Ming Gold: An Imperial Privilege
Gold vessels are the rarest of all Imperial works of art of Ming China. Hardly any gold objects from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) have survived in the Palace Museum collections in Taipei and Beijing. Since gold does not appear to have been intended for burial, but was used in life, only a very small number of gold objects has survived in tombs. The few Ming gold vessels that have been excavated appear to be personal possessions of members of the Imperial family, that were enterred with them when they died, and often are antique heirloom pieces. No Ming gold vessel appears to be preserved abroad besides four vessels of the Xuande period (1426-35), formerly (until 1940) in the collection of George Eumorfopoulos, of which the present tripod is the only one still left in private hands (Fig.1).
Although many Ming emperors are renowned for their love of opulence, the finest Imperial works of art that we know, such as porcelains, lacquer wares and cloisonné items, are notable for their craftsmanship but not for their precious material; and even if such Imperial items have not survived in large quantities, particularly from the Xuande reign, they were still produced on a reasonably large scale, for a wider distribution within the Imperial household, and for use as presents by the Emperor to distinguished individuals outside the court.
Precious metalwork, and gold in particular, belongs in a different category. The Emperor and his immediate entourage always enjoyed the privilege to use gold, but sumptuary laws restricted a wider use. The Yinzuoju, an Imperial palace office in charge of making jewelry and other gold and silver items, created pieces for the Ming Imperial family, as is recorded on some extant examples; but vessels appear to have been made individually and tend to be unique. The present bejeweled gold tripod and cover, which holds a fitted gold bowl inside, is undoubtedly one of the most precious and most costly works of art of its time.
The Eumorfopoulos group included besides the present tripod bowl, a ewer, a basin and a small jar and cover, as well as a pair of garment plaques, a small tubular case for suspension, perhaps on the belt, and a small talismanic pendant featuring a figure of Shou Lao, the God of Longevity. All pieces are made of pure gold and encrusted with jewels, the vessels and plaques decorated with five-clawed dragons and clouds, and all are very similar in workmanship, quality and style overall and were probably made around the same time by the Imperial workshop. They have traditionally been associated with the Xuande Emperor, and this attribution is corroborated by stylistic comparison.
The only Ming excavation site that has so far yielded a fairly large group of gold items is the only Imperial tomb that has been properly excavated: Dingling, the mausoleum of the Wanli Emperor (r.1573-1620)1. It contained some 500 gold and silver items, but among them less than two dozen gold vessels, or vessels parts, such as gold covers and stands for jade bowls, in addition to smaller dress and hair ornaments and gold ingots. They included secular vessels for food and drink, as well as ceremonial items for ritual use. Although the present vessel and its companion pieces from the Eumorfopoulos collection pre-date those made for the Wanli Emperor by almost two centuries and therefore display a different style, they are so close in their overall concept to the finest pieces from the Wanli mausoleum, that they could be considered prototypes (Fig.2). Sets of jewel-encrusted dragon-decorated gold vessels may well have been made for the personal use of the Ming rulers who, since early on in the dynasty, ensured a hold on exquisite objects for the court by tightening the organization of official workshops.
Besides this Imperial tomb, Princely tombs, belonging to direct descendents of Ming emperors have been excavated. Their contents vary immensely, from being extremely simple to very lavish2. Almost none of them contained any gold vessels. The great exception is the opulent tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, which can rival with that of the Wanli Emperor, but appears to be atypical for a Prince3. A son of the Hongxi Emperor, who ruled for only one year between the Yongle (1403-24) and Xuande reigns, Prince Zhuang was buried in Zhongxiang, Hubei province, in AD 1441. No expenses seem to have been spared to furnish his burial place, which contained over 5000 items, not counting any silks and other organic materials, which had already disintegrated, when the tomb was opened. And yet, it held only four gold vessels for secular use, two ewers, a basin and a bowl, accompanied by gold eating utensils such as spoons, ladles and chop sticks, in addition to two items for ritual purposes, a gold cover, probably made to accompany a porcelain stem bowl, and a set of a gold and a silver jue on a joint silver stand. The secular items are closely related in their shapes to the Eumorfopoulos pieces, which were made around the same time; but their lack of jewels and any other form of decoration would seem to mark them as belonging to a lesser category than those made for an Emperor.
