Harmony and Prosperity: A Rare Jiajing Wucai Fish Jar
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director, Asian Art
This rare Jiajing wucai fish jar is part of a long Chinese tradition of using fish as decorative motifs on ceramics. Fish are among the earliest representational devices to appear on Chinese ceramics, and they can be seen on vessels as early as the Neolithic period, such as the 4th millennium BC painted earthenwares from the Yangshao Neolithic culture at Banpo in Shaanxi province. See Chang, Kwang-chih, The Archaeology of Ancient China, New Haven and London, 1972 ed., pp. 92-3, fig. 27. Fish have remained a popular theme in Chinese ceramics - providing both shape and decoration.
Prior to the beautifully painted fish on porcelain of the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the most striking fish to appear on Chinese ceramics were some of those decorating Jin dynasty popular wares from the Cizhou kilns, particularly those with white and black slip and sgraffiato decoration, as seen on the famous pillow with catfish and eel grass in the Yamato Bunkakan Museum, Nara, illustrated by G. Hasebe in Sekai Toji Zenshu - 12 - Song, Tokyo, 1977, p. 242, no. 239. It is interesting to note that while some earlier depictions included lotus, the Cizhou wares painted fish were often accompanied by more sinuous aquatic plants, which greatly enhanced the impression of them swimming in their natural element.
This more naturalistic rendering of fish was taken up with brilliant artistic skill by ceramic decorators working in underglaze cobalt blue on porcelain at Jingdezhen in the Yuan dynasty. On Yuan porcelain jars, such as the magnificent example sold in our London rooms in July 2006, the design of four fish swimming amongst aquatic plants is well constructed to achieve a richly-textured composition, full of movement, depicting the fish swimming convincingly through the water. The direct visual inspiration for this style of decoration came, almost certainly, from paintings on silk and paper. Zhejiang province, where the Southern Song Hangzhou Academy was located during the 12th and 13th centuries, was one of the areas particularly known for paintings depicting fish amongst aquatic plants. The theme was continued by artists in local schools within this province during the Yuan dynasty, and the fact that Zhejiang province shares a border with Jiangxi province, where the Jingdezhen kilns were located, may be significant in explaining the exceptional painterly skill demonstrated by the ceramic artist who painted the fish and plants on porcelain.
In fact, paintings of fish were esteemed at the Chinese court as early as the Northern Song period. Several members of the Song imperial clan were known to paint fish in their spare time, and an album leaf entitled Fish at Play by Zhao Kexiong (born c. 1080) is preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Zhao was a military official and the great grandson of the Emperor Taizong's younger brother. Among the other Northern Song dynasty artists who painted fish, and whose work was greatly admired at court, was Liu Cai (active c. AD 1080-1120). Indeed some 30 scrolls attributed to Liu Cai are recorded in the 1120 catalogue of the imperial painting collection. Liu was one of the Song artists to introduce new realism in the depiction of the natural world, and his fish paintings, like the famous Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers in the collection of the St. Louis Art Museum dated circa 1075, illustrated in Three Thousand Years of Chinese Painting, Yang Xin, et al., New Haven and London, 1997, p. 118, pl. 110, depict fish in a way that makes them appear completely at home in their environment, darting about in the water amongst aquatic plants. The liveliness of the fish as well as the choice of aquatic plants in Liu Cai's painting provided inspiration for later artists working in both two- and three-dimensional media. Even the swimming positions of the individual fish recur either in precisely the same form or in mirror image in later paintings and on porcelain jars.
It is noticeable that on a number of surviving Yuan dynasty fish paintings the scale of the fish in relation to the overall size of the scroll painting is considerably increased compared to that associated with Song dynasty works. Each Yuan fish is shown in great detail, and the fish frequently appear to have been given their own personalities. This feature of Yuan fish painting can be seen particularly clearly in the painting Fish among Water Plants attributed to Lai'an in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and in an anonymous painting of Two Carp leaping among Waves, in the same collection. A number of the Yuan dynasty paintings of fish provide good comparisons with the fish shown on the Yuan blue and white porcelain fish jars, and later on Ming ceramics.
