A related pair of sepia-enamelled bowls with the same poem, formerly from the Alfred E. Hippisley Collection, is now in the Percival David Foundation and illustrated in Chinese Ceramics, Highlights of the Sir Percival David Collection, British Museum, London, 2013, pp. 164-167, PDF827 and PDF828. The PDF bowls have straight mouth rims, and are slightly different in painting style compared to the current bowl.
A FINE AND IMPORTANT FALANGCAI SEPIA-ENAMELLED ‘PRUNUS AND BAMBOO’ BOWL
THE PROPERTY OF MR. PAUL FREEMAN
A UNIQUE BEAUTY: YONGZHENG SHUIMO FALANG ‘PRUNUS AND BAMBOO’ BOWL
A Yongzheng falangcai bowl must rank amongst the most coveted objects in the mind of a Chinese porcelain collector. Against the dazzling colours of these prestigious specimens one group in particular – like a prunus blossoming in winter – stands out as the most unique and elegant: those recorded in the Palace records as shuimo falang (????, lit. ink-wash enamel). Shuimo, a term traditionally associated with literati paintings that make use of black ink washes of varying degrees, was adapted in this instance to describe the painterly effect on this group of white porcelain vessels decorated with sepia enamels. The finest falangcai vessels, the group later known as Guyuexuan, are famed for their combination of ‘the three perfection’ – painting, poetry and calligraphy, and none exemplifies this better than those painted in sepia enamels, where the overall visual effect is akin to viewing an ink painting. Not only have Yongzheng falangcai bowls been elusive on the market – there has been only a handful sold publicly, no other shuimo falang bowls have ever appeared at auction, making this exquisite bowl exceptionally rare and desirable.
On the list of newly developed enamels submitted to the Yongzheng emperor by Prince Yi in 1728, black and dark brown ?? enamels were both listed, indicating that the artists in the imperial atelier already had the required material at their disposal to produce sepia enamels on porcelain. The first time shuimo falang vessels appeared on record, however, was not until 1731 (9th year of Yongzheng). A pair of shuimo falang tea bowls painted with bamboos was amongst a list of 50 pieces of falangcai vessels submitted to the Yongzheng emperor. The following year in the 4th month, it was recorded that these sepia enamelled vessels have caught the emperor’s attention, for it was decreed that:
‘Furthermore, shuimo falang vessels are excellent. Painters Dai Heng ?? and Tang Zhenji ??? should be employed to paint enamels; the drafts they submitted should be delivered (to the atelier).’ 1
The Emperor reiterated his preference for these sepia enamelled vessels again in the eighth month of the same year:
‘Of all the works submitted for the Mid-Autumn Festival, the enamelled dishes, bowls, tea bowls and wine cups are all excellent. In the future, make more examples of those painted in shuimo.’ 2
It is clear from these passages that the Yongzheng emperor was very fond of sepia-enamelled vessels, no doubt for their close resemblance to ink paintings. It is interesting to note that painters such as Dai Heng and Tang Zhenji, who originally worked at the Imperial painting atelier were drafted to paint enamels on porcelain. Records also show that specific calligraphers were requested by the emperor to write the poetic inscriptions on these vessels:
‘On the 17th day, the Minister of the Imperial Household, Hai Wang, delivered a pair of white glazed bowls, together with a decree that:
Over the greater half of the bowl should be painted with green bamboos, and the lesser half should be inscribed by Dai Lin, with poems eulogising the subject.’ 3
It is evident that what Yongzheng emperor had in mind to create was not an ordinary decorative piece, but a work of art combining the artistry of his best painters and calligraphers. This attention to detail has resulted in some of the most refined painting and calligraphy ever seen on porcelain. The current bowl for example, is masterfully painted with a flowering prunus tree, its gnarled branches twisting and bending, sometimes abruptly, complementing the contours of the bowl; buds and blossoms are drawn with pale outlines, creating a sense of purity and delicacy. Around its base are grown clumps of bamboo bushes, their leaves finely delineated and skitully positioned. On one side is inscribed a poetic inscription – two verses from a five-character poem written in running script, alternating with lines of four and one characters, and flanked by a single puce-enamelled seal on the right and two further seals on the left.
Prunus and bamboo are favourite subjects of Chinese poets and painters. Both plants are able to endure the harsh winter and often life-threatening conditions brought on by the extreme weather. The prunus bursts into blossoms at the time around Chinese New Year on branches bare of leaves, its subtle fragrance predicting the onset of spring and announcing the start of the new life cycle. The bamboo, meanwhile, is evergreen throughout the bleak winter, a rare sight of hope in the otherwise desolate landscape. Its hollow and upright stalk becomes analogous to a gentleman’s esteemed characters of modesty and incorruptibility. Both plants are symbols of fortitude in the face of adversity, and have inspired poets and painters for centuries, with their popularity reaching an unprecedented height in the Song period (960-1279).
