collection in Iran (see J.A. Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1956, pl. 32, no. 29.64). Alternate fruiting and flowers sprays are also seen in the cavetto of the large dish with a garden scene in the centre that was excavated at Dongmentou, Zhushan in 1994 (Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., pp 140-1, no. 38). Fruiting branches even appear as the main decoration on a small number of Yongle vessels excavated from the Imperial kilns. Lychees, melons, grapes and peaches each decorate the interior base of large dishes (see Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., pp 154-61, nos. 45-48). Like the current basin, all these examples are particularly high quality porcelains, well painted in richly-coloured cobalt.
The fruit used to decorate the current basin have been chosen with care for their symbolic meaning. The pomegranate in the centre is one of the san duo or Three Abundances, and represents the wish for abundant progeny. The peach, which forms one of the roundel sprays on the interior walls of the basin, is another of the san duo and embodies the wish for an abundance of years, or long life. Lychees had been a popular fruit among China's emperors for centuries and was sent as tribute to the court as early as the Han dynasty. According to tradition, the Tang Emperor Ming Huang's favorite concubine, Yang Guifei, insisted that lychees from southern China be sent post haste to the capital so that she could enjoy them fresh. Lychees are also symbolic of the birth of sons. The fourth fruit depicted on the basin is crab-apple, which in later periods was more often seen in its flowering phase, frequently combined with magnolia and peony representing the auspicious phrase Yutang fugui 'wealth and rank in the Jade Hall'.
Yongle blue and white basins of this large size are very rare, however, a small number of vessels of similar size and shape to the current example have been excavated from Yongle strata at the Imperial kilns. One, which was excavated at Dongmentou, Zhushan in 1994, is decorated with dragons on the exterior and on the interior with peony, camellia, chrysanthemum and lily scrolls encircling a central roundel containing a fruiting crab-apple (see Chang Foundation, Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, Taipei, 1996, pp. 212-3, no. 75). Another, similarly sized, Yongle basin was found in the same excavation (op. cit., pp 214-5, no. 76). This vessel was decorated on the exterior with sprays of peony, camellia, lotus and rose, and on the interior with a spiky lotus scroll encircling a peony spray. The lotus scroll on this vessel has a thicker stem painted with double outline, in contrast to the one seen on the exterior of the current basin, which has more slender stems and a more open and graceful composition.
Two similar large Yongle basins are in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing. One of these is decorated on the exterior with a large-scale peony scroll, and on the interior with flowering sprays surrounding a central roundel containing a branch of fruiting lychee (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White with Underglaze Red (I), Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 69, no. 66) [fig. 1]. The other bears decoration that is identical to that of the current basin except for the orientation of the central pomegranate spray in relation to specific flower sprays (see ibid., p. 68, no. 65) [fig. 2]. A somewhat smaller blue and white Yongle basin in the same collection also has a fruiting spray in its interior base (see ibid., p. 71, no. 68). Two Yongle basins of the same size and form as the current example and painted with the same decorative scheme are in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (see Illustrated Catalogue of Ming Dynasty Porcelains, National Palace Museum, Taipei, no. 56, and Special Exhibition of Early Ming Porcelains, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1982, no. 19).
A similarly large basin with the same decorative scheme as the current basin is in the collection of the Palais de Fontainebleau, but this example has been less perfectly fired than the current vessel and the cobalt on the Fontainebleau basin has run within the glaze (see Daisy Lion-Goldschmidt, Ming Porcelain, Thames and Hudson, London, 1978, p. 73, pl. 32). A further similar example is in the Rockefeller Collection and is illustrated by Sherman E. Lee in Asian Art - Selection from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, Asia House Gallery, New York, 1970, p. 61, no. 47. A basin of this large size was also bequeathed to the British Museum by Mrs. Walter Sedgwick (illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall, op. cit., p. 112, no. 3:25). Although Sedgwick basin does not have the same decoration as the current vessel, it shares similar high-quality material and excellent painting.
Two of these large Yongle basins have been sold at auction. Neither of these had exactly the same decoration as the current vessel. Both were decorated with a peony scroll on the exterior and stylized floral sprays surrounding a peach spray roundel on the interior. One of these, formerly in the Eumorfopoulos Collection, was sold with other Chinese art from the British Rail Pension Fund at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 16 May 1989, lot 15. The other was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 1 November 1994, lot 34.
The current basin with its unusually large size, fine potting, brilliant cobalt blue, well-conceived design and artistic painting, represents the pinnacle of ceramic achievement at the Imperial kilns in the Yongle reign.