A STAR IN THE MORNING
AN EXTREMELY RARE SONG RU WARE BOWL
Rosemary Scott, Senior International Academic Consultant
It is a tribute to the extraordinary visual and tactile qualities of imperial Ru ware that the stunning Ru bowl in the current sale immediately entrances the eye and entices the hand. The perfect melding of shape and colour, as well as the lustrous internal texture and silken feel of the glaze reach across the centuries and encapsulate the refined aesthetic for which these rare ceramics are famous.
The combination of remarkable beauty and great rarity has made Ru wares the pinnacle to which each successive generation of collectors has aspired since the late Northern Song period. Of all the ceramics made during China’s long cultural history, these wares have had the greatest allure for both imperial and literati connoisseurs alike. When in the Ming and Qing dynasties the designation ‘Five Famous Wares of the Song dynasty’五大名窯, was employed, Ru汝was named along with Guan 官, Ge哥, Ding定and Jun鈞. However, Ru has remained preeminent, even within this celebrated group. Such has been the veneration for imperial Ru wares, that they have continuously been treasured since the time of their production in the late 11th-early 12th century to the present day. Not only were they sought-after by the succeeding Southern Song court, they were greatly prized by both Ming and Qing emperors, and potters of those dynasties were required by their imperial patrons to try and reproduce the elusive blue glaze of Ru wares.
Their subtle beauty and the fact that even today less than 100 complete Ru ware vessels are recognised in international collections – the vast majority in museums - has contributed to the reverence with which Ru wares are regarded. In the catalogue to the exhibition of Ru wares held at the Palace Museum, Beijing, in 2015, the authors provided an illustrated list of 90 Ru wares in museums and private collections around the world - only eight were in private hands (see Selection of Ru Ware – The Palace Museum’s Collection and Archaeological Excavation 《汝瓷雅集 故宮博物院珍藏及出土汝瓷器薈萃》, Beijing, 2015, ‘Appendix’, pp. 283-305). Perhaps equally significant in the context of the current bowl is the fact that only two bowls were included in the list of 90 Ru pieces listed in the Appendix. It is also interesting that one of those listed bowls bears an inscription which makes very clear the fact that bowls, as opposed to dishes, were ‘as rare as stars in the morning’ even in the 18th century.
The inscription is inside the famous Ru ware bowl from the collection of Sir Percival David (PDF 3, illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Imperial Taste – Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Los Angeles, 1989, pp. 34-5, no. 11). It is an imperial inscription from the brush of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95), bearing a date of AD 1786. This laudatory text includes the lines:
‘Many [old] dishes have survived, but bowls are difficult to find.
There are more than a hundred dishes stored in the Palace,
Yet bowls are as rare as stars in the morning.’
The inscription makes it clear that the Percival David bowl was in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor, but it seems very likely that this bowl was already in the imperial collection even before the emperor Qianlong’s reign. The Percival David Foundation was given by Lady David a large handscroll entitled Gu wan tu (古玩圖), ‘Scroll of Antiquities’, which was painted by an anonymous court artist in the sixth year of the Yongzheng reign (AD 1728). On the scroll are a wide variety of treasures from the imperial collection, including ceramics, bronzes, and jades. Among the ceramics is depicted a bowl bearing such a striking resemblance to the David bowl that it seems reasonable to assume that they are one and the same. The bowl on the hand scroll even has the same copper band around the lip, and similar crackle pattern (illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Imperial Taste – Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, op. cit., p. 35, fig. 17). The 1728 scroll and another from the same series dated to 1729, now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (see E.S. Rawski and J. Rawson (eds.), China – The Three Emperors 1662-1795, London, 2005, pp. 252-55, nos. 168 and 169), both depict a small number of Ru wares, which must have been in the imperial collection during the reign of the Yongzheng emperor (r. 1723-35) – providing further evidence of the esteem in which Ru wares were held by this most discerning of Qing emperors.