The painting style on the current bowl pays tribute to Song Dynasty bird-and-flower paintings, specifically those produced by the Painting Academy of the Song court. Painters like Ma Yuan ??(1160-1225) and his son Ma Lin ?? (ca. 1180 - after 1256) of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) were particularly fond of the subject of prunus, and both produced naturalistic yet beautifully lyrical representations. Ma Lin’s painting of prunus, titled Layered Ice-white Silk ???? 4, now in the Beijing Palace Museum, is one such example. The delicately painted petals contrast with the jagged and gnarled branches that create dynamic silhouettes; and the composition intentionally leaves a large space unpainted, recalling wintery solitude. Another work attributed to him, now in the National Palace Museum, features both prunus and bamboo 5 (fig. 2). The composition depicts two sprays of blossoms – the principal one stretching across the image, while a smaller branch growing downwards along the right hand margin. They are accompanied by a sprig of bamboo, whose naturalistic leaves are drawn with double outlines, and some show signs of withering around the edges. The blossoms are drawn with delicate translucent white petals attached to green calyces, similar to those on Layered Ice-white Silk. This particular type of prunus, called lü’e’mei (???) in Chinese, or ‘green-calyx prunus’ (Prunus mume var. viridicalyx), is a particularly rare type favoured by the Southern Song Court, and rarely seen outside the palace ground. In the Manual on Prunus (Meipu??) , the author Fan Chengda (???1126-1193) wrote:
‘The calyces of prunus blossoms are always dark reddish purple; this is the only type that has pure green ones, and the twigs are green as well. It is the purest and the most superior. Some fanciful people even compare it to the Immortal lady of Mt. Jiuyi, E Lühua.’ 6 7
A faint reflection of the prunus and bamboo sprays can be seen on the lower part of the painting, floating on the subtly indicated stream. This composition is an illustration of a poem by the Northern Song poet Lin Bu ?? (968-1028), one of the most celebrated Chinese poems on prunus, A Small Prunus in a Mountain Garden ????:
As all fragrant beauties tumble, it alone stands dazzling, ???????
In full elegance it faces the small garden. ???????
Scattered shadows cast obliquely on water clear and shallow; ???????,
Hidden fragrance wafts in moonlight dusky and dim. ????????’
Although there is a pair of sepia-enamelled bowls (056) 8 painted with prunus and bamboo in the National Palace Museum, the painting style on the pair is distinctly different from that on the current bowl. While the Palace Museum examples are more affiliated with the momei ?? (ink prunus) tradition, the current bowl is painted in the gongbi ??style, in tribute to those painted by Ma Lin. The painting on the current bowl is in fact much more closely related to a group of bowls painted with prunus in the National Palace Museum, namely the pair of ‘twelve magpies’ bowls (080) 9, the pair of ‘camelia and prunus’ bowls (073) 10, the single ‘prunus and rose’ bowl (074) 11, whose pair is in the Beijing Palace Museum, and lastly, the yellow-ground ‘prunus’ bowl in the Beijing Palace Museum 12, as well as a yellow-ground 'prunus' bowl, also in the Beijing Palace Museum 13. All these bowls share similar style of painting in the rendering of the prunus blossoms as well as the tree branches. The ‘twelve magpies’ bowls (080) and ‘camelia and prunus’ bowls (073), furthermore, are painted with very similar bamboo bushes to those on the current bowl.
It is interesting to note that this group of bowls all feature white prunus flowers with green calyces, like the ‘green-calyx prunus’ depicted by Ma Lin. It is not surprising that a court artist who was probably very familiar with Song Academy paintings have chosen the most noble of prunus on bowls that are destined for the pleasure of the emperor. The artist would, however, encounter a problem when trying to depict white prunus with sepia enamel. How does one depict white on an already white background. Here on the current bowl, an ingenious solution was found. The artist chose to paint the petals in very pale enamels to contrast with the rest of the bowl, giving the illusion that the blossoms are white, even against a white background. Unlike the pair of sepia bowls in the Taipei Palace Museum (056), whose blossoms are not distinctively of a particular colour, the prunus tree on the current bowl appears to bear white blossoms, thereby alluding to the green-calyx prunus so beloved by Song artists. To paint in such pale lines would however present a technological challenge. As enamels are essentially ground coloured glass, in order to dilute them to such a degree would probably have required extra preparations. The enamels would have to be ground extra fine, so the granules of glass can be distributed evenly in the diluting agent, ensuring that the thin lines are smooth and do not contain lumpy inclusions. To complement these delicate blossoms, the bamboo leaves were also painted in double outlines and left white, befitting the wintery setting.
