D.P. from St. Louis sends me a Macau porcelain set consisting of two vases, a dish and a bowl that she purchased in 1993 for $113. The set is highly decorated, painted with most delicate lifelike peonies. In Chinese culture peonies signify richness, opulence, beauty, honor, and high social status, also a metaphor for female beauty, spring and reproduction. The flower is given for 12th wedding anniversaries. Pictured in full bloom, the peony symbolizes peace. D.P. is one of the few people who have shown me something of value, saying, “This has so many memories I would NEVER sell it.”
Notice the delicate pale enameling and light touch to the floral design. The bottom reads “Not for Food Use/May Poison Food/For Decorative Use Only.” There’s a chop mark with Chinese pictographs and a paper label that reads Macau.
The history of Macau-ware is a short but politically turbulent one, as is the history of any object that reflected traditional cultural values during China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. These pieces were produced during the Cultural Revolution of the 3rd quarter of the 20th century, during the years of the People’s Republic of China, not a good time to create something of exclusive beauty harking back to the good old dynastic days. Traditional porcelain decoration and trade moved from mainland China to either Hong Kong or Macau, both capitalist economies, away from the Chinese mainland. Macau, which has its own money, the Macanese pataca, Macanese passports, flag and legal system, was a haven of sorts during the “Cultural Revolution” for art that was based on a traditional past, because under Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China (1966-76) capitalization and traditional Chinese culture were to be obliterated. Thus, the distance between Macau and the mainland was not geographical but political in the last quarter of the 20th century. These pieces are unique because the mark is not ‘Hong Kong’, Guangdong Province of China, but ‘Macau’, a small peninsula of 11.6 square miles, the Macau Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.
These pieces reflect tradition, high culture and elegance with their decorative peonies and classic Chinese shapes, yet with a