The precise dates for the production of Ru wares are not yet definitely established, but the Chinese scholar陳萬里Chen Wanli suggested an approximate period from 1086 to 1106 AD – only 20 years – during which Ru wares were used by the Northern Song court. In part Chen based this dating on two Song dynasty texts - the Xuanhe feng shi Gaoli tujing (宣和奉使高麗圖經, Illustrated Account of an Official Mission to Korea during the Xuanhe Reign) by Xu Jing (徐兢 1091-1153) and the Tan zhai biheng坦齋筆衡by Ye Zhi葉寘, who was writing in the early 13th century. Other scholars have suggested that the period of production may have been just a little longer - perhaps as long as 40 years - but all agree that imperial Ru wares were only produced for a very short time and inevitably the quantity made was small. The limited scale of production was due not only to the brief period of production, but also to the fact that Ru wares appear to have been fired in characteristic northern Chinese mantou (饅頭 bread-bun) kilns, which had a very small firing chamber. In addition, each Ru vessel would have been fired in a saggar (匣a clay box - to protect it from debris in the kilns) and so every individual piece would have taken up even more space in the firing chamber. Finds of biscuit-fired vessels at the kiln site also suggest that, at least some, imperial Ru wares were first fired without glaze – probably to a relatively low temperature in order to remove water from the clay body – and then fired a second time, with glaze, to a higher temperature. While the removal of the water in the first firing would have aided the production of a good final glaze quality, nevertheless there would have been some losses each time the pieces were fired – further reducing the final number of wares.
The height of imperial Ru ware production was during the reign of the Northern Song Emperor Huizong ( 徽宗 r. 1100-1126). While he may not have been particularly skilful in governing of the Empire, Emperor Huizong has traditionally been greatly admired as a collector, artist and aesthete, and the refined aesthetics which characterised his reign were extremely influential in the succeeding centuries. Huizong’s reputation as an antiquarian as well as an aesthete was due to the publication of illustrated records of his collection of antiques, as well as to the contemporary art made for his court and temples, which marked his reign as perhaps the most culturally inspiring in Chinese history.
Ru ware is also important because it seems that it may have been the first ceramic ware which was specifically ordered by the imperial court, as opposed to simply being sent as tribute. Various texts, including Notes from an Aged Scholar’s Hut (Laoxue’an biji 老學庵筆記) by 陸遊 Lu Yu (AD 1125-1210), state that white Ding wares fell from favour with the imperial court because they had ‘awns’ ( 芒 mang), and were replaced by Ru wares.
故都時定 器不大禁中惟用汝器 以 定器有芒也
This transference of imperial favour from white wares to a type of fine celadon ware is not so surprising when it is remembered that appreciation of another type of fine bluish-grey glazed celadon ware had already been established at the Song dynasty court. This was Yue ware from Zhejiang province, one of the first Chinese ceramic wares to be appreciated for its own aesthetic qualities. Yue wares had been sent as tribute to both the Tang and Song courts, and it is estimated that some 170,000 pieces of tribute Yue ware are recorded for the first three decades of the Northern Song period (i.e. AD 960-990). The taste for celadon ware was thus well established by the latter part of the Northern Song period. There is an interesting section in Descriptions of an Embassy to Korea during the Xuanhe Reign (Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing 宣和奉. 使高麗圖經) by Xu Jing 徐兢 which was compiled in AD 1124, which noted of ceramics at the Korean court that: ‘ …the vases still imitate the Ding wares. The censers are of the finest quality, the rest are all of the old secret colour of Yuezhou and similar to the new wares from Ruzhou’.
There is a reference to Ru ware manufacture in the 清波雜志Qingbo Zazhi written in AD 1192 by 周輝Zhou Hui of the Southern Song, where it is noted that:
‘Ru ware was fired for the imperial court, and agate was used in its glaze. It was only after pieces required by the court had been selected that others could be sold. Recently these have been very difficult to find.’ Thus, these wares appear to have been made specifically for the court, and only those not selected by the court could be sold. The author of this text was writing in 1192, and already Ru wares were scarce. It is also interesting that agate was reportedly being included in the glaze composition.
The inscription on the base of a dish in the Percival David Collection (PDF A58), which is recorded in the Qianlong yu zhi shi ji (Collected Works of the Emperor Qianlong), and entitled ‘On a dish of Ru ware’ repeats the latter assertion.
It may be translated as reading:
‘The qing [green/blue] ware kiln of the Zhao [ruling house] of the
Song dynasty was founded at Ruzhou.
Tradition says that powdered carnelian [agate] was used in the glaze,
Nowadays the method is not used at Jingdezhen.
Also, it produced a natural blue and the precious colour floated [in the
Inscribed by order of the Emperor in the summer of the yi hai year of
the Qianlong period [AD 1779].’
