Abundant Wealth and Perfect Happiness
A Magnificent Jiajing Wucai Fish Jar
Rosemary Scott, Senior International Academic Consultant Asian Art
The massive wucai jar in the current sale represents one of the pinnacles of Ming imperial porcelain achievement, and one of the treasures consistently sought by connoisseurs and collectors over the centuries. Large, colourful, and auspiciously decorated vessels such as this would have been prominently displayed in imperial halls and thereafter in museums and the residences of major collectors – as can be seen in the photograph of the current jar in the residence of the great Shanghainese connoisseur and collector J. M. Hu (Hu Jenmou also known as Hu Huichun) whose Studio name was Zande Lou (Studio of Temporary Enjoyment). (fig. 1)
The choice of the decorative theme of fish on this jar is one that has proved popular in China since the Neolithic period, and can be seen as early as the 4th millennium BC painted on 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). The design of fish swimming amongst aquatic plants developed on later ceramics, and this theme proved an ideal choice to showcase the decorative technique of wucai, in which discrete areas of jewel-like underglaze blue are juxtaposed with brilliant overglaze enamel painting in iron-red, yellow, green and dark brown/black. The colours of the wucai palette may be seen as significant in terms of the traditional view of colours in Chinese culture, which believed that there was a relationship between colours and the so-called Five Elements, wu xing. While the colours associated with the Five Elements could vary somewhat in accordance with circumstances, they are usually seen as white for metal, red for fire, green for wood, black for water, and yellow for earth. The elements and colours were also linked to the natural movement of heaven and the Dao. In the Yijing (Classic of Changes), the origins of which date back to the Western Zhou (1046-771 BC), black was associated with Heaven, while in Daoism it was also regarded as the colour of the Dao. White – the colour of the undecorated areas of porcelain - represented gold and was seen as a symbol of purity and brightness. Red has long been regarded as symbolizing happiness and good fortune. Blue-green was associated with Spring, and thus vitality and vigorous growth. Yellow has traditionally been the symbol of Earth and was the colour symbolic of the five legendary emperors of ancient China, and in later times was the imperial colour. In Buddhism yellow is also seen as representing freedom from worldly cares. In addition, the ‘Three Jewels’ of Buddhism or ‘Three Treasures’ of Buddhism, which represent the ideals of Buddhism are linked to three colours – the yellow jewel represents the Buddha, the blue jewel represents the Dharma, and the red jewel represents the Sangha or monastic community. These colours are particularly significant in relation to an aspect of the lid of the current jar.
Although the inclusion of fish on Neolithic ceramics was linked, at least in part, to their importance in the diet of the population, the continued popularity of fish as a decorative theme is due to a combination of artistic, philosophical and lexical reasons. Over time fish have come to represent a number of desirable attributes in China. 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 exemplifying creatures who achieve happiness by being in harmony with their environment. As part of a much more complex discussion in chapter 17 (Autumn Floods), Zhuangzi, who is crossing a dam over the Hao river with Huizi, remarks: ‘See how the small fish are darting about [in the water]. That is the happiness of fish.’ Huizi then asked: ‘You are not a fish. How can you know what constitutes happiness for fish?’ Zhuangzi replied: ‘You are not me. How do you know that I do not understand what constitutes happiness for fish?’
There are several paintings dated to the late Song and early Yuan dynasties, which are known by titles such as The Pleasure of Fish (or the Happiness of Fish), which is a direct reference to this quotation. One such hand-scroll, dated to the 12th century and attributed to Lui Cai (active AD 1080- 1120) – discussed below - is in the St. Louis Art Museum (illustrated by Richard Edwards in The World Around the Chinese Artist: Aspects of Realism in Chinese Painting, University of Michigan, Ann Arbour, 1987, p. 18, fig. 1-7). Another dated AD 1291, Pleasures of Fish by Zhou Dongqing (active late 13th century), is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (illustrated by Stephen Little in Taoism and the Arts of China, Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, pl. 7) (fig. 2). The inscription on this latter painting has been translated by Wen Fong as reading: ‘Not being fish, how do we know their happiness? We can only take an ideal and make it into a painting. To probe the subtleties of the ordinary, we must describe the indescribable.’ In discussion of the painting Fong also notes that ‘Living under alien rule, Sung loyalists felt like fish out of water.
The pleasures taken by fish in water thus held for them an “indescribable” feeling’ (Wen C. Fong, Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century, New York, 1992, pp.380-1). For the Chinese literati living under Mongol rule, many deprived of the opportunity to serve as officials in the normal way, the image of fish in water was a particularly poignant one.
