National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 28, 1976

Annual Index
Author & Subject

Click cover figure here for an enlarged image

Click figure 1 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 2 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 3 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 4 here for an enlarged image

Click figure 7 here for an enlarged image

Mandarin Ducks in Sixteenth-Century Chinese Porcelain: A Wan-li Bowl in the 
National Gallery of Canada

by Yutaka Mino and Katherine Tsiang

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3 

The National Gallery of Canada recently had the good fortune to receive a gift of a porcelain bowl of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) from an anonymous donor. Though the only example of Chinese porcelain in this collection, it is a highly valuable and unusual piece worthy of special attention (figs 1-3). It is all the more remarkable that the Gallery, in spite of its inability to devote its resources to the expansion of its small Chinese collection, should have come into possession of such a rare object.

The bowl has an everted mouth rim and a straight vertical foot. Both the inside and outside are decorated with scenes of mandarin ducks in a pond, surrounded by lotuses and other aquatic plants. The painting is executed in red, yellow, green, and brown enamels over underglaze blue outlines. In one area, the row of lotus-petal panels around the foot, the decoration is painted in underglaze blue only. The six-character reign-mark Ta Ming Wan-Ii nien tsao ("Made in the W an-li period of the great Ming dynasty") is written in blue on the underside of the bowl (fig. 3). Double blue lines encircle the inscriptions, the outside of the foot, the painted area inside the bowl, and the inside and outside surfaces of the mouth rim. The piece is of exceptionally high quality and, aside from a small chip in the rim, is in good condition. Evidence of some wear can be seen on the inside of the bowl where the overglaze enamels have been rubbed off to an extent; however the blue outlines, protected by the hard porcelain glaze, are unharmed.

The blue lines are drawn under the glaze in cobalt oxide. The enamels, which are coloured by various other metallic oxides and "fritted" with lead, are applied over the glaze after the piece is fired to porcelain hardness, mainly filling the areas bounded by blue. This technique is known in Chinese as tou-ts'ai (often translated as contending or contrasting colours). A piece such as this would have undergone a number of successive firings before reaching its finished state. After the first, biscuit firing, the blue lines were painted on the body, followed by the application of a transparent glaze and a second firing at temperatures in the range of 1280 to 1350 degrees centigrade. Several firings at progressively lower temperatures were usually required for the various colours of enamel glazes which produced their optimum colours and fused at different degrees of heat.

The tou-ts'ai technique was first used and perfected in the Ch'eng-hua period (1465-1487). It was used on small objects as its light decorativeness is best suited to the most delicate wares such as wine cups. The products of this period were so admired and treasured that they were often imitated in later times.

Only three other bowls like the one in Ottawa are known to exist: one in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (1) (figs 4-6); one in the Palace Museum, Peking (2) (fig. 7); and a third recently sold in auction at Sotheby's (3) (fig. 8). The Ottawa, Taipei, and Sotheby bowls are nearly identical in shape, size, and decoration; and these three bear the Wan-li reign-mark.

A few small differences distinguish each piece from the others, as though they had been painted by different hands. Around the foot of the Ottawa bowl there are two small dots of blue in each lotus-petal panel, while on the Taipei and Sotheby pieces these spots are left unfilled. The Sotheby piece is perhaps most similar to the one in Ottawa. Above each lotus Rower on the Sotheby example is a round, green spot rather like the flaming jewel of Buddhist iconography. This spot, which on the Ottawa bowl is shown as being on top of the seed pod of the Rower, has become detached and floats above the flower, while the petal behind the seed pod has been interpreted as a red flame rising from the jewel-like spot. On the Taipei bowl, the central seed pod is reduced to a simple green dot but remains suspended in the centre of the Rower: the petal behind it is transformed into a round fruitlike formation with leaves springing from the top. The duckweed between the lotuses on the Taipei piece are unlike those on the others - the leaves drifting on long stems instead of joining together directly in the centre.

On the Peking piece the lotuses are larger in proportion to the height of the sides. The centre of the Rowers is shown as a green dot and the area around it filled in with yellow. The blue lotus-petal panels have an additional outline around them. This bowl appears to be shallower and the mouth less widely everted than the other examples. It has been attributed to the Ch' eng-hua period; however its very close resemblance to the other three bowls bearing the Wan-li reign-mark make a Ch' eng-hua date highly unlikely. (4)

The motif of mandarin ducks on a lotus pond is not known on tou-ts'ai ware of the Ch'eng-hua period, although it appears in porcelain decoration both before and after this period. Mandarin ducks are the Chinese symbol of marital fidelity as they were observed to mate and remain with a single partner for life. They were depicted on Chinese porcelain during the Yüan dynasty (1271-1368). Confronting pairs of ducks, and pairs of ducks swimming in the same direction with one turning back to look at the other, appear on fourteenth-century blue-and-white bowls, basins, vases, and plates (fig. 9). (5) The motif re-emerges in the middle of the Ming dynasty and can be seen on a tsun vase of the late fifteenth-century. (6) The ducks on the body of this tsun vase alternate with clumps of lotuses. The waves beneath the lotuses are rendered as overlapping groups of concentric rings with streams of spray leaping up from them. This formula for waves is also used on a small blue-and-white jar with a Ch' eng-hua reign-mark on the base. (7) However the lotuses on this jar are not grouped but distributed evenly around it. Lotuses and aquatic grasses arranged in clumps in very much the same form as they appear on the Wan-li bowls had come into use in porcelain decoration by the beginning of the sixteenth-century, as evidenced by a blue-and-white bowl bearing a reign-mark of the Cheng-te period (1506-1521). (8) The grouping on the bowl also includes a central lotus flower above a large leaf, with small leaves and shoots surrounding it and ripples of water beneath it.

Next Page | The theme of ducks  

  |  2  |  3

Top of this page

Home | Français | Introduction | History
Annual Index | Author & Subject | Credits | Contact

This digital collection was produced under contract to Canada's Digital Collections program, Industry Canada.

"Digital Collections Program, Copyright © National Gallery of Canada 2001"