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Home | Articles | A Culture Revealed: Pictures on Seventeenth-Century Chinese Ceramics

by Yibin Ni

Like the stories revealed on ancient Greek black and red pottery, the tales illustrated on Chinese porcelain wares produced in the seventeenth century provide insights into the culture from which they came. These ceramics, which bear scenes from Chinese classics, mythology, legends, and contemporary musical operas, originally served as one of the most important sources for civil education in Chinese society; their function was similar to that of the statues, carved reliefs, paintings, and stained glass windows in Gothic churches. Their significance in educating as well as entertaining members of well-to-do families, particularly the illiterate women, children, and servants, can only be matched by modern television.

Much of the meaning behind this imagery has been lost to the average viewer in contemporary China, and even to most Chinese ceramics experts both in China and the West. That is why when these late Ming (1368–1644) and early Qing (1644–1911) wares from the seventeenth century appear on the market or in exhibition catalogues, the images are often given either an uninformative, matter-of-fact description such as “a man and a woman in a garden,” or they are vaguely attributed to one of several well-known Chinese works of fiction, Romance of the Western Chamber or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The messages that these scenes embody actually extend far beyond the fiction and drama with which they are most generally associated.1

Throughout Chinese history, the imperial court was the patron for the most advanced ceramic kilns, which fired ceremonial as well as utilitarian wares for the ruling houses. Traditionally, the decoration on these wares consisted of imperial symbols such as the dragon and the phoenix, or fauna and flora, all of which were imbued with auspicious meanings. However, the mid-seventeenth century transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty was a period of both dynastic change and commercial expansion, during which the declining Ming government lost its firm grip on the production of porcelain. Porcelain decorators working in the major production center, Jingdezhen, in the Jiangxi province, were then free to seek inspiration from the widely available literary sources beyond the royal arena. These craftsmen began to produce wares for an emerging nouveau riche clientele, who were eager to emulate the upper-class lifestyle, and to the newly arrived Dutch East India Company, which catered to Westerners who craved exotic luxuries. Stimulated by the demand for new patrons both at home and abroad, figure paintings and narrative scenes flourished on porcelain wares, and the momentum carried on well into the Kangxi reign (1662–1722) of the Qing dynasty.

Meanwhile, the Chinese literati had their own painting tradition, one that concentrated on schematic landscapes. They scorned the painting of figural pictures and story scenes, regarding this genre as the opposite of their highbrow subject matter. As a result, they totally ignored its existence, at least in any surviving written records. Thus, virtually nothing is known about the life and work of the porcelain painters who left this remarkable visual treasure trove but based on the parallel compositions and the similar characterization found in both porcelain painting and woodblock printed book illustrations, there is good reason to believe that either the two crafts shared the same group of designers, or that the porcelain painters borrowed freely from book illustrations.

To provide a sense of the storytelling and moral lessons behind many of the images on this manner of seventeenth-century Chinese porcelain, four scenes have been selected for analysis. These scenes appear on objects from The Stamen Collection, some of which is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Fig 1: Beaker vase, China, ca.1650. Porcelain. H. 18 in. Courtesy of The Stamen Collection, photography by William Washburn.

Ambition is Greeted with Success
A scene of the Han dynasty poet Sima Xiangru (179–117 BC) inscribing his ambition on a bridge pillar is depicted on a magnificent trumpet-mouthed vase potted around the mid-seventeenth century (Fig. 1). The anecdote was first recorded in a fourth-century gazetteer and later widely recounted in many primers from the Tang (618–907) to the Ming dynasties. Its purpose is one of inspiration, demonstrating how ambition and hard work could result in great successes.

The story relates that when Sima Xiangru was a poor young scholar he was able to demonstrate his musical talent one day by playing the qin at a party given by a rich businessman. There, he won the heart of the rich man’s recently widowed daughter, Wenjun, with whom he eloped during the night. Humiliated, Wenjun’s father refused to support the couple, and the poverty-stricken pair had to earn their living running a wine shop by the roadside. One autumn day, encouraged by his beloved wife, Sima Xiangru made up his mind to seek his fortune in the capital, Chang’an (present-day Xi’an). He parted from Wenjun on the bridge leading to the city, and there, vowed that he would not cross the bridge again unless he did so riding in a carriage drawn by four horses; meaning he would only return home accompanied by fame and fortune. In the capital, Sima Xiangru impressed the emperor with his talents and made a successful career in court. He was then sent back home by Emperor Wu (reigned 140–86 BC) as an envoy to the barbarians in west China. Arriving in his horse-drawn carriage, he was received by the local officials with the highest of honors.

The exquisitely executed painting on the vase shows Wenjun holding the ink stone for Xiangru while he writes his vow on one of the pillars on the bridge. Though the porcelain painter did not know the techniques of chiaroscuro, he delineated Xiangru’s robe with highly fluid lines, which are highlighted with lighter washes to create the contours of a wind-blown garment. Projecting over a strategically positioned rock are gnarled tree trunks with distinctively angular branches, reminiscent of the Song (960–1279) academician tradition. Further, imitating the painting format then in vogue that combined painting with poetry and calligraphy, a short poem is inscribed next to the rock:

Had Xiangru, as he wrote on a pillar by the bridge, not had the ambition and the willingness to work hard, then how could he expect to come back riding high up in a four-horse carriage? This is a truly remarkable tableau in the best tradition of Chinese figural painting.

