DETAIL: A very cute, nicely preserved, adorable little water pot for use when water painting, to dip the paint brush in. A paint brush pot was an almost obligatory accoutrement to any gentleman’s desk in ancient China. It’s a bit like even today a fountain pen is considered a necessary desk accessory to an executive’s desk, even though the art of using a fountain pen would rarely be found in the possession of today’s computer-oriented business executive. Based on the amount of accumulated encrusted powdered ink we had to remove from this artifact, it was instead used as a “water dropper”, an ink well of sorts, for someone working with perhaps calligraphy brushes (yes, the ancient Chinese most often used fine brushes for calligraphy). The ink a calligrapher used was generally a solid water soluble block, and small portions of it needed to be mixed with a precise amount of water in order to make liquid ink. It appears based on the residual surface deposits of powdered ink (particularly beneath the pedestal, and beneath the basin/water reservoir held aloft) on this piece, that it was used to mix solid ink powder and water.
The piece depicts a squatting man holding a basin aloft over his head, and is wonderfully characteristic of Late Yuan and Early Ming Dynasty artwork. The glaze is entirely intact, a very beautiful tan/crème with brown accents, entirely characteristic of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty of ancient China. In fact, it came to us identified as being of Tuan Dynasty (1279-1368 A.D.) origin, and it might indeed be of Yuan Dynasty origin, especially given the style and color. Brown and crème ceramics and porcelains are very characteristic of the Yuan Dynasty. However this specimen is so well preserved that we would rather err on the side of caution and label it Ming Dyansty (1368-1644 A.D.), a few centuries “younger”. There is a little bit of glaze crazing/crackling to the porcelain glaze, but this is quite common to ancient porcelain and ceramic glazes – moreso a testament to the age of the piece than considered detrimental. There are also some powdered ink stains and residue, principally to the inside of the bowl and between the basin bowl and the man’s head, but as you can see, also scattered throughout exterior surfaces. This could probably be washed off if desired, but after cleaning it with dry methods, we left it was best to just “leave well enough alone”.
This is a very fine piece of ancient porcelain – it either did not spend a long time buried, or it was protected from direct contact with the soil. There are of course a few minor scuffs, but nothing which can be discerned except with the most careful and diligent scrutiny – truly insignificant blemishes. Overall the condition of the water pot is extremely good. There is of course a little minor wear, the little nicks and dings one would expect of a piece of porcelain this old. As well there are the normal blemishes (warts, dimples, pimples and pits) one expects with antique hand crafted porcelain. We’re not saying it is as when new. But this is as good as one can reasonably expect of a porcelain desk accoutrement which was produced centuries ago.
Although it is probable that this specimen is much older, it would be remiss of us not to mention the fact that it is also possible that this piece might be a revivalist imitative produced for the European market of the 18th or 19th century. It is widely known that Chinese porcelain and other ceramic artwork was quite popular in Victorian Europe. Carrying Chinese porcelain from China to Europe was an industry for the seafaring mariners of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Entire fleets of sailing ships plied the trade, especially the Dutch and English. However in addition to porcelain, ancient Chinese ceramics were also extremely popular in Victorian Europe, where Chinese ceramic artwork was highly appreciated and in great demand.
Although the style of this specimen is very convincing and suggests it might indeed be of Ming Dynasty origin, and perhaps even possibly of even older Mongol Yuan Dynasty origin, a large portion of the antique/ancient Chinese ceramics in Europe date to the 18th or 19th century, so it is quite possible that this is an imitative revival piece. Judging by the style it is likely considerably older, but only a $1,000 thermoluminescence test would establish this conclusively (and even then the reliability and accuracy of such testing is still debated). So we’ll simply err on the side of being conservative and suggest that you consider it a revival piece, and if it is indeed older, so much the better. However whether an antique several centuries old, or an antiquity a few centuries older, this is a valuable and collectible piece of art.
Overall it is an exceptionally attractive piece, and extraordinarily well preserved specimen of the ancient Chinese art of porcelain. If you’d like an authentic, very handsome and uncommon antique porcelain desk accoutrement to proudly display, you could not go wrong with this one. It’s certainly not the ordinary, “plain jane” glazed water pot of the era. Some ancient Chinese artisan tried to do something very special with this one. You could display this one with great pride either at work on your desk or at home. Either way, it will certainly generate curiosity and perhaps even a little envy!