In chapter six of Zhuangzi (Dazongshi, Great and Most Honoured Master) 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, therefore, 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 with two fish 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 great wealth. All the carp on the current jar are ‘gold’.
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 (ususally 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. Unlike the Yuan dynasty blue and white fish jars, large Jiajing wucai jars, like the current example, include both large and small fish in their decorative scheme. The addition of the smaller fish also allowed the ceramic decorator to include eight carp around the sides of the jar, and eight is, of course, an auspicious number.
The Chinese names for individual fish also provide auspicious rebuses, and it is significant that from the Yuan dynasty onwards a greater variety of fish appear on ceramics, and the characteristics of the particular types are depicted much more clearly. The word for carp, for example, is li which sounds like the word for profit li, and thus two carp would represent doubled profit. The pronunciation of the word for carp li also suggests the Confucian principle li of moral uprightness. The fish on the current jar are all carp.
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, allowing him to 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. Hence a scholar is often depicted standing on the back of a fish, which is in the process of turning into a dragon. Hou-mei Sung of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, has established through the examination of contemporary paintings and literature that by the 12th century the carp was already the most prominent fish in the Chinese arts, primarily because of its legendary ability to transform into a dragon (Hou-mei Sung, ‘Chinese fish Painting and its Symbolic Meanings: Sung and Yuan Fish Paintings’, National Palace Museum Bulletin, vol. XXX, Nos. 1 and 2, March-April 1995, p. 10).
Prior to the beautifully painted fish on porcelain of the Yuan and Ming dynasties, the most painterly 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 bowl from the Linyushanren Collection, formerly in the Ataka Collection, which was sold by Christie’s New York on 15 September 2016, lot 710 (fig. 3), and the 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 of fish included lotus, the fish on the Cizhou wares 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 great artistic skill by ceramic decorators working in underglaze cobalt blue on porcelain at Jingdezhen in the Yuan dynasty and by decorators employing the wucai palette in the Jiajing reign of the Ming dynasty - as on the current jar. On Yuan porcelain jars, such as the example sold by Christie’s London in July 2006 (fig. 4), 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 magnificent Jiajing wucai porcelain jars, like the current vessel, followed this theme, but in more complex form. Both the Yuan dynasty blue and white jars and the Ming dynasty wucai wares include a range of aquatic plants in their decoration. These include hehua lotus (nelumbo nucifera), shui bie water poppy (hydrocharis dubia), qing ping three-petalled duck weed (lemna aequinoctialis), ping or tianzi cao water clover (marsilea minutaa), kucao eel grass (vallisneria), and jin yu zao hornwort (ceratophyllum). On the wucai jars some of these plants are vibrantly painted in overglaze enamel colours, while others, are painted solely in underglaze blue – a device which is particularly effective in the case of the hornwort.
The direct visual inspiration for the naturalistic depiction of fish amongst aquatic plants on porcelain 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 artists 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 leisure time, and an album leaf entitled Fish at Play by Zhao Kexiong (born c. AD 1080) (fig. 5) 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 Xuanhe huapu (catalogue of paintings in the Imperial collection in the Xuanhe reign), published in AD 1120 and compiled under the personal supervision of the Emperor. 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 c. AD 1075 – mentioned above (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. Interestingly, the Xuanhe huapu divides the paintings from the imperial collection into ten subject categories in twenty chapters, listing a total of 6,396 scrolls and giving the names of 231 painters, whose work dates from the 3rd to the early 12th century. According to the xumu or preface to the table of contents, the ten subject categories were placed in order according to the importance attached to each category. While religious subjects, human figures and architectural subjects are placed at the top of the list, it is interesting to note that the category of paintings taking dragons and fish as their themes is ranked ahead of those concerned with landscape, animals, or birds and flowers.
It is noticeable that on a number of surviving Yuan dynasty fish paintings the size of the fish in relation to the overall size of the scroll painting itself is considerably increased compared to that associated with Song dynasty works. Each Yuan fish is shown in great detail, and the fish frequently appear almost to have been given individual personalities. This feature of Yuan fish painting can be seen particularly clearly in the painting Fish among Water Plants attributed to Lai’an (active 14th century) in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and in an anonymous late 13th century 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 both on the Yuan blue and white porcelain fish jars, and later on Ming Jiajing wucai jars, such as the current example.