One of the two ewers (fig.3) is virtually identical in shape and proportions to the Eumorfopoulos ewer, with a square spout closed by a small hinged flap, and a cover secured by a ring that is held in place by two small ring-shaped loops. The other ewer is only slightly different, with a circular spout and a cloud-shaped strut, and a link chain to secure the cover. That piece is dated by inscription to the first (and only) year of the brief Hongxi reign, i.e. AD 1424/5, well before Prince Zhuang's death, who might have enjoyed its use for about seventeen years. The inscription further states that it was made by the Yinzuoju, the Imperial palace office in charge of such work, which shows that such an institution already existed in Nanjing, the first Ming capital, prior to the Yongle Emperor's move of the capital to Beijing4. While the basin from Prince Zhuang's burial is similar in shape to the large basin from the Eumorfopoulos group, the smaller bowl has a counterpart in the bowl inside the present vessel.
Another important group of gold vessels has survived in the tomb of an Imperial concubine, who died in the Tianqi period (1621-7) and was buried at Haidian district, Beijing, together with heirloom gold pieces of various periods. She owned the only other Xuande gold piece that appears to have survived, a small bottle, now in the collection of the Capital Museum, Beijing (fig.4). With a domed body and a cylindrical neck, the form is reminiscent of an early Ming carved lacquer shape. It is engraved with phoenixes among clouds, and dated by an inscription to the ninth year of Xuande, i.e. AD 1434; this means, it was in use above ground for some two hundred years before being enterred together with the concubine, as a treasured antique5.
The same tomb also appears to have contained other gold vessels of different dates, among them two pieces dated to the first year of the Hongzhi reign (1488-1505), i.e. AD 1488. One is of very similar form as the present piece, but undecorated, also with swing handles, knopped cover and a fitted bowl inside, but supported on a ring foot (Fig.5). The other is a plain gold bowl, similar to the shallow bowl inside our vessel6.
A few other Ming gold vessels have been discovered in the vicinity of Beijing, probably from royal tombs, whose owners have, however, not been identified. Two pear-shaped ewers attributed to the Chenghua period (1465-87) are now in the Capital Museum, Beijing, one, of oval section and with a peach-shaped panel on either side, not unlike the one from the Eumorfopoulos group, but undecorated; the other of circular section, decorated with engraved winged dragons and clouds and encrusted with jewels7.
Although we know little about ritual or secular utensils used at the inner court for food and drink, the recurring appearance of certain gold vessel shapes in various Imperial and Royal Ming tombs might provide some glimpses into this otherwise very closed world. Ritual items generally included libation cups in the shape of archaic bronze jue, as well as covers and sometimes stands for stem bowls in other materials. Among the presumably secular items, there is a repeated occurance of ewers, large basins and bowls, as well as eating utensils such as chopsticks, spoons and ladles, the latter sometimes pierced to function as strainers, which underlines their utilitarian character.
It seems most likely that the bowls were used for food, the ewers for wine, or larger ewers perhaps for ablutions before a meal together with the large basins. The food bowls often have the simple form of a shallow rounded bowl with a flat base and prominent rim. On the present example, such a bowl is enclosed in a bejeweled warming vessel, with provides space inside for hot water to keep food in the bowl warm. This is by far the most opulent version recorded and strongly suggests that the piece represents a food vessel used by the Xuande Emperor.
