A Brilliantly Painted and Extremely Rare Blue and White Narrative Fragment of a Meiping, Yuan Dynasty. Photo: Sotheby’s.
the tapered cylindrical body delicately painted in vivid shades of cobalt-blue with a continuous narrative scene alluding to the Yuan dynasty zaju, Baihuating (‘Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers’), depicting the courtesan protagonist, He Lianlian,accompanied by her maid, Pan’er in a courtyard next to the eponymous baihuating, the scene beautifully set with large overhanging trees and decorative balustrades, the reverse portrayed with He Lianlian’s lover, Wang Huan, disguised as a fruit vendor whilst running towards the former, his basket portrayed with two upright flags, reading fengliu xingjing (‘on a romantic errand’), and jizhuo … ting (‘steady and persistent… pavilion’) respectively, all above a classic scroll band bordering the foot, the rim set with a galleried fitting, wood cover; diameter 24.3 cm., 9 1/2 in. Estimation 3,000,000 — 4,000,000 HKD
« On a Romantic Errand”
The Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) is the only period when witty illustrations of popular scenes from contemporary theatre found their way onto porcelains. The superbly painted, complex stories represented on less than two dozen vessels that are preserved are among the most magnificent examples of Chinese porcelain painting ever achieved. That exactly topics rooted in folk tradition should have served to create some of the most masterful paintings on porcelain ever, seems almost ironical given centuries of court efforts to create outstanding wares with dignified decorative themes.
The majority of figure scenes on Yuan porcelains are taken from the genre of zaju, ‘Variety Plays’, which flowered very suddenly around the very time that Yuan blue-and-white porcelain saw its prime. Although often composed by jobless scholars with a knowledge of classical Chinese, the plays were not specially destined for an elite, but written in the vernacular language to be accessible to a wide audience. Derived from folk literature and oral story telling and basically representing popular entertainment with a close connection between farce and drama, zaju became a widely enjoyed form of theatre that was equally watched and listened to by the population at large as by the Chinese scholar-elite. Although even the ruling Mongols are recorded to have watched zaju performances, the plays with their classic Chinese stories were geared for a Chinese audience, and so were the porcelains depicting such scenes – the only ones in the Yuan dynasty, where this can clearly be postulated.
As far as drama is concerned, this period, according to Cyril Birch “provides one of those rare moments in human history when poet, trained actor, and appreciative audience achieved happy conjunction.” In terms of ceramic history it represents a rare instant, when top-quality works of art were produced not necessarily with the upper echelons of society in mind. There are hardly any other Chinese ceramics that were made neither to impress, nor to convey auspicious messages, nor simply to be practical, but in the first place to please and be enjoyed while in use, even if perhaps with a touch of sentimentality, as they conjure up a seemingly lost world.
Taking the basic scenes from contemporary woodblock illustrations of the plays, the porcelain painters brought the figures to life and made the settings realistic, allowing the viewer to catch on to the plot straight away. Inadvertently, they thus provided snapshot glimpses into life at the time, even if idealised. As brush paintings with fluid lines and tonal variations these illustrations of course surpass their woodblock models, and since hardly any ‘vernacular’ painting is otherwise extant from this period, the precious few Yuan dynasty porcelains with figure scenes occupy a unique position in the history of Chinese art.
It was undoubtedly thanks to the freedom from court dictates under the Mongol regime that this genre could develop, and equally due to the subsequent submission of the Jingdezhen kilns under imperial control in the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that such painting topics were quickly abandoned again. That vessels not necessarily meant for the court or the country’s elite could be of the highest quality is due to the fact that during the Yuan dynasty private kilns produced finer wares than the official workshops in Jingdezhen. The commercial kilns around Jingdezhen made all the best porcelains of the day, whether for export to West, South and Southeast Asia, as commissions for Chinese temples, or just as endearing objects made to evoke romantic or patriotic sentiments like contemporary drama, such as these figure-decorated wares. All these wares share outstanding brushwork and a striking cobalt colour as well as many stylistic features. Although attempts have recently been made to redate wares of this type to the early Ming period, the very close stylistic and material similarity of these wares to the ‘David vases’ of AD 1351, as well as the difference from pieces excavated from early Ming strata at Jingdezhen, make this highly unlikely.
171 zaju stories have survived from the Yuan dynasty, with a variety of topics, but the scenes depicted on Yuan blue-and-white seem to fall into one of two categories: poignant stories involving heroic historical figures that have become romanticised in literature, and romances telling of secret love between poor men and young girls or courtesans, that invariably terminate in a happy ending despite many obstacles.
The zaju story illustrated on the present piece is identified in the inscription as Baihuating, Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers, an anonymous Yuan play featuring Wang Huan, a talented, orphaned young poet, horseman and archer, who happens to meet the courtesan He Lianlian in the garden of the Pavilion of a Hundred Flowers and they immediately fall in love. With the help of the street vendor Wang Xiaoer, who sells preserved wild pears, they get together and promise each other marriage. However, as soon as Wang Huan runs out of money, He Lianlian’s Madam prevents him from seeing He Lianlian again. When Gao Miao, a high general of the border control appears with a large sum of money destined for the purchase of arms in Luoyang, he succeeds in purchasing Lianlian with the embezzled funds and to take her under strict guard to a temple. The plot is unusual among standard zaju stories in that the unwelcome marriage does take place, yet it is not to be of long duration. Through the mediation of the fruit vendor the loving pair manages to stay in touch and Huan, disguised as the fruit vendor, meets Lianlian again. She gives up her jewellery, so he can travel to the army post and join the army; and while he becomes an honoured imperial commissary, Gao Miao is accused of corruption, thus clearing the way for a happy end.