Not only the identical choice of fish but also the arrangement of aquatic plants 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) (fig. 6), and in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, (see 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). It is also significant that the Xuande Emperor himself painted fish, as evidenced by the hand scroll in ink and colour on paper Fish and Water Weeds by Zhu Zhanji (1399-1435, who reigned as the Xuande Emperor), now in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
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 following 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 (yu zao tu), now in the Cleveland Museum of Art (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, Cleveland, 1980, pp. 150-151, no. 129) (fig. 7).
Records of porcelains to be commissioned from the imperial kilns for the Jiajing emperor note, for example, that, in addition to the fine wucai fish jars made for his court, in the 21st year of his reign (AD 1541) he ordered 200 blue and white jars decorated with qing black carp (mylopharyngodon piceus), bai predatory carp or redfin culter (culter erythrpterus), and gui or jue Chinese perch or mandarin fish (siniperca chuatsi) - the same fish that appear on the Yuan dynasty jars. The fourth fish, in place of the lian, silver carp (hypopthalmichthys molitrix), seen on the Yuan dynasty jars, was, however simply designated li carp. Orders for these blue and white vessels may suggest that Yuan dynasty jars were known at the Jiajing court, and indeed may have been handed down by successive Ming emperors. The golden carp amongst aquatic plants seen on larger wucai jars, like the current example, suggest inspiration from paintings on silk and paper, particularly those of artists such as Liu Jie. The imperial interest in fish themes was, of course, in keeping with the Jiajing emperor’s passionate commitment to Daoism, and could also be said to reflect his reign name Jiajing, which may be translated as ‘Admirable Tranquillity’.
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 the most magnificent imperial polychrome porcelains were jars, like the current example, decorated with fish and aquatic plants rendered in the brilliant wucai combination of underglaze cobalt blue and overglaze enamels. One of the particularly significant features of the Jiajing wucai vessels is that the fish on them are all golden fish, which, as explained above, provides a rebus for great wealth. The colour of the fish on the current jar, and others of the group, was given greater brilliance through the device of applying the iron-red enamel over yellow enamel, which resulted in a more vibrant tone. 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 colours this produces a spectacularly dynamic design. Large fish 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.
Even the decoration on the lids of these large Jiajing wucai fish jars has symbolic significance. In addition to the fish and aquatic plants around the sides of the lid, there is a pendant jewel band on the upper surface of the lid, surrounding the bud-shaped finial. The jewel band incorporates the Eight Treasures babao. These Eight Treasures are not a fixed group, but are selected from a larger group of a Hundred Treasures, which are all symbols of good fortune and happiness. As on the cover of this jar, the Eight Treasures usually include a wish-granting (flaming) pearl baozhu, lozenge fangsheng, coin qian, coral shanhu, rhinoceros horns xijiao, and ingot ding, while the other elements are more fluid.
The decoration of the bud-shaped finial on top of the lid is of particular interest. While layers of petals were also painted on blue and white finials, the use of colours on this wucai finial recalls the multi-coloured swirling motif seen on the interior of certain doucai dishes from the imperial kilns of the Chenghua reign (see the small dish illustrated in A Legacy of Chenghua, Hong Kong, 1993, p. 320, no. C116) (fig. 8). Indeed, looking at the design on the interior of the Chenghua dish, it almost appears as a flattened version of the bud finial design. These converging beams of light are also seen on other pieces of the period, and an unpublished polychrome porcelain example has been excavated at Jingdezhen. The source of this element is made clear by tiles, such as those in the British Museum, which came from the Great Bao’ensi pagoda at Nanjing, built by the Yongle Emperor (illustrated by J. Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, p. 525, nos. 18:12-14). On these tiles the ‘Three Jewels’ can be seen with the multi-coloured beams radiating from them. The tiles from the Bao’ensi, are in the limited green, amber, cream and brown palette of all the tiles from the pagoda doorways, but the iconographically correct colours would be the yellow, blue and red discussed above in relation to the ‘Three Jewels’. The ‘Three Jewels’ also appear amongst the Eight Treasures which form part of the decoration in the pendant jewelled band on the upper surface of the lid. This confirms that the decoration on this jar combines both Daoist and Buddhist symbolism.
Several large Jiajing wucai jars of this type are to be found in major international collections in Europe, Japan and America, but very few have retained their original covers. Five jars 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 is illustrated in The Complete Treasures of the Palace Museum - 38 - Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colors, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 16, no. 15 (fig. 9). The other, excavated in Beijing in 1955, and now 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 current jar is a very rare example of these monumental masterpieces of Ming imperial polychrome porcelain, with excellent provenance, preserved in good condition, and complete with its original cover.