The implication is that no expense was spared in the composition of these glazes – as would befit an imperial ware. As the main constituent of agate is silicon dioxide, while it owes its colour to iron, and both these are to be found in Ru (as well as all other celadon) glazes it is quite possible that agate was added to the Ru glaze. Chinese researchers have found ample literary evidence that fine quality agate was being mined in Ruzhou in Song times, particularly in the Zhenghe reign (AD 1111-18). Among the records, they found references to large quantities of high-quality agate being reported to the emperor, and one reference in the section on Mining from the Song Shi ( 宋 史 Song History) names the source of this agate as the town of Qingling 青嶺 in Ru prefecture. This is the present-day town of Daying 大 營 in Baofeng County 寶豐縣, only five Chinese miles from the kiln site at Qingliangsi 清涼寺. It is, therefore, more than possible that this precious material was added to the imperial wares made at the local kiln.
The site of the kiln producing imperial Ru ware has now been identified as being located at Qingliangsi. In the last thirty years extensive archaeological and textual research has been published in China. Earlier research into historical textual references to Ru ware was, however, undertaken in the 1930s by the British collector and scholar Sir Percival David (1892-1964). As a collector, Sir Percival pursued Ru wares with dedication, and managed to accumulate the largest collection of Ru wares outside China. As a scholar, he undertook extensive research into the ware, with particular emphasis on references in historical Chinese literary sources. In 1936 he presented his findings in a paper entitled ‘A Commentary on Ju Ware’ (see Sir Percival David, ‘A Commentary on Ju Ware’, Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, Vol. 14, 1936-7, pp. 18-69), which was published, with reproductions of the relevant pages of the Chinese volumes. Even 80 years later, this assemblage of literary references still provides a useful tool for scholars. Nevertheless, at the time of his death in 1964 the actual site of the Ru kiln remained a tantalizing mystery.
However, in 1986 researchers from the Shanghai Museum noted the discovery of a Ru kiln site in the village of Qingliangsi, Daying, Baofeng county in Henan province and in 1987 they published a report of their findings in Chinese (Wang Qingzheng 汪慶正, Fan Dongqing 范冬青 and Zhou Lili 周麗麗, Ruyao de faxian 汝窑的發現 The Discovery of Ru Kiln, Shanghai, 1987), followed in 1991 by an expanded volume in English (Wang Qingzheng, Fan Dong-qing, Zhou Li-li (Translated by Lillian Chin and Xu Jie), The Discovery of Ru Kiln - A Famous Song-ware Kiln of China, Hong Kong, 1991). Further reports were published in Chinese journals. In 1990 an extended report was published in Wenwu by the Henan Cultural Relics Research Institute (Henan Cultural Relics Research Institute, ‘Investigation and trial dig at the Ru kiln site at Qingliangsi, Baofeng, Henan’, Wenwu, 1989:11, pp 1-14). Much further research, publications, and scholarly exhibitions in both China and Japan have followed in the succeeding years. In addition to the Qingliangsi site, other sites in the area have been excavated, and at one of these ceramics have been found that seem closely linked to imperial Ru ware. This kiln site is at 張公巷 Zhanggongxiang 汝州 Ruzhou, just south-east of Ruzhou City. In 2004 two square areas totalling some 124 square metres were excavated. These revealed the foundations of four buildings, four wells, 6 cooking ranges, 79 ash-pits and an elutriation pond (for separating out raw materials) and a wealth of ceramics and kiln furniture. The stratigraphy is complex but the archaeologists have suggested that the kiln site was in production from the late Northern Song to the early Yuan period. The relation of the Zhanggongxiang material to Ru ware has been the subject of much discussion amongst scholars, and several have suggested that the Zhanggongxiang wares may mark an intermediate step between imperial Ru wares and the wares later produced in at Hangzhou for the Southern Song court.
The 1989 archaeological excavation report for Qingliangsi reinforced the point made in earlier reports that a much wider range of shapes and decoration were to be found on the excavated imperial Ru wares than had been seen on those handed down. The scholars who reported on the excavated Ru material in the 1980s and 1990s also noted that a wide range of ceramic types were made at this site, including whitewares, black-wares, various types of greenware, sancai wares, Jun-type wares, and brown-glazed wares. However, the most important of all the types found at Qingliangsi were the ‘official’ or ‘imperial’ Ru wares. In 2000 further excavations by Henan archaeologists uncovered an area of 500 square metres with a number of kilns, workshops, and storage pits as well as a wealth of material related to the making of ceramic wares, and a considerable quantity of ceramics. Of the ceramics found there, 98% were of imperial Ru type. An indication of the care which was taken in firing imperial Ru wares can be seen in the fact that, as mentioned above, the vessels were seen to have been fired inside clay saggars, and also the fact that pyrometric testers and their strands, were found in at the kiln site. These testers were used to test the temperature and atmosphere of the firing, and ensure that the conditions were perfect for that particular glaze batch.
