This elegant basin belongs to a group of similarly-shaped Yongle vessels, skilfully painted in the finest cobalt blue. Basins of this form appear in several sizes, some smaller and some larger than the current example, and are well represented in the imperial collections. Two smaller basins, one with flower sprays and one with fruit sprays around the exterior are, for example, preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing and illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Copper Red (I), Hong Kong, 2000, p. 71, no. 68 and p. 72, no. 69, respectively. Both the form and some elements of the decoration of these basins have their origins in blue and white porcelains of the Hongwu reign. Two somewhat larger basins of similar form excavated from the Hongwu stratum at Dongmentou, Zhushan in 1994 are illustrated in Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, pp. 76-9, nos. 5 and 6. The decoration on these two Hongwu basins, however, differs considerably from that on the Yongle examples - the former being much more crowded.
The well-painted fruit that adorn the exterior sides of the current basin mark a new style of decoration that became established in the Yongle reign. Grapes and 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, London, 2001, p. 79, no. 1:39. However, other fruit were rarely used to decorate porcelains prior to the Ming dynasty. In the Yongle reign, however, 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, Beijing, 2002, pp. 40-1, no. 15; and around the cavetto of a dish with central floral decoration in the Ardebil collection in Iran, illustrated by J.A. Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine, Washington, 1956, pl. 32, no. 29.64. Alternate fruiting and flower 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, illustrated in 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, ibid., pp. 154-61, nos. 45-48.
While the fruit sprays used to decorate the current basin are aesthetically pleasing, they were also chosen for their symbolic meaning. Each of them, lychee, pomegranate, persimmon and loquat, is regarded as auspicious. Lychees, lizhi, provide a rebus both for 'establishing a son' and also for 'intelligent'. They have been a popular fruit among China's emperors for centuries and were sent as tribute to the court as early as the Han dynasty. According to tradition, the Tang Emperor Ming Huang's favourite concubine, Yang Guifei, insisted that lychees from southern China be sent post haste to the capital so that she could enjoy them fresh. The pomegranate, shiliu, is one of the so-called san duo or Three Abundances, and represents the wish for many sons. As on the current basin, pomegranates are usually depicted with their skin split showing their many seeds, which was known as liukai baizi, or 'pomegranate revealing one hundred sons.' Persimmons, shi, are auspicious both for their colour and the sound of their name. They are reddish-gold in colour, with connotations both of wealth and of happiness, while their name sounds like the word for business or market, and thus a wealthy or profitable business. Like persimmons, loquats, pipa, are golden in colour and therefore associated with gold and wealth. Loquats are also regarded as auspicious because they encompass the characteristics of all four seasons. They form buds in autumn and blossom in winter, while their fruit sets in spring and ripens in summer.
The lotus scroll, which decorates the interior wall of the basin, is one of the most enduringly popular motifs in Chinese art. Lotuses are not only linked to Buddhism, but are associated with purity and feminine beauty. The association with purity stems from the fact that the flowers of the lotus emerge from the mud to blossom unsullied and beautiful. The lingzhi fungus spray in the centre of the basin is a rare use of this motif. The lingzhi fungus came to the fore as a decorative motif on Jingdezhen porcelains during the Hongwu reign. At that time it was often used as a small-scale scroll around the flattened rim of large dishes. Several such vessels were found in the Hongwu strata at the imperial kilns at Zhushan. See Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., nos. 22-3, 28 and 31. Very occasionally the lingzhi was used on a larger scale on Hongwu porcelains, for example where it appears around the exterior of a blue and white cup excavated at Zhushan, ibid., pp. 100-1, no. 17. In the Yongle reign greater use was made of larger-scale lingzhi, for example on a stem bowl in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White Porcelain with underglaze Copper Red (I), op. cit., p. 80, no. 77, which has a lingzhi scroll on the interior walls of the bowl and also around the stem. The use of lingzhi sprays, as opposed to scrolls, can be seen on the cavetto of a Yongle dish excavated in 1994 from the site of the imperial kilns at Zhushan, illustrated in Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., p. 149, no. 42. On this dish the lingzhi sprays are combined with fruiting sprays and lotus scrolls, as on the current basin.