Not only the identical choice of fish but also the arrangement of water weed and lotus on the Yuan jars reappear on imperial Xuande (1424-35) marked blue and white dishes of the type preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing. See The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (1), Hong Kong, 2000, p. 144, no. 136, and in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsuan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1998, pp. 414-5, no. 180. A similar approach to the depiction of fish and aquatic plants to that on the Yuan dynasty fish jars was not only seen on porcelains of the Xuande reign, but also on porcelains made for the Jiajing emperor's court in the 16th century. It is probably no coincidence that a painter like Liu Jie (active c. AD 1485-1525), who served as a court artist in the early years of the Jiajing reign should have painted fish following the approach of Yuan dynasty artists, as can be seen in his hanging scroll Swimming Carp, now in the Cleveland Museum of Art (Fig. 2), and illustrated by Wai-kam Ho, et al., Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting: the Collection of the Nelson Gallery-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, op. cit., pp. 150-151, no. 129. Records of porcelains to be commissioned from the imperial kilns for the Jiajing emperor (1522-55) note, for example, that in the 21st year of his reign he ordered 200 blue and white jars decorated with qing, bai, li, and gui - almost the same fish that appear on the Yuan dynasty jars. While such an order was in keeping with the Jiajing emperor's passionate commitment to Daoism, and may also suggest the influence of painters like Liu Jie, it may additionally suggest that Yuan dynasty jars were known at the Jiajing court, and indeed may have been handed down by successive Ming emperors.
With the enthusiastic adoption of polychrome palettes at Jingdezhen came wonderful opportunities for the ceramic decorators to enhance various elements of their designs, and in the Jiajing reign some of the most magnificent polychrome porcelains were jars, such as the current example, decorated with fish and aquatic plants rendered in the brilliant wucai combination of underglaze cobalt blue and overglaze enamels in red, yellow, green and dark brown. One of the particularly significant features of the Jiajing wucai vessels is that the fish on them are all golden fish, which, as will be explained below, provides a rebus for an abundance of gold. In contrast to the earlier depictions, the fish on these Jiajing jars are of different sizes and are painted with an even greater sense of movement than on previous ceramics. Combined with the variety of aquatic plants and the rich colors this produces a spectacularly vibrant design.
Jars of this type are among the most admired of all the imperial porcelain of the Jiajing reign, since the wucai palette is particularly effective for the depiction of this theme and the large scale of the jar provides an excellent 'canvas' on which the ceramic decorator could arrange the undulating composition of fish and aquatic plants. Several jars of this type are to be found in major international museum collections in Europe, Japan and America. Five are preserved in China, including one which was excavated in 1967 in Hepingli, Chaoyangqu, Beijing, published in Wenwu, 1972: 6, p. 64, and inside back cover. Two others are preserved in Beijing. One in the collection of the Palace Museum (Fig. 1) is illustrated in The Complete Treasures of the Palace Museum - 38 - Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colors, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 16, no. 15. The other, excavated in Beijing in 1955, in the Chinese History Museum is illustrated in Zhonggguo wenwu jinghua daquan, Taipei, 1993, p. 395, no. 772. Similar jars are also in the collections of the Shanghai Museum, illustrated by Liu Liang-yu in Survey of Chinese Ceramics - 4 - Ming Official Wares, Taipei, 1991, p. 212, lower left image, and the Tianjin Museum, illustrated in Porcelain from the Tianjin Municipal Museum, Hong Kong, 1993, p. 198, pl. 116.
The Harvard jar is interesting since the enamel colors appear at first glance to be different to those seen on other examples, however, careful examination suggests that this may be due to the jar having possibly been in a fire, which darkened the iron red enamel to the extent that it may have been largely removed. On various sections of the design, notably the fish and the petal panels on the shoulder of the vessel, iron red enamel was usually applied over a yellow enamel, which brightened the final red color. This red has probably been removed from the current jar, and close inspection shows that where there appears to be three yellow petals in a row on the shoulder. The central petal is a slightly different color from the two on either side, suggesting that it was originally covered by another enamel. Some of the green enamel on one side of the jar also appears to have been affected creating a rather pleasing green and mauve mottling.
