PS sends me a large red Chinese temple vase with two huge black painted dragons curling along the sides. The vase stands about 36” tall, the base material terracotta. Two features are its iconography of the dragon, and the scale. The shape is termed “high shouldered” as the volume flares to the top bulge before it closes in on a significantly rimmed mouth. These vessels were perfect for storage; the footprint is small, the taper is balanced, movement is as easy as tipping and rolling when sealed: this vessel might have held much grain or rice at one time in the last 100 years. Chinese ceramics are found all over the world, and this was as true in the 17th century as it is today. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) pieces are even found in Turkey.
Chinese ceramics are difficult to date. The fine arts in China are grounded in a very different philosophy than European arts, and this philosophy has to do with longevity. Chinese forms are classic; the shape of PS’s vase could date from the late Neolithic Period, when the potter’s wheel was invented (220-210 BCE); the wheel facilitated uniformity in shape. A beautiful shape was the goal, unchanging with each fluctuation in style or taste of an era. Therefore, treasured forms are the purest old forms, created in traditional ways.
However, old things look old. And the paint surface on PS’s vase is fairly new. Unless this piece was never used, an old paint surface would never look this clean. I date the piece to the early 20th century.
Furthermore, motifs on Chinese art are valued for their classicism; this motif is a dragon pair. So appropriate for a vessel, the dragon is “Yang,” associated with water. An old myth tells the story of the four dragons, the Long Dragon, the Yellow, the Black and the Pearl. Seeing people on earth suffering a drought, these four dragons scooped up the sea in their mouths and shot the water into the clouds, making rain. The sea god was angered, and commanded four mountains to imprison the transgressors. This created China’s four mightiest rivers as the dragons wiggled inside their mountain jails. PS’s vase pictures the Black Dragon, the embodiment of the Heilongjiang (the Black Dragon River) in Northern China.
People born in the year of the dragon are thought to be lucky. Emperors wore dragons embroidered on silk robes in gleaming gold, springing from clouds heavy with rain, gliding through the waters of the earth.
The origins of the mythical beast are unknown, although some scholars believe the dragon references the rainbow, the serpent of the sky. Dragons carved in jade have been discovered in sites of the Hongshan culture (4800-3000 BCE).
PS’s vase is a good example of low-fired pottery, or earthenware, as distinct from high-temperature fired porcelain. Low-fired vessels are heated to 950-1200° C., lasting through the ages: although made of clay, they can be buried and reborn. Good examples of such wares are the terracotta warriors accompanying the tomb of the First Qin Emperor in 220 BCE. Porcelain has a slightly higher concentration of a clay mineral called Kaolin, silicon layered mineral which makes it strong and non-porous. Porcelain is a type of ceramic that is fired at 1250-1400° C. Forty-five centuries of pottery survives, as the material was always useful and aesthetically pleasing; ancient Chinese ceramic wares are some of the oldest pottery in the world.
PS, all you need to know about Chinese ceramics can be learned by understanding China’s three finest types, consistently produced through the ages. Firstly, Sancai , with its distinctive three-color glaze of green, yellow ochre and beige; Jian tea-ware, with its black heavy glaze, created by iron-rich molten oxidation in the clay of certain areas; and Ding or Ru ware. Ding is pure white with a fine glaze; Ru is fine with a crazed or crackled glaze.
Finally, one significant feature of PS’s vase is its silhouette of the dragon in black, similar to Ancient Greek Red or Black figure vases from Athens, 6th-4th century BCE. How it differs is that PS’s vase states a concept, which is the embodiment of Yang, personified by the dragon. A Chinese ceramic vessel doesn’t narrate a tale, such as the Greek Exekias vase of Ajax and Achilles, engaged in playing a board game. In Chinese art, the philosophy, the concept, trumps the historical narrative. Lightly tap on the vessel and you will hear a resonant ring, which indicates no hidden cracks: PS’s vase is worth $600.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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