Fig 2: Tile, China, ca.1700. Porcelain. 9 in. square. Courtesy of The Stamen Collection, photography by William Washburn.

Pride and Humility
According to Confucian ethics, a man’s ambition and pride need to be balanced by humility. This theme is conveyed by a screen tile (Fig. 2) painted in the famille verte style made in the Kangxi reign (1662–1722).

General Lian Po (active 298–236 BC) and Minister Lin Xiangru (active ca. 279 BC) were colleagues in the government of the state of Zhao.2 When Lin Xiangru received a higher appointment than Lian Po’s, Lian Po felt it was unjustified. He swore, “When I meet Lin, I shall humiliate him!” Hearing this, Lin deliberately kept out of Lian Po’s way. His followers did not understand his response and thought he was a coward until Lin explained to them, “When two tigers fight, one will perish. I am behaving this way in order to put our country’s interests before private feuds so that we can have enough strength to survive threats from our enemies.” When Lian Po heard this, he came to Lin’s residence and begged for forgiveness. The two then became friends for life.

On the screen tile, we see General Lian Po apologizing to Lin in front of the King of Zhao, while the other ministers present congratulate the king for his luck in being surrounded by such sensible courtiers. A screen tile such as this would have been a fitting present for any official of the seventeenth century.

Fig 3: Dish, China, ca. 1710. Porcelain. Diam. 8-1/2 in. Courtesy of The Stamen Collection, photography by William Washburn.

Qiuhu Trying to Seduce His Own Wife
While men were historically educated to be ambitious and sensible, women were required to be chaste and virtuous. The dish (Fig. 3) and the tile that follows (Fig. 4), contain scenes that were used to influence women through Confucian ideology. The illustration on the dish, painted in the famille verte style, is the tale of “Qiuhu trying to seduce his own wife.”

Qiuhu, a native of the state of Lu during the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC), was ordered to take up an official post in the state of Chen five days after he married Jiefu, the “Pure Woman.” Five years later, on his way back home, he came across a woman picking mulberry leaves, used as food for silkworms, by the roadside. Qiuhu offered her some gold, and suggested that following a rich official who took a fancy to her would be far better than toiling among mulberry leaves. The woman replied, “I work hard to support my parents-in-law and the son left behind by my husband. I am sorry that you make a habit of taking a fancy to women outside your family, but I have no intention of fooling around. Take your gold back.” On arriving home, Qiuhu sent for his wife and, to his great embarrassment, she turned out to be the woman he had solicited.

There are two endings to this story. One version relates that after condemning Qiuhu for being lecherous and for not exercising virtues of filial piety to his parents, as was customary, the wife felt so disheartened that she threw herself into the river. The other ending, suggested by the Yuan dynasty literatus Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), is a happy one. In his version, Qiuhu was merely testing his wife. Since she proved to be chaste and not materialistic, he reunited with her and they lived happily ever after.

Fig 4: Tile, China, ca.1700. Porcelain. H. 10 in., W. 7 in. Courtesy of The Stamen Collection, photography by William Washburn.

The Righteous Woman
A screen tile illustrated in figure 4, bears another story of a righteous woman. As the army of the state of Qi launched an invasion against the state of Lu, soldiers approaching a Lu suburb saw a woman struggling along the road with two children. When the army got closer, she abandoned one of the children and grabbed the other, moving toward the mountains. When the general caught up with her and asked her why she had abandoned one child and run away with the other, the woman explained, “I was too weak to protect two children in this calamity. I parted with my own son in order to save my brother’s son; in line with the moral ideal of keeping others’ interests before one’s own.” On hearing this, the general halted the advance and sent a messenger back to persuade his king not to continue fighting against the Lu, feeling that one could never beat a country in which even an illiterate woman had such high moral values.

Both of the above stories appeared in many editions of Biographies of Exemplary Women, originally compiled in the first century bc. Over the centuries, such episodes were rendered on many media to serve much like the Biblia Pauperum for those who could not read.

As more and more seventeenth-century porcelain wares appear on the market, we see more and more of the Chinese culture unfolding before our eyes. These objects are beautiful and decorative, but they have far greater significance when the images depicted on them are understood.

Yibin Ni is Assistant Professor of Chinese art and culture at the National University of Singapore. He has contributed to books and catalogues of Chinese arts and is the English editor of the Dictionary of Chinese Ceramics (2002). He is currently writing Romance on Chinese Porcelain.

1 See Yibin Ni, “The Shunzhi Emperor and Popularity of Scenes from the Romance of the Western Wing on Porcelain,” in Treasure from an Unknown Reign: Shunzhi Porcelain (Alexandria, Virginia: Art Services International; Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2002); Ni, Romance on Chinese Porcelain (forthcoming).

2 At the time (475–221 BC), smaller fiefdoms merged into seven powers collectively known as the “Warring States” in China. These territorial states had full-blown bureaucracies administering peasant households who provided military service. The period ended with the union of China by the First Emperor of Qin (reigned 221–210 BC), who had the well-known terracotta army built for his mausoleum.

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