HISTORY OF MING CERAMICS: The Mongol Yuan Dynasty’s rule ended with the establishment of a native Chinese dynasty, known as the Ming (1368-1644 A.D.). The Ming period is famous for its decorative arts. Ceramic production increased dramatically, and foreign markets expanded greatly as underglaze blue and red porcelain became increasingly popular for export. In addition, enameling was introduced. A double-fire process was discovered by which an object was first fired at the high temperature needed for porcelain, then painted with the desired colors, such as green, yellow, or purple, and fired a second time. This invention allowed for an almost infinite variety of bright colors to decorate the finest Chinese ceramics. Many new styles appeared, such as the famille wares, which were especially popular in the European markets. In the later half of the Ming dynasty, European traders established direct contact with China and stimulated the ever-growing ceramics market to produce objects with new shapes and designs.
Perhaps the most famous type of ceramics made during this period are the (cobalt) blue and white porcelains. These were white porcelain bodies painted with underglaze blue and then covered with a transparent glaze before firing. Not only produced in vast quantities for imperial use, they were also exported as far as Turkey. While styles of decorative motif and vessel shape changed with each new Ming emperor, the quality of Ming blue and whites are indisputably superior to that of any other time period. Throughout the Ming dynasty, the dragon (representing the male) and the phoenix (representing the female or dragons bride) were the most popular decorative motifs on ceramic wares. The production of “sancai” (three-color) porcelain was also of remarkable quality, especially of human and animal figures, and such pieces remain much sought after even to present time.
HISTORY OF THE MING DYNASTY: The Ming dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.) was founded when a Han Chinese peasant and former Buddhist monk turned rebel army leader and overthrew the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. In two purges approximately 10,000 scholars, administrators, and bureaucrats and their families were put to death in an attempt to stabilize the political situation and extinguish the Mongol influence – any possible dissent was exterminated. Imperial power was reasserted throughout China and East Asia, and the former Mongol civil government was reestablished Chinese. Literature was patronized, schools were founded, and the administration of justice was reformed. The Great Wall was extended and the Grand Canal improved. The empire was divided into 15 provinces, most of which still bear their original names.
With its first (Southern) capital at Nanjing, and a subsequent (Northern) capital at Beijing, the Ming reached the zenith of power during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. The Ming had inherited the world’s most powerful maritime force, and China was at the time the world leader in science and technology. However in an attempt to extinguish the memory of Mongol rule, the Ming rejected all foreign influences. Given the stability of the period, it was not difficult to promote a belief that the Chinese had achieved the most satisfactory civilization on earth and that nothing foreign was needed or welcome. For the population of 100 million, there were no disruptions and prolonged stability of the economy, arts, society, and politics. Finding the concept of expansion and commercial ventures alien to Chinese ideas of government, Conservative Confucian bureaucrats and administrators pressed for a revival of a strict agrarian society.
The Chinese emperor forbade overseas travels and stopped all building and repair of oceangoing junks. Disobedient merchants and sailors were killed, and the greatest navy of the world willed itself into extinction. Consequences of this isolationist conservatism included protracted struggles against the Mongols, Japanese pirates ravaging the coast of China, incursions by the Japanese into Korea, and eventually the weakening of the Ming Dynasty. The quality of imperial leadership deteriorated, and court eunuchs came to exercise great control over the emperor, fostering discontent and factionalism in the government. Ripe for a takeover, China again fell to alien forces when in 1644 A.D. the Manchus took Beijing and became masters of North China, establishing the last Chinese Imperial Dynasty, The Qing.