The colour of the imperial Ru glaze may range from pale ‘duck egg’ blue to the soft sky blue of the current bowl, and has an almost ethereal quality. The majority of Ru ware glazes have a delicate crackle – much less obvious than that seen on Southern Song Guan wares or Ge wares – although a very small number bear a crackle-free glaze. This would appear to be the first instance when a glaze was deliberately fired with the intention that it would crackle, and it would have taken sophisticated control of constituents and firing to ensure that the correct subtle crackling occurred. The crackle on the current bowl is particularly delicate and only presents itself to those fortunate enough to handle it.
Ru wares are characteristically fully glazed - including the foot - and were fired on spurred setters, which left tiny elliptical, sesame seed-shaped, marks in the glaze. In most cases, it was the base of the vessel which rested on the spurred setter. However, in the case of some very special pieces it was the narrow lower edge of the foot which stood on the tiny spurs. This is the case with the current bowl and it is just possible to see the three, minute, marks on the edge of its foot, which were left by the spurs. Interestingly the only other known bowl of this size and shape, which was excavated from the site of the Qingliangsi kiln, was also fired in this precarious manner on three tiny spurs (see Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, Northern Song Ru Ware – Recent Archaeological Findings, Osaka, 2009, pp. 152-3 and 267, no. 67) (fig. 1). The only other well-known pieces to be fired in this way are certain types of Ru bowl-stand such as the example with five-petalled flange in the collection of Sir Percival David (see Rosemary Scott, Imperial Taste – Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, op. cit., p. 37, no. 13). The Percival David bowl-stand and a similar Ru ware bowl-stand which was excavated at the Qingliangsi kiln site (see Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, Northern Song Ru Ware – Recent Archaeological Findings, op. cit., pp. 156-7 and 267, no. 69)(fig. 2), both have the marks of five small spurs on the bottom of the foot. This placement of the edge of a foot ring on tiny spurs was a remarkably risky venture. The potter undertaking this firing method had to hope that the foot ring of the bowl or bowlstand and the spurred setter would shrink by the same amount and at the same rate during firing. If there was any difference in shrinkage the vessel would have fallen off the spurs and the piece would be ruined.
Given the extreme rarity of this firing method and the risks concomitant with its application, it seems likely that it may have been used only by special command. Surely no potter would court such a strong likelihood of disaster unless the order to do so came directly from the emperor. It is also interesting to consider whether the bowls and bowl-stands fired in this way were originally intended to be used together. Would the current bowl have stood on a bowl-stand like that belonging to Sir Percival David? Comparison of the relative sizes suggest that this is a possibility and they would have looked very elegant together.
Ru wares, however, continued to be greatly valued after the fall of the Northern Song.
Under attack from the Jurchen invaders the Emperor Huizong abdicated in January AD 1126. He was succeeded by his son, 趙桓Zhao Huan, who ruled as Emperor Qinzong 欽宗 until March 1127, when he too abdicated, having surrendered to the Jurchen in January of the same year. In May 1127 both former emperors were forcibly taken by the Jurchen invaders to the latter’s tribal home in Manchuria. Following his brother’s abdication in March, Huizong’s ninth son 趙構Zhao Gou declared himself emperor in June 1127, at what was then known as the Song’s southern capital at 應天府Yingtianfu (modern 商丘 Shangqiu) in Henan province. He would become known as Emperor Gaozong 高宗 (r. AD 1127-62). Under further threat from the Jin, Emperor Gaozong fled to Lin’an ( 臨安 modern Hangzhou) in south-eastern Zhejiang province, where he established his ‘travelling palace’ in 1129. It was this move south, known euphemistically as ‘crossing the river’, that caused later scholars to distinguish the Northern Song and the Southern Song periods. Much of Huizong’s treasured collection had either been destroyed or captured by the Jurchen invaders, and the members of the Southern Song court had brought little with them on their journey south. The products of the Ru kilns were no longer available to them, but fascination with Ru wares continued.
The report of one specific occasion clearly demonstrates the prestige still attached to Ru wares in the Southern Song period. In chapter nine of Memoirs of Wulin ( 武林舊事 Wulin jiushi) written by Zhou Mi ( 周密 AD 1232-98) in the 13th century, there is a description of a visit by Emperor Gaozong to the home of a favoured official by the name of Zhang Jun ( 張俊 AD 1086-1154), who had fought for the Song during the war with the Jurchen, and who was said to be the wealthiest man in southern China during the reign of Emperor Gaozong, largely because of the grants of land with which the emperor had rewarded him. The visit to the Zhang Mansion took place in the tenth month of the twenty-first year of the Shaoxing period (November AD 1151). At the banquet given for some 155 guests in the emperor’s honour many precious gifts were offered to him, and alongside the gold, pearls, paintings, fine silks, peacock feathers, and other treasures, were 16 items of Ru ware.
