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Mu Rui’s medallion

23 April, 2008 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, early modern | By: xensen

gold plaque given mu rui by the yongle emperor, from the najing municipal museum

Recently I’ve been reading Perpetual Happiness by Shihi-Shan Henry Tsai, a biography of Zhu Di, who ruled the Ming dynasty as the Yongle emperor from 1403–1424 (more on this later). Formerly the Prince of Yan, the Yongle emperor usurped the throne from his nephew and moved the Ming capital from Nanjing to his personal power base at Beijing; in 1406 he began construction of what would become the Forbidden City.

This gold medallion, now in the Nanjing Municipal Museum, was buried in the tomb of Ma rui in 1627, during the reign of the Tianqi emperor (1621–1627).; it was discovered during a 1974 excavation near Nanjing. Mu Rui served as the Yongle emperor’s Vice Commissioner-in-Chief, but he was implicated in an attempted revolt. He died in prison in 1609. How did he obtain this plaque? In the forthcoming catalogue of the Asian Art Museum’s exhibition of Ming court arts, He Li offers an explanation:

A court record may provide a clue. In 1408, the Yongle emperor held a banquet to celebrate a successful battle against Annam, in which Mu Sheng was the chief commander (see cat. no. 103). The emperor is said to have awarded to the guest of honor, Mu Sheng, items including the emperor’s own handwritten poem, a jade belt, and a golden plaque (Mingshi, chap. 126, p. 7397); the latter was most likely the surviving medallion here. With the commands possibly engraved by Sheng, it must have been passed down as a family heirloom to later generations. Unfortunately, two hundred years later, its orders were sullied by Mu Rui. Eighteen years after his death, the family was able to conduct Mu Rui’s funeral. By burying the prestigious medallion with him, they announced the end of the legendary name of Mu, which had once been glorified for its support of the Ming court.

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Ming bling

21 April, 2008 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, early modern | By: xensen

ming dynasty lotus ornament from nanjing municipal museum

My mind has been on China’s Ming dynasty (1368–1644) recently because of the show of Ming dynasty court art that is coming up this summer at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. So let’s look at a few examples from this long-lasting dynasty (the last to be ruled by native Chinese).

Shown here is an ornament of nephrite and gold depicting a lotus pond, from the Nanjing Municipal Museum. Egrets and aquatic plants appear beneath two large lotus leaves. According to He Li, there is some uncertainty whether such ornaments, used as hat knobs during the previous Mongol Yuan dynasty, were repurposed during the Ming as covers for vessels.

According to Terese Tse Bartholomew, the combination of lotus and egret is a rebus, or visual pun, signifying a wish for advancement in the governmental meritocracy. This is because “egret” is pronounced lu and “lotus” lian; together the two words suggest yilu lianke, or “May you pass your [civil service] exams all the way.”

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Chinese botanical motifs: narcissus

3 March, 2008 (05:00) | china, early modern, paintings | By: xensen

narcissus by shitao

This image of a narcissus is from an album of twelve paintings and twelve caligraphic verses by Shitao (Zhu Ruoji; 1642–1707), a member of the Ming dynasty royal family, who became a monk-painter following the Manchu conquest of China in 1644. The painting, from the P. Y. and Kinmay W. Tang Family Collection, Gift of Wen and Constance Fong, in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Dillon, 1976 (1976.280), is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum, New York. The album alternates landscapes and flowers, with verses in a similar brush style on facing pages.

I’d like to spend a few posts discussing botanical motifs in Chinese art. An authority, and my guide, on this subject is Terese Tse Bartholomew, curator emeritus of the Asian Art Museum. According to Bartholomew, the narcissus, which was imported to southern China from Europe at least by the Tang dynasty (618-906), is known as the “immortal of water” (shuixianhua). The xian in its name is the character that means “immortal,” so a clump of narcissus may be used to signify a group of immortals. For example, since the word for bamboo is a punfor “congratualte,” a clump of narcissus together with bamboo may signify “immortals congratulate you” (on a birthday, perhaps).

In the accompanying verse the narcissus is here associated with plum blossoms. Plums are a symbol of longevity, and the two plants together may suggest “May the immortals honor you with longevity.” Following is a free translation of the verse; for another versions, see the Met’s website.

Narcissus and plum blossoms,
enjoyable together,
vie for glory in winter;
I sit by my bright window,
holding my brush in my hand,
while my thoughts wander freely
far beyond the boundless shores

The narcissus is also a symbol of purity, good fortune, and prosperity. Because it is such an auspicious symbol, it is encouraged to bloom around the new year, and is often featured in new year’s celebrations.