On the other side, the bowl is inscribed with a poem, which can be translated:
‘Through the moon-shade 14, scattered shadows are visible; ?????
At the ink well I detect a hidden fragrance. ?????’
The same poem can be found on four Yongzheng falangcai pieces in the National Palace Museum: the pair of sepia ‘prunus and bamboo’ bowls (056), and a pair of sepia dishes painted with prunus only (041) 15. Most of the inscriptions found on falangcai pieces are excerpts of known poems which have been identified by researchers. However, a few of them, such as the current poem, are from unknown sources. The use of phrases like ‘scattered shadows ??’ and ‘hidden fragrance ??’ was obviously inspired by Lin Bu’s poem mentioned earlier. The ‘ink well’ or ‘ink pond’ ?? is a reference to a scholar or calligrapher, and in this case perhaps, to the emperor himself.
Although the calligraphy on the current bowl appears to be in the same style to that on the pair of sepia ‘prunus and bamboo’ bowls (056), when examined closely they seem to be by different hands. Detailed comparisons reveal that there are clearly several different calligraphers behind the inscriptions found on falangcai pieces 16, but they seem all to be copying a particular style. The reason for this could possibly be explained by this entry in the Palace Records:
On the 20th day of the tenth month, Treasury Keeper Chang Bao and Head Eunuch Samuha delivered the decree:
Make nine enamelled double gourds, painted with spots in the (natural) colour of gourds, and their covers should be gilt. The inscriptions on the gourds should be written in my own calligraphic style, to be copied by Dai Lin.
Although this was the only reference where the Yongzheng emperor explicitly requested that his calligraphy style be used on enamelled pieces, it is very possible that this precedent meant that all the calligraphy on falangcai pieces was expected to adhere to the Emperor’s own writing style. There is unmistakably some resemblance in style when comparing Yongzheng emperor’s own writing to those on the falangcai porcelains. However, while there is a certain degree of uniformity in calligraphic style, not all calligraphers were able to copy the emperor’s hand successfully.
Stylistically, several examples in the National Palace Museum are closely related in writing style to the current bowl (045 17, 040 18, 053 19, 064 20, 049 21):
The calligraphy on some of these pieces, especially that on the pair of dishes painted with magnolia and peony (040), is very close in style to that on the current bowl, and could have been inscribed by the same calligrapher.
The puce-enamelled seals on the current bowl are: fengcai (?? phoenix splendor), shougu (??longevity and archaic) and xiangqing (?? clear fragrance). The combination of these three seals can be found on other examples in the National Palace Museum – the pair of ‘twelve magpies’ bowls (080)and two dishes painted with ‘The Three Friends of winter’ (088 22, 090 23); and on a ganlanping vase in the Beijing Palace Museum, also painted with ‘the three friends of winter’ 24. The seals fengcai, although containing the character for phoenix (feng?) seems to be primarily associated with bamboo, and can be found on other examples painted with bamboo (030 25, 036 26, 054 27, 055 28); while the seals shougu and xiangqing are typically associated with those painted with prunus.
The puce enamel is a newly developed colour in the Kangxi/Yongzheng period produced by adding colloidal gold. In the exhibition catalogue of Yongzheng falangcai pieces, the researchers of the National Palace Museum demonstrated that under magnifying glass, gold particles can sometimes be found on puce or pink-enamelled areas. Although there is still some debate as to the validity of this theory, it is worth mentioning that the same phenomenon can be observed when the puce enamel on the current bowl is magnified, and gold particles can be seen clearly.
The mark on the current bowl, like those on most of the other falangcai pieces, is written in Songtizi???(Song-style characters) – square form characters whose thin strokes terminate in triangles, and commonly used on woodblock printed books. Although it originated from books printed by the printing studio of Chen Qi in the Southern Song Dynasty, it became widely popular when it was adapted on late Ming books.
It is recorded in the 5th year of Yongzheng:
‘On the 22nd day of the same month (10th month), Director Hai Wang reported to Prince Yi on the matter of the lack of craftsmen who can write seal marks in Zaobanchu:
At the moment there is Xu Guozheng, who specializes in writing Song-style calligraphy, and can take on the job of writing seals. He is also of honest character. I am minded to pay him a salary and expenses, so to employ him to work in Zaobanchu, etc.