It is undoubtedly the case that, not surprisingly, the early Guan wares produced in the Southern Song period were closely based on Ru wares, not only in their shapes and glazes, but also in their firing techniques. This admiration for Northern Song Ru wares continued in the Ming dynasty, and in the Xuande reign the potters at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen attempted to recreate Song Ru-type glazes on the white porcelain bodies of Jiangxi. Examples have been excavated from the Xuande stratum at Zhushan (see Imperial Porcelain of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong, 1989, pp. 276-7, no. 97).
Ru ware was also greatly treasured by the Qing emperors, as is clear from the Qianlong inscriptions applied to Ru wares still in the National Palace Museum (see Obtaining Refined Enjoyment - The Qianlong Emperor’s Taste in Ceramics, Taipei, 2012, pp. 68-91, nos. 10- 22) (figs. 3a, 3b) and the Palace Museum, Beijing (see Porcelain of the Song Dynasty (I), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, 32, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 2-3, no.1 and pp. 8-9, no. 7).
There is also clear evidence that the Yongzheng Emperor was also a great admirer of Song Ru wares. That evidence comes not only from the two imperial scrolls dating to 1728 and 1729 depicting treasures in his collection, mentioned above, but from the writings of the great imperil kiln director Tang Ying ( 唐英, 1682-1756). It was in the last year of the Yongzheng reign, AD 1735, that Tang Ying wrote his Taocheng jishi beiji 《陶成紀事碑記》(Commemorative Stele on Ceramic Production). On this stele Tang Ying recorded copies of Song dynasty Ru ware in his list of fifty-seven types of ceramic wares made for the court:
This passage has been translated by Peter Lam as:
‘Ru glaze without crackle on a ‘copper’ body, copied from a dish-washer of the Song dynasty’ (see Shimmering Colours – Monochromes of the Yuan to Qing Periods – The Zhuyuetang Collection, Hong Kong, 2005, p. 44). In the National Palace Museum, Taipei catalogue to their 2006 exhibition Grand View: Special Exhibition of Ju Ware from the Norther Sung Dynasty 《北宋汝窯特展》the authors suggest that the shape called 貓食盤 maoshi pan (literally cat’s food bowl) in the 1735 stele text is in fact what is usually referred to as a ‘narcissus bowl’ of oval shape and with four low feet (see View: Special Exhibition of Ju Ware from the Norther Sung Dynasty 《北宋汝窯特展》, 2006, pp 32-61, nos. 7-9). (fig. 4) The three examples in the National Palace Museum all bear Qianlong laudatory inscriptions (see Obtaining Refined Enjoyment - The Qianlong Emperor’s Taste in Ceramics, Taipei, 2012, pp. 82-7, nos. 17-19). Ru ware vessels of this form are shown being used as planters in a number of Qing court paintings. It is possible that in the case of the narcissus bowl form mentioned on the stele, that Song dynasty Ru ware vessels may have been sent from the court to Jingdezhen in order for them to be copied. However, this is much clearer in another entry on the Taocheng jishi beiji list, which notes:
This has been translated by Peter Lam as:
‘Ru glazes with fish-roe crackle on a copper body, copied from a specimen of the Song sent from the Palace’.
The Yongzheng Emperor was obviously willing to send precious Song Ru wares from Beijing to Jingdezhen in order to ensure that potters working at the imperial Qing kilns were able to produce an accurate copy of the glaze and possibly also the shape. The description of ‘copper’ body probably refers to the fact that where the glaze on Song dynasty Ru wares does not cover the body of the vessel during firing, the surface of the exposed body material re-oxidises when air is allowed into the kiln at the end of the firing process and the exposed area takes on a reddish colour. Lam has noted that this ‘copper’ body was recreated on Yongzheng copies of Ru ware (see Peter Y.K. Lam, ‘Qing Monochromes and Tang Ying’, A Millennium of Monochromes, Geneva, 2018, p. 156).
The inexorable attraction of these exquisite Northern Song Ru wares continues to the present day. Their subtle beauty and their rarity render them the ultimate goal for collectors, and even among Ru wares the current bowl is undoubtedly one of the rarest and one of the most beautiful.
PROPERTY FROM A JAPANESE PRIVATE COLLECTION