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A white-glazed stem bowl, Ming dynasty, early 15th century

A white-glazed stem bowl, Ming dynasty, early 15th century. Photo Christie’s Image Ltd 2014

The bowl has shallow rounded sides flaring to the everted rim, and is raised on a spreading stem foot. The interior and exterior are covered in a glaze of even white color. 5½ in. (13.7 cm.) diam. Lot 814. Estimate $50,000 – $70,000

Provenance: The Edward T. Chow Collection; Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 25 November 1980, lot 49.


The present stem bowl has the beautifully balanced profile characteristic of the early 15th century, and is covered in the soft lustrous white glaze, which is called tianbai or ‘sweet white’ in Chinese. This glaze was developed in the Yongle reign and appears to have been a particular favorite of the emperor. More than ninety percent of the porcelains from this period, which were found at the site of the imperial kilns, were white wares. This reflects the aesthetic preference of the emperor, who demonstrated a special appreciation of plain white items, such as white jades. It is also a reflection of his adherence to Lamaist Buddhism. The anhua, or ‘secret decoration’ around the sides of this stem bowl depicts the Eight Buddhist Emblems.

The Yongle Emperor invited several important abbots from Tibetan monasteries to come to the Chinese capital at Nanjing, and received them with great ceremony. White porcelains of this type would have been made for use in the rituals performed during those visits, in particular those conducted by Halima in memory of the emperor’s deceased parents in 1407. Porcelains of this type were also sent by the emperor as gifts to the abbots of important Tibetan monasteries, where some of them have been preserved to the present day.

There are a number of published examples of anhua-decorated Yongle stem bowls, with and without marks. However, examples of undecorated stem bowls from the Yongle period appear to be much rarer. A slightly larger (15.2 cm. diam.) undecorated stem bowl with straight, flaring sides was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 27 October 2003, lot 607 and again on, 1 June 2011, lot 3822. Other undecorated tianbai or ‘sweet white’ wares are noted by Geng Baochang, Ming Qing Ciqi Jianding, Forbidden City Press, 1993, p. 36, where it is cited that evidence from excavations at Jingdezhen indicate that stem bowls without decoration were produced. A similar stem bowl bearing an anhua Yongle mark is illustrated, Imperial Porcelains of the Yongle and Xuande Periods Excavated from the Site of the Ming Imperial Factory at Jingdezhen, Hong Kong, 1989, pp. 84-85.

Christie’s. FINE CHINESE CERAMICS AND WORKS OF ART, 18 – 19 September 2014, New York, Rockefeller Plaza