Although sumptuary laws strictly controlled the use of precious metal, they were not necessarily strictly adhered to. Gold vessels are also recorded to have been used in the Ming by rich private individuals, in some cases even in great quantity8. Yet outside the court, the ostentatious use of gold reflected rather negatively on a person and is often recorded from greedy and corrupt officials who fell out of grace. We do not know what this gold might have looked like since it has not survived; but since it would have been commercially produced, and acquired in order to signal status and wealth, it was most likely made with a view towards quantity rather than quality, to ensure maximum effect.
Its craftsmanship is highly unlikely to have been in any way comparable to the solid work that characterizes the Imperial pieces, which made generous use of the precious metal.
The heavy weight of the present piece is startling when picking it up, since it exceeds by far the weight one would expect for a vessel of this size. The metal might have been sufficient to make two pieces instead of one. Yet at the early Ming court, it was obviously quality that mattered over quantity. The melting down of ancient gold and silver vessels is often put forward to explain their scarcity. This may certainly have limited the number of extant items in private hands, but does not explain the scarcity of such wares at court, since in an imperial context such desperate moves were rare. The gold vessels used there were of the highest quality, but probably always small in number.
1. Dingling duo ying/The Royal Treasures of Dingling Imperial Ming Tomb, Beijing, 1989.
2. Craig Clunas, 'The Other Ming Tombs: Kings and Their Burials in Ming China', Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society, vol.70, 2005-6, pp.1-16.
3. 'Hubei Zhongxiang Mingdai Liang Zhuang wang mu fajue jianbao [Short report on the excavation of the Ming tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang at Zhongxiang, Hubei]', Wenwu 2003, no.5, pp.4-23; and Liang Zhu, ed., Liang Zhuang wang mu/Mausoleum of Prince Liang Zhuangwang, 2 vols, Beijing, 2007.
4. The gold cover in Prince Zhuang's tomb was, according to its inscription, made in 1437 by a different government office, Chengfengsi, in charge of ceremonial issues.
5. Gems of Beijing Cultural Relics. Gold and Silver Wares, Beijing, 2004, pls 48, 49, 50, and in Zhongguo jin yin boli falangqi quanji, vol.3, Shijiazhuang, 2004, pl.160; and was included in the exhibition Imperial Treasures from China, National Gallery of Greece, Athens, 2004, cat.no.15.
6. Gems of Beijing Cultural Relics, op.cit., pls 97-100.
7. Ibid., pls 82, 84 and 85.
8. Craig Clunas, 'Some Literary Evidence for Gold and Silver Vessels in the Ming Period (1368-1644)', Pots and Pans. A Colloquium on Precious Metals and Ceramics in the Muslim, Chinese and Graeco-Roman Worlds, ed. by Michael Vickers, Oxford, 1987, pp.83-7.
No early Ming gold vessel of similar quality or status appears to have survived in private hands. It is one of only eight early Ming gold pieces preserved outside China, all of which formed part of the famous collection of George Eumorfopoulos, which today is split between the British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Benaki Museum, Athens, while part of it was sold at Sotheby's London more than half a century ago. The eight items, sold 31st May 1940, lots 509-15, included beside this bowl, a ewer, a basin, a small jar and cover, a pair of garment plaques and two small pendants, all except for the latter, being now in Museum collections: The ewer is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pa., published in R. Soame Jenyns and William Watson, Chinese Art. The Minor Arts, London, 1963, col.pl.3. The basin is also in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, see Archives of the Chinese Art Society of America, vol.V, 1951, p.76, fig.18. The small covered jar is in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., illustrated in The Freer Gallery of Art. I: China, Washington, D.C., n.d., col.pl.108. The pair of dress plaques is in the British Museum, London, one of them illustrated in Jenyns and Watson, op.cit., col.pl.4, the other in Jessica Rawson, ed., The British Museum Book of Chinese Art, London, 1992, pl.136. A small tubular case for suspension, and a pendant with a figure of Shou Lao are in the collection of Dr. Pierre Uldry, published in Chinesisches Gold und Silber, Museum Rietberg, Zurich, 1994, cat.nos.300 and 301.