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Year of the Rat

12 February, 2008 (05:00) | china, medieval, paintings | By: xensen

rat painting by chinese ming dynasty emperor xuande

The Xuande emperor ruled China from 1425-1434. He was the fifth emperor of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). His rule was one of relative stability, and he devoted much of his time to painting and writing poetry, activities at which he was accomplished. As a painter he had a free brush style. His paintings were often presented as gifts to favored members of the court; this painting, dated 1431, of a rat nibbling at lichee fruit is inscribed to a favorite eunuch.

2008 is the year of the rat in the Chinese calendrical zodiac. In the Chinese tradition the rat is regarded as clever, charming, and industrious, but also a bit of a schemer, who can at times be ambitious, selfish, and cruel. First among the signs of the Chinese zodiac — it is said that when the zodiac animals were crossing a river rat rode on the back of ox and jumped off his head just as they reached zhore, thus establishing his priority — people born in the year of the rat are leaders and innovators.

A rat year, although it may have have associations with death, is one of opportunity, especially in business. It is also a good year for socializing and enjoying food and the company of family.

Particularly in combination with many-seeded fruits (the seeds suggesting offspring), the rat is associated with fertility, and an image of rat and fruit, such as the Xuande emperor’s painting shown here, implies a wish for many offspring. What a strange gift to present to a eunuch!

The work is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.

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Glossary of Chinese ceramics: wucai

19 December, 2007 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, modern | By: xensen

wucai covered jar

With this post I initiate a new series that will run here at 7 junipers intermittently over the next few months (as I find time to work on it). The goal of the series is to create a glossary of terms relating to Chinese ceramics and their glazes. The variety of glazes in traditional Chinese ceramics can cause confusion, which is compounded by an equal variety of foreign terms used to describe them.

I believe, therefore, that the best approach is to use the native terminology: words such as dehua rather than blanc de chine and qinghua rather than blue-and-white, for example.

The glossary will not go into great depth on any of the subjects but instead will aim at providing an introduction and a basis for further investigation. Perhaps it will be of some use to collectors or owners of traditional Chinese ceramics.

Let’s begin with wucai, a kind of ware that was especially popular in the early and middle Ming dynasty (1368–1644). The Chinese words can be translated literally as “five colors,” but in fact the number of colors can vary — the phrase “five colors” is applied loosely to convey the impression of multiple colors on such objects.

To produce wucai ware an underglaze of cobalt blue was laid down, and then three or more lower-fired, fairly pale, transparent enamels were painted on top of the glaze. This was a laborious process that required a second firing. The overglaze colors were applied in more or less equal proportions so that no one color dominated.

Wucai colors tend to be bright and flat (rather than gradated). Ming wucai typically combines underglaze blue with red and yellow or red and green. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) a more varied palette was developed. The use of underglaze blue gradually gave way to blue overglaze enamel, the enamel colors became more opaque (yielding stronger yellows and greens), and underglaze blue was used as an outline for solid opaque enamel masses of color. Qing dynasty wucai may also employ black to define outlines, and may include gold decoration.

Shown is a covered jar decorated with goldfish and aquatic plants, Ming dynasty, reign of the Jiajing emperor (1522-1566). Porcelain with overlay enamels, H: 46 cm. National Museum of Chinese History, Beijing.

Fish appear frequently as a decorative motif in Chinese art. The Chinese word for “fish” (yu) is a pun for “abundance” (yu), so fish are an common auspicious symbol in Chinese art.

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Image source: http://www.saturn-soft.net/Gallery/Gallery1/China1/menu.htm

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Buddha’s-hand citron

17 December, 2007 (05:00) | ceramics/metal/stone, china, medieval, modern | By: xensen

jade buddha;s hand citron

This nephrite object from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) may be my favorite jade from the collections of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (the image is from the “search the collection” feature on the AAM website).

This lemonlike citron (Citrus medica var. sarcodactylus) is not usually eaten (although the rind may be candied and is sometimes used for zest), but it’s fragrant and said to have some medical qualities. It is said that the fragrance of a single fruit can perfume a room for weeks.

According to Flavor and Fortune, “Gary Palm of The Mission Inn in Riverside, California chops up pieces of rind to add a slightly bitter citrus tinge to fish marinades. Lindsey Shere, pastry chef of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California uses the candied peel in Italian desserts, such as pane forte. Allan Susser of Chef Allen’s in Adventura, Florida bakes pieces of candied rind in biscotti; it adds flavor that he describes as “kumquat-tangerine,” distinct from the more lemony flavor of regular citrus.”

Traditionally, the fruit was prized by the Chinese for its resemblance to a hand with the fingers outstretched. The buddha’s-hand citron was a popular plant motif in the art of the Ming dynasty. Besides its association with the Buddha the plant suggested wealth because of its resemblance to an outstretched hand. It remains popular at New Year’s and is said to bestow good fortune. Below are some thumbnails of images.

buddha's hand citron thumbnailsbuddha's hand citron thumbnails

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