The pair to this vase was sold in an auction organized by Yamanaka Shokai, 25-29 May 1934, lot 118 and then entered the Fujii Yurinkan collection, illustrated in Sekai Toji Zenshu, Yuan to Ming Dynasties, 11th Edition, Kawade Shobo, 1955, p. 179, fig. 32.
This very rare vase is exceptionally well decorated in a combination of on-biscuit enamel colours characteristic of the Wanli reign. It is significant that one of the few on-biscuit enamelled porcelains to be included among the precious items in the Dingling tomb of the Wanli emperor was a censer decorated in exactly the same palette of yellow, turquoise, green, brownish-aubergine and black, illustrated in Zhongguo Taoci Quanji 21 Jingdezhen caihui ciqi, Zhongguo Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1981, no. 47.
The same distinctive colours can be seen on a group of Wanli dishes decorated with dragons and waves, like the examples in the Percival David Foundation, illustrated in Masterpieces of Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Collection, Yomiuri Shimbun, Osaka, 1998, p. 95, no. 64; the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum - Enamelled Ware of the Ming Dynasty, Book III, Cafa Company, Hong Kong, 1966, pp. 64-5, pls. 19a-b; and the pair sold in our London rooms, 13 June 1990, lot 199.
The few Wanli porcelains with this palette are the product of a tradition of very fine on-biscuit wares in similar palette which appears in the Zhengde reign (1506-21), when it is used on four-character-marked facetted jardinieres of the type in the collections of the British Museum, an octagonal example is illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall in Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, BMP, 2001, p. 210, no. 8:38; and in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, a decagonal example is illustrated by Liu Liang-yu in A Survey of Chinese Ceramics (4) Ming Official Wares, Aries Gemini Publishing Ltd., Taipei, 1991, p. 174. The Zhengde jardinieres have the same enamel colours as the Wanli pieces, with the exception of black. On the Zhengde vessels the outlines and details are incised, while on the Wanli vessels, including the current vase, they are painted in fine black lines, giving an even greater vibrancy to the design.
The six-character mark on the current vase is written in underglaze blue within a reserved rectangular panel on the flanged mouth. The Zhengde pieces have incised marks, but a set of two candlesticks and zun, decorated on-biscuit with turquoise, green and aubergine dragons and waves against a yellow ground has similar underglaze blue marks, J. Harrison-Hall, op. cit., p. 341, nos. 11:170-2. The additional zun from the British Museum altar set is in the Tokyo National Museum, illustrated by Yabe Yoshiaki in his exhibition preview 'Chinese Ceramics', Orientations, October 1994, p. 86, while the censer that completes the set is in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem. This imperial altar set, which Harrison-Hall suggests would probably have been made for an altar within Beijing, not only shares the same palette as the current vase, but is the closest in quality of painting and monumental proportions.
It is possible that the current vase originally was part of a garniture, but no others appear to have been published and it may be that none have survived. The handles of this vase are very distinctive. They are formed of fish bodies, with extremely carefully depicted scales, and turtle-like heads, suggesting a mythical sea-creature in keeping with the turbulent waves through which the dragons stride on the body of the vessel.