The Prince decreed:
Arrange it as you see fit.
Today (30th of 10th month) after discussion, Director Hai Wang and Vice-director Shen Yu agreed to pay Xu Guozheng five taels of silver a month. ‘
It is possible that these Songtizi marks were adopted only because the craftsman employed to write them, Xu Guozheng, specialized in writing ‘Song-style calligraphy’. There are no records of the emperor having requested this particular style of marks, but he obviously was satisfied with them as they were used on almost all the falangcai pieces. However, there are still variations in the marks, and it is possible that Xu Guozheng was not the only one employed to write them.
The mark on the current bowl is written in a slightly unusual way. The short stroke on the top right of the ? particle in the ? character is written as a oblique stroke, rather than a straight stroke as is the case with the majority of the other marks. Only a small number of examples of this variation can be found on pieces in the collections of the Taipei and Beijing Palace Museums. Amongst these (031 29,025 30, 058 31, 074) , the marks on a pair of dishes painted with peach and bamboo (031) seem most closely related to the mark on the current bowl.
Although shuimo falang was favoured by the Yongzheng emperor, very few of them were made in the Qianlong reign. Perhaps their restrained and subtle beauty did not fit the Qianlong emperor’s propensity for grandeur. Nevertheless, they represent the pinnacle in the history of ceramic art, both in terms of their technological and artistic achievements. Like the prunus announcing the arrival of spring, their brief blossoming was followed by a flourish of ceramic production. And just like the prunus, the beauty of the current bowl is perhaps not so immediately evident, and requires time and a quiet mind to appreciate fully. The poem on Ma Lin’s Layered Ice-white Silk, inscribed by the Empress Yang (1162-1232), seems a fitting description of this otherworldly beauty:
Like a winter butterfly hibernating inside the corolla; ???????,
Hanging on to the stamens, dreaming of fragrance past. ????????
Those blossoming at the frozen tips are the loveliest, ???????,
They are undoubtedly the beauties from the Han Palace. ????????
1. Qinggong neiwufu zaobanchu dang'an zonghui ????????????, Vol. V. p. 578
2. Ibid, Vol. V. p. 291
3. Ibid, Vol. V, p. 14-154.
4. Illustrated in Zhongguo Huihua Quanji 4: Wudai Song Liao Jin 3??????4: ?????3, Hangzhou: Zhejiang Renmin Meishu Chubanshe, 1996, no. 107, p. 145.
5. Illustrated in Dynastic Renaissance – Art and Culture of the Southern Song: Painting and Calligraphy, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2010, pp. 216-217.
6. E Lühua??? is a legendary Daoist female immortal who is said to be a great beauty. Her Chinese name literally means ‘a flower with green calyx’.
7, Fan Chengda, Meipu, in Biji Xiaoshuo Daguan ??????, Taipei: Xinxing Shuju, 1974, p. 1729.
8. For ease of reference, all the falangcai pieces in the National Palace Museum mentioned in the current article will be referred to by their exhibition catalogue numbers in Porcelain with Painted Enamels of Qing Yongzheng Period (1723-1735), Taipei: National Palace Museum, 2013. The page numbers will be given in the footnotes. The current pair of bowls is illustrated on pp. 137-139.
9. pp. 226-229.
10. pp. 198-201.
11. pp. 202-203
12. Illustrated in Gugong Bowuyuan Cang Qingdai Yuyao Ciqi ????????????, juan I:II, Beijing, 2005, no. 73, pp. 172-173.
13. Ibid, no. 71, pp. 71-72.
14. A thin curtain, normally made of silk gauze, to be used at night.
15. pp. 100-101.
16. Yu P’ei-Chin, ‘Jincheng Xuying Xin Jingjie: Ji Qing Yongzheng Falangcaici Tezhan’ ???????:??????????, The National Palace Museum Monthly of Chinese Art, Taipei, no. 358, 2013:1, pp.4-17
17, pp. 110-111
18. pp. 96-99
22. p. 253
23. p. 256
24. Illustrated in Gugong Bowuyuan Cang Qingdai Yuyao Ciqi ????????????, juan I:II, Beijing, 2005, no. 68, pp. 158-159.
25. pp. 74-75
26. pp. 86-87
27. pp. 132-134
28. pp. 135-136
29. pp. 76-77
30. pp. 64-65
18th Century, All other categories of objects, bowls, porcelain, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
4 in. (10.1 cm.) diam., box
Donald Bonney, London, by repute acquired prior to the late 1970s
Paul Freeman, London, acquired in 1986