Sadly, palace fires were all too common within the Forbidden City - usually caused either by sparks from the braziers used to heat the buildings, or emanating from the kitchens, or occasionally by lightning strikes. Even in the first month of the first year of the Jiajing emperor's reign (1522) three small palaces behind the Palace of Purity and Tranquillity were damaged by fire. On the thirteenth day of the fourth month of the 36th year of Jiajing's reign (1557) lightning caused fires which destroyed not only the three main halls of the Inner Court, but also the Literary Building (later known as the Pavilion of Manifest Benevolence), the Military Building (later known as the Pavilion of Glorifying Righteousness) and 15 gates. Fires continued to lay waste to parts of the Forbidden City at tragically regular intervals throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, and even into the Republican period. On 26th June 1923 fire broke out in the garden attached to the Palace for the Establishment of Happiness and many buildings in the vicinity were destroyed. The current jar could have been damaged in any one of these fires, but it is significant that the owners of the jar seem to have valued it so highly that they chose to remove the damaged red enamel and retain the prized jar.
The continued popularity of fish as a decorative theme in China is due to a combination of artistic, philosophical and lexical reasons. Fish have come to represent a number of desirable attributes. Some of the sources for this can be found in philosophical Daoism, particularly in the Zhuangzi, attributed to Zhuangzi, or 'Master Zhuang' (369-298 BC), who, after Laozi, was one of the earliest philosophers of what has become known as Daojia, or the School of the Way. Among other things, Zhuangzi consistently uses fish to exemplify creatures who achieve happiness by being in tune with their environment. As part of a much more complex discussion in chapter 17 (Qiu shui), Zhuangzi, who is crossing a bridge over the Hao river with Huizi, notes: "See how the small fish are darting about [in the water]. That is the happiness of fish." There are several paintings dated to the late Song and early Yuan dynasties, which are entitled The Pleasure of Fish, which is a direct reference to this quotation. These represented fish as being completely in harmony with their environment.
In chapter six, Dazongshi, Zhuangzi recounts Confucius' comments to illustrate Daoist attitudes. Confucius said: "Fish are born in water. Man is born in the Dao. If fish, born in water, seek the deep shadows of the pond or pool then they have everything they need. If man, born in the Dao sinks deep into the shadows of non-action, forgetting aggression and worldly concern, then he has everything he needs and his life is secure. The moral of this is that all fish need is to lose themselves in water, while all man needs is to lose himself in the Dao." It is not surprising that the depiction of fish in water has come to provide a rebus for, yushui hexie, 'may you be as harmonious as fish and water.' Such symbolism is particularly appropriate in the context of marriage, and decoration including two fish additionally symbolizes both fertility and conjugal happiness in the same context.
Much of the popularity of fish as a decorative theme, especially in later dynasties, hinges on the fact that the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for the word for abundance or surplus (yu) - thus two fish represent doubled abundance and a gold fish (jinyu) symbolises an abundance of gold, or the idea of gold and jade, which represents wealth. Where a large fish is shown with a smaller fish amongst waves, the waves represent the tide, and the word for tide (chao) is pronounced similarly to the word for court (a character usually pronounced zhao, but pronounced chao when referring to the court), so the design suggests 'may you bring your son to court' (daizi shangchao), indicating a wish that the son will follow in his father's footsteps and become a high official.
The Chinese names for individual fish also provide auspicious rebuses, and it is significant that the most frequently depicted fish is the carp - as on the current jar. The word for carp is li which sounds like the word for profit, and thus two or more carp would represent multiple profit. The pronunciation of the word for carp also suggests the Confucian li of moral uprightness. In addition, the carp has another meaning, for it represents the scholar who strives to be successful in his civil service examinations and become a jinshi, and will thus gain a good official position. Legend tells of the carp swimming upstream every spring to the Dragon Gate on the Yellow River. If it succeeds in leaping over the gate, it is transformed into a dragon.
Both the present lot and lot 721, another Jiajing-marked fish jar, were formerly in the collections of the acclaimed author, Henry James, and the distinguished collector, Charles A. Dana, both prominent figures in the 19th century. See the footnote to lot 721 for further discussion.