HISTORY OF CHINESE EARTHENWARE: The first Chinese ceramics archaeologists have found date back more than 10,000 years. These were earthenware, which means they were made from clay and fired at the kind of low temperatures reached by a wood fire or simple oven. In China, most ceramics made before the Tang dynasty (600 A.D.) are earthenware. They may be glazed or unglazed, and are occasionally painted, often brightly colored. Stoneware ceramics are harder and less porous than earthenware and are fired at hotter temperatures—between 2100°F and 2400°F. At these high temperatures, the surface of the clay melts and becomes glassy. Although stoneware is usually waterproof, most stoneware ceramics are glazed for decoration. The glazes often contain ash, which allows the glaze to harden at stoneware temperatures.
During the Shang Dynasty (1600-1100 B.C.) bronze metallurgy superceded ceramics as the favored art form of the ruling class. However both the ceramic and the bronze industries evolved into complex systems of production that were supported by the aristocracy. Decorative designs rich in symbolism were created first in bronze were then imitated in clay. Chinese burial customs included the tradition of placing clay replicas of material possessions, animals and people in the tomb to accompany the deceased and serve them in the next life. Although archaeological finds have revealed that glazed pottery was produced as early as 1100 B.C. during the Zhou dynasty, the production of glazed wares was not common until about 200 B.C. during the Han Dynasty. However from about 1000 B.C. onwards during the Shang and Zhou dynasties, primitive porcelain wares emerged. Real porcelain wares appeared in the Han dynasty around 200 A.D. In the process of porcelain development, different styles in different periods blossomed.
The production of porcelain became widespread by about 500 A.D. Using a special clay with ground rock containing feldspar, a glassy mineral, the material was fired at very high temperatures above 2400°F. The surface of the clay melts at such high temperatures and becomes smooth as glass. Early porcelains were undecorated and were used by the Imperial court and exported as far as the Middle East. For instance during the Han Dynasty principally celadon (green) and black porcelain were mainly produced. The famous blue and white porcelain was created with blue paint made from cobalt and then covered with a clear glaze, which can withstand the high temperatures of the kiln. The technical and creative innovations of Chinese potters are unique accomplishments in the cultural heritage of the world. Today, archaeological excavation and research in China are revealing new sites and new examples of the genius of the Chinese potter.
HISTORY OF CHINESE CIVILIZATION: Remains of Homo erectus, found near Beijing, have been dated back 460,000 years. Recent archaeological studies in the Yangtse River area have provided evidence of ancient cultures (and rice cultivation) flourishing more than 11,500 years ago, contrary to the conventional belief that the Yellow River area was the cradle of the Chinese civilization. The Neolithic period flourished with a multiplicity of cultures in different regions dating back to around 5000 B.C. There is strong evidence of two so-called pottery cultures, the Yang-shao culture (3950-1700 B.C.) and the Lung-shan culture (2000-1850 B.C). Written records go back more than 3,500 years, and the written history is (as is the case with Ancient Egypt) divided into dynasties, families of kings or emperors. The voluminous records kept by the ancient Chinese provide us with knowledge into their strong sense of their real and mythological origins – as well as of their neighbors.
By about 2500 B.C. the Chinese knew how to cultivate and weave silk and were trading the luxurious fabric with other nations by about 1000 B.C. The production and value of silk tell much about the advanced state of early Chinese civilization. Cultivation of silkworms required mulberry tree orchards, temperature controls and periodic feedings around the clock. More than 2,000 silkworms were required to produce one pound of silk. The Chinese also mastered spinning, dyeing and weaving silk threads into fabric. Bodies were buried with food containers and other possessions, presumably to assist the smooth passage of the dead to the next world. The relative success of ancient China can be attributed to the superiority of their ideographic written language, their technology, and their political institutions; the refinement of their artistic and intellectual creativity; and the sheer weight of their numbers.
A recurrent historical theme has been the unceasing struggle of the sedentary Chinese against the threats posed by non-Chinese peoples on the margins of their territory in the north, northeast, and northwest. China saw itself surrounded on all sides by so-called barbarian peoples whose cultures were demonstrably inferior by Chinese standards. This China-centered ("sinocentric") view of the world was still undisturbed in the nineteenth century, at the time of the first serious confrontation with the West. Of course the ancient Chinese showed a remarkable ability to absorb the people of surrounding areas into their own civilization. The process of assimilation continued over the centuries through conquest and colonization until what is now known as China Proper was brought under unified rule.
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