This group of exquisitely made, heavy gold items, encrusted with multi-coloured jewels and pearls, and decorated with five-clawed dragons among clouds, has traditionally been associated with the Xuande Emperor. In terms of shape, the ewer in particular has a close undecorated counterpart from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang, who was buried in AD 1441 with gold pieces made during his life time, i.e. around the Xuande period; see Liang Zhu, ed., Liang Zhuang wang mu/Mausoleum of Prince Liang Zhuangwang, Beijing, 2007, vol.I, p.34, fig.27, and vol.II, col.pls 20 and 21; the tomb also contained a silver ewer of this shape, ibid., vol.II, col.pl.31. The pear-shaped ewer and the small jar and cover, which originally accompanied this vessel (Sotheby's London, 31st May 1940, lots 509 and 512), also have counterparts in Xuande porcelain.
The shape of the present vessel is highly unusual for the period and appears to have no exact counterparts in other materials, although a covered white porcelain bowl with similar swing handles, which are otherwise rarely seen in the early Ming period, was recovered from the Yongle stratum of the Ming Imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen, see Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1996, cat.no. 102 (fig.1).
The five-clawed dragons with flowing beard and mane, ring-shaped eyes, forked horns and undulating bodies emitting flames, as well as the clouds depicted on the Eumorfopoulos pieces are characteristic of the Xuande reign and can be seen very similarly on other works of art from that period. Compare the cobalt-blue painted dragons and clouds on porcelains of Xuande mark and period, for example, on a dice bowl in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, illustrated in the Museum's Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Selected Hsuan-te Imperial Porcelains of the Ming Dynasty, Taipei, 1998, pl.37 (fig.2); and carved dragons on Xuande cinnabar lacquer ware, such as those on a covered box in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Gugong Bowuyuan cang diao qi/Carved Lacquer in the Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1985, pl.81 (fig.3). This coincidence of shapes and designs at pieces made in quite different regions highlights the strong official control of the various Imperial workshops, not only for porcelains, where it is well known, but also for other works of art.
It is interesting to note that although gold was used in generous quantity for this piece, the precious stones appear to have been rare at the time. This is suggested not only by the random combination of various shapes and colours, but also by the fact that some pierced beads are included, converted to new use perhaps from a piece of jewellery.
The Arts of the Ming Dynasty, The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, 1952, cat.no.317.
The Arts of the Ming Dynasty, The Arts Council of Great Britain and The Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1957, cat.no.281, illustrated pl.76.
Chinese Gold, Silver and Porcelain: The Kempe Collection, Asia House Gallery, New York, 1971, cat.no.28, an exhibition touring the United States and equally shown at
Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington;
M.H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco, California;
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas;
Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Dallas, Texas;
The Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts, Columbus, Ohio;
Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa;
The Denver Art Museum, Denver, Colorado;
Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Salt Lake City, Utah;
Krannert Art Museum, Champaign, Illinois.
WIDTH 18.5CM., 7 1/4 IN. WEIGHT 1.28kg., 18K (TRIPOD AND COVER)., 14-16K (LINER)
The Freer Gallery of Art. I: China, Washington, D.C., n.d., p.177 bottom left.
Chang Linsheng, 'Zhongguo gudai de jing jin gongyi', Gugong wenwu yuekan, no.14, 1984, p.60 top right and bottom left.
Chinese Gold and Silver in the Carl Kempe Collection, The Museum of Art and Far Eastern Antiquities in Ulricehamn, Ulricehamn, 1999, pl.59.
Collection of George Eumorfopoulos.
Sotheby's London, 31st May 1940, lot 510.
Spink & Son, Ltd., London.
Collection of Dr. Carl Kempe, no.182.
The Museum of Art and Far Eastern Antiquities in Ulricehamn, Ulricehamn, Sweden.