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

Bulletin 28, 1976

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

by Yutaka Mino and Katherine Tsiang

Pages  1  |  2  |  3 

The theme of ducks on a lotus pond can be seen on a number of enamel-decorated porcelains of rather controversial date. Our study of the development of this theme may be able to throw some light on these pieces. The technique used in painting these pieces is distinct from the tou-ts'ai technique in that it does not involve the use of underglaze blue outlines, and is referred to as wu-ts'ai ("five colours"). These wu-ts'ai examples are painted in red, green, yellow, and turqoise. Three of the known examples of wu-ts'ai employing the ducks and lotus pond motif have a four-character dynastic mark Ta Ming nien tsao ("Made in the great Ming dynasty") written on the base in overglaze red. One of these, a dish sold at an auction in London, has, on the inside, a central circle painted with ducks and lotuses and a moulded lotus pattern around the well. (9) The outside is painted with fish and lotuses; the fish have pointed noses and rounded, fanlike tails. A bowl in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Hamburg) is painted in a nearly identical manner. (10) A dish in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art (London) has a very similar central lotus pond and ducks with fish and lotuses painted around the well (fig. 10). (11) This piece has a Ch'eng-hua reign-mark in underglaze blue on the base. The outside is painted with stylized lotuses joined by a leafy scroll. A dish in the collection of Harry Garner is practically identical except that it has no turquoise in the painting. (12) Instead of a Ch'enghua mark, however, it has a Ming dynastic mark in red like the London and Hamburg pieces. These four
pieces have been accepted by many as being of the
Ch'eng-hua period, and their excellent quality and
rare design have made it difficult to prove otherwise.

Nevertheless, there are a number of reasons for questioning such an early attribution. It is known that potters of the latter part of the Ming dynasty often turned to earlier pieces for inspiration and freely inscribed their work with the mark of an earlier reign. This may well be the case for the David dish. As there are no other examples known to be of the Ch' eng-hua period that are painted in this style, we must look to other periods for comparison. The fish with pointed nose and rounded tail depicted on the David dish is a type frequently represented on fourteenth- and early fifteenth-century blue-and-white porcelain. They also appear on a blue-and-white dish with the Chia-ching (1522-1566) reign-mark that was made as an imitation of one of the Hslian-te period (1426-1435). (13) The lotus-scroll design around the outside of the David dish closely resembles that painted in tou-ts'ai on a group-shaped vase bearing a Chia-ching mark that is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. (14)

An examination of other Chia-ching pieces brings out additional interesting points of comparison. A round, covered jar in the National Palace Museum (15) and a related, four-sided jar (16) (both painted in red, green, yellow, and brown enamels) have, around the flying horses, the same fluttering ribbons as the David dish. A dish in the Idemitsu Art Gallery, Tokyo (fig. 11), which is decorated with a winged dragon and pearl in red, green, turquoise, and yellow enamels, also shows the fluttering ribbons and bears a cyclical date written in red which may correspond to either the seventeenth year of the Ch'eng-hua period (1481) or the twentieth year of the Chia-ching period (1541). (17) Japanese scholars agree on the latter interpretation, for which there is stylistic backing. (18) Furthermore, a porcelain kuei, decorated with similar dragons and pearls in red, green, and yellow enamels, is known which is dated the forty-third year of Chia-ching (1564). (19)

A Chia-ching date for the David and related pieces seems likely. Although wu-ts'ai porcelains bearing Hsüan-te, Ch'eng-hua, Cheng-te, and Chia-ching reign-marks exist, (20) their close similarities in style of decoration indicate a proximity in date as well, and it seems not unreasonable to assign them all to the sixteenth-century.

This brings us to two dishes decorated with scenes of waterfowl on a lotus pond and actually bearing the Chia-ching reign-mark. The first is a wu-ts'ai dish in the Idemitsu Art Gallery with two waterfowl, may be either ducks or geese, and side (fig. 12). (21) One bird is swimming down from the centre of the picture toward the other, seen from the side, below it. The second dish, in the National Palace Museum, is the most important for our purposes as it is decorated in exactly the same manner as the Ottawa bowl. (22) The mandarin ducks and lotuses are outlined in blue and painted with red, yellow, and green enamels; the ducks on the outside alternate with clumps of lotuses and aquatic plants (fig. 13) and those on the inside are in the midst of four clumps (fig. 14). The female in the centre is shown in three-quarters view swimming diagonally down toward the drake in the lower right portion of the picture, similar to the decoration on the wu-ts'ai dish just mentioned. The clumps of lotuses are placed in a rigidly symmetrical arrangement. The blue lotus-petal panels around the foot, though slightly different in appearance, can be seen to be composed of basically the same lines as those on the Ottawa bowl.

In the light of this last tou-ts'ai dish, the Wan-Ii tou-ts'ai bowls, including the Ottawa piece, are in all likelihood products of the early part of the reign. These pieces were probably made for only a short time and for a limited clientele. The fact that two out of the six known examples with this decoration are in the former imperial collection is evidence that they were made especially for court use.

The theme of ducks on a lotus pond was quite commonly used in the Lung-ch'ing (1567-1572) and Wan-li periods on wu-ts'ai porcelains, particularly large basins (fig. 15) (23) and vases (fig. 16). (24) These generally show a more naturalistic and lively treatment of the subject, incorporating it into a broader scheme which includes other birds, flowers, and trees. Wu-ts'ai wares became much more popular than tou-ts'ai in the sixteenth-century. They exhibit a boldness and exuberance in design and use of colour which was widely appreciated both in china and abroad. The formal symmetry and restraint of the Ottawa bowl lend it a more staid and delicate air which recalls the famous tou-ts' ai wares of the Ch'eng-hua period. In fact, this piece can be said to represent a conscious effort to recreate a past style. The veneration of tradition that is inherent in the theme of marital fidelity is fittingly echoed in this stylistic archaism.

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