In the scene here illustrated we see He Lianlian, probably atteneded by her maid Pan’er, while on the reverse Wang Huan is advancing to meet his love, disguised in the clothes of the itinerant fruit vendor Wang Xiaoer, whose voice he has learned to imitate, carrying a basket of preserved wild pears. The flags on his basket, however, reveal his real nature for the audience, reading fengliu xingjing, ‘on a romantic errand’, and jizhuo … ting, ‘steadfast and persistent … pavilion’.
Narrative scenes from Yuan plays wrapped in a continuous band around a vessel are known from four other meiping wine vessels, ten guan jars without handles (one of which appears to be lost), and one jar with handles, most of them illustrated in Ye Peilan, Yuandai ciqi [Porcelain of the Yuan dynasty], Beijing, 1998; and in Cao Ganyuan, ‘Yuan qinghua renwu gushi tu yu gudai wenwu de bijiao yanjiu [Comparative study of figurative, ancient story designs on Yuan blue-and-white and ancient cultural relics]’, Huang Yunpeng, ed., Yuan qinghua yanjiu. Jingdezhen Yuan qinghua guoji xueshu yantaohui lunwen ji[Collection of papers given at the International Academic Symposium on Yuan blue-and-white from Jingdezhen], Shanghai, 2006, pp. 20-48 and 260-61. Figure scenes also appear on some yuhuchun bottles, smaller dishes, boxes, spouted bowls and stem cups, and in panels on meiping and guan jars, where the limited space available, however, does not allow for a full plot to be laid out and the scenes generally are much less strikingly treated.
The Baihuating scene painted on our piece is illustrated similarly again on one of the guan jars without handles, formerly in the Manno Art Museum, Osaka (Ye, pl. 64; Cao, fig. 9; Exhibition of Blue and White Wares in Yuan Dynasty: 14th Century Ching-te Chen Wares, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1985, cat. no. 7; fig. 1); and in a different version on the jar with animal-mask handles sold in these rooms, 5th November 1996, lot 738, and now in the Au Bak Ling collection (fig. 2).
Of the four figure-decorated meiping only one shows a comparable romantic story, the piece in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, illustrating a scene from The West Chamber in which the heroine’s maid is forced by her mother to reveal the nature of her secret love affair (Ye, pl. 82; Cao, fig. 1); two others depict historical scenes, one in the Nanjing Museum, excavated from the tomb of Mu Ying (1345-92), depicts the story of Minister Xiao He pursuing Han Xin to rally him to the cause of Liu Bang, founder of the Han dynasty, from In Pursuit of Han Xin (Ye, pl. 81; Cao, fig. 4); the other one with a narrower band, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shows one of the three visits to the Thatched Hut from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Ye, pl. 85; Cao, fig. 11); the fourth meiping also in the Boston Museum, is the only large figure-decorated vessel not to depict a theatrical scene, but four of the Eight Immortals (Ye, pl. 84).
Besides the guan jars with the Baihuating illustration, two others show romantic love stories: one depicting Cui Yingying burning incense at night from The West Chamber was sold in these rooms, 5th November 1996, lot 740 and is now in the Au Bak Ling collection (Ye, pl. 62 B; Cao, fig. 2); the other, with a scene from the Pavilion of Fragrant Brocades depicting Meng Yuemei writing her regrets, was sold in these rooms, 16th May 1989, lot 12, from the British Rail Pension Fund collection.
Seven jars depict historical drama scenes: one showing again the three visits to the Thatched Hut from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms was sold in these rooms, 1st November 1994, lot 23 (Ye, pl. 63 B; Cao, fig. 12); another illustrating the court lady Wang Zhaojun on her voyage to be married to a Xiongnu king, from Autumn in the Han Palace, was sold in our London rooms, 25th March 1975, lot 234, and is now in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo (Ye, pl. 65; Cao, fig. 3); one showing Gui Guzi coming down from the mountain from a story derived from The Stratagems of the Warring States was sold at Christie’s London, 12th July 2005, lot 88 (Cao, fig. 10); two other jars depict general Zhou Yafu from Fine Willow Camp, one formerly in the Ataka collection (Ye, pl. 63 A; Cao, fig. 6), the other formerly in the collection of Baron Ito and now apparently lost (Cao, fig. 5); and the last two depict the story of Tang dynasty General Yuchi Gong, one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, (Ye, pl. 62 A; Cao, fig. 7), the other excavated in Hengxian, Guangxi province (Hu Wen and Lei Qiujiang, ‘Guangxi Hengxian chutu Yuan qinghua renwu gushi tu guan [A Yuan blue-and-white jar with figurative, ancient story design excavated in Hengxian, Guangxi]’, Wenwu 1993, no. 11, pl. 5).
1 See Chung-wen Shih, The Golden Age of Chinese Drama: Yüan Tsa-chü, Princeton, 1976.
2 Foreword, ibid., p. vi.
3 Listed ibid., pp. 225-34
Sotheby’s. Chinese Art through the Eye of Sakamoto Gor – Porcelain. Hong Kong | 08 oct. 2014, 02:30 PM