Masterpiece: Lidded jar with design of a lotus pond

Good Fortune on a Jar

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

Fish of Good Fortune
This festive jar, made for Emperor Jiajing (1522–1566), overflows with auspicious symbols. It probably was used in lavish rituals or banquets at court. Although made in multiples, today only a few dozen jars of this type are known.

Why Did the Jiajing Emperor Order Fish Jars?
The fish, who seem to dance across the surface of this jar, may refer to a famous debate between two thinkers: Zhuangzi, a Daoist, and Huizi, a Confucian.

Upon seeing fish swimming, Zhuangzi remarked how happy and free they looked. Huizi challenged his friend, asking how he could know what the fish enjoy. Zhuangzi insisted their happiness was obvious to anyone who sees the fish swimming freely.

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

This design became popular during Jiajing’s reign, possibly due to his interest in Daoist philosophy. Zhuangzi’s argument that true understanding is intuitive has been used often to exemplify a Daoist worldview.

Jar with fish in lotus pond (Ming dynasty (1368-1644), Reign of the Jiajing emperor (1522-1566))Asian Art Museum

Another jar with a fish design in the Asian Art Museum collection.

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

Fish Blessings
The lively carp in this colorful lotus pond carry a variety of meanings through word play and literary metaphors. The pronunciation of the word fish (yu) sounds like the word for “abundance.” A fish swimming in water (shui) suggests “may you be as harmonious as fish and water” (yushui hexie), a fitting wish for a newlywed couple.

Fish in a lotus pond became iconic symbols on Ming porcelains in various forms. Surrounded by these images of different fish, an imperial family could be blessed with their symbolic virtues of purity, incorruptibility, dignity, and nobility.

Rectangular dish with four fish (approx. 1600-1644, Ming dynasty (1368-1644))Asian Art Museum

Made after Jiajing’s reign, plates such as this carried the hidden meaning: “May you be pure and incorruptible” (qingbai lianjie 清白廉潔) due to the names of the fish, qing yu (black carp), bai yu (silver carp), li yu (carp), and gui yu (perch), sounding like honesty, incorruptibility, politeness and nobility.

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

The floating flowers on the lidded jar with design of a lotus pond may reference a line from a poem by Li Qunyu (808–860) expressing melancholy over the passage of time: “Fallen flowers on flowing waters” (liushui luohua 流水落花). By the eleventh century, this image evolved to represent a celebration of nature without the sense of loss.

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

What Can We Learn from the Bottom?
One of the things that tells us this jar was made for the emperor is the six-character Chinese inscription hand-painted in cobalt under the glaze, which reads “Made during the Great Ming dynasty during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor” (1522–1566) (Da Ming Jiajing Nian Zhi).

Notice that the foot-ring is unglazed. This is so that the vessel does not adhere to the kiln surface while being fired.

The red letters at right are the Asian Art Museum number for this object, applied in 1960.

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

Lotus: Harmony and Purity
Emerging pristine from the mud in which it grows, the lotus flower appears often in Buddhist texts and art as a metaphor for transformation to a pure state.

The Chinese words for lotus, hehua or lianhua, recall the words “harmony” (he) or “continuous” (lian). Together, the fish and lotus convey a wish for eternal wealth, “may you continuously have plenty year after year” (liannian youyu).

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

The lid of the jar features Buddhist symbols often seen in Tibetan-style Buddhist art, which later became traditional motifs in Chinese decorative arts.

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

China’s Porcelain Capital
This jar is important because it exemplifies the most advanced porcelain techniques achieved at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen, techniques that are still admired today. Its brilliant colors bucked the trend for more subdued decor that held sway during previous dynasties.

Color Breakthrough
The ceramic artists at Jingdezhen—often dubbed the “porcelain capital”—experimented with new decorative effects throughout the early and middle Ming dynasty (1368–1644). This artwork represents a prime example of one of their breakthroughs: the decoration of porcelain with multicolor enamels, known as wucai (literally, five-color), first achieved during the reign of the Xuande emperor (1425–1435).

Wucai could include as many as seven color tones, as seen in this jar in the shades of green and orange. This bolder style only became accepted through imperial support.

Vase with stand, one of a pair (Yuan dynasty (1271-1368))Asian Art Museum

This Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) artwork from Jingdezhen reflects the more subdued style that was popular before technological breakthroughs allowed for the development of multicolor glazes.

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

Unparalleled Skill
The decoration on this type of vessel required, in general, two firings. The blue areas were painted using cobalt, on top of which a clear glaze was applied and fired at a high temperature. Only the cobalt could withstand the high temperatures required to convert the clear glaze into a glasslike substance.

Additional enamels were painted over the glaze for subsequent low-temperature firings. This process required highly skilled artisans and was time-consuming and costly.

Traditional Porcelain Production in Jingdezhen, China (2019)Asian Art Museum

Traditional Porcelain Production in Jingdezhen, China
This video features the still-thriving ceramic production at Jingdezhen and shows how porcelain vessels such as this jar were made.

Includes open captions and music, but no narration.

Plate with grape design, inscribed with the name of the Mughal emperor Shah JahanAsian Art Museum

Cobalt: A Transformational Pigment
The blue cobalt pigment brought to China from Persia by the Yongle emperor’s Treasure Fleet in the early fifteenth century transformed the Chinese economy.

Plate with grape design, inscribed with the name of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan rim or sideAsian Art Museum

Chinese potters began to mass-produce blue-and-white porcelains in the kilns of Jingdezhen, which was home to natural sources of kaolin, the clay mineral used to make porcelain. The artisans of Jingdezhen manufactured goods for use as diplomatic gifts from the emperor, for everyday use by elites, and for export. Some wares for the domestic market were later shipped overseas, while others were made to order for merchants outside of China.

Plate with grape design, inscribed with the name of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan inscriptionAsian Art Museum

The foot of this early Ming-dynasty plate with a grape design is inscribed with the name of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who ruled much of India from 1628–1658.

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

Seemingly Seamless
It would have been impossible to make this jar from a single piece of clay due to its large size. The seam around the circumference of the body indicates where the two halves were joined.

During the mid- to late-Ming dynasty, the court ordered the imperial workshop in Jingdezhen to produce similar large jars for placement in royal palaces and villas. Only perfect pieces that passed inspections were used—the number of jars that failed due to flaws was exceptionally high.

Covered jar decorated with lotus pondAsian Art Museum

Essential Ingredient: Kaolin 
The name “kaolin” is derived from Gaoling, a Chinese village near Jingdezhen, where it has been mined for centuries. Kaolin is a naturally occurring mineral used in porcelain as well as in making modern paper and paint. When mixed with water it becomes plastic and holds a shape well.

Fired in high temperatures it retains its white color and fuses, resulting in a tough yet delicate form, making porcelains and kaolin highly desirable. While kaolin is now a primary ingredient of all porcelain clays and mined all over the world, the naturally white kaolin of Jingdezhen is still unique to the region.

Pillow in the form of a boy and a lotus leaf (approx. 1050-1127, Northern Song dynasty (960-1126))Asian Art Museum

Lotuses Abound
Like the fish jar, many artworks in the Asian Art Museum's collection include symbolic imagery. One of these symbols, the lotus, pops up in many artworks, especially in Buddhist art. See how many you can find in the collection.

Credits: Story

Masterpiece presentation made possible with the generous support of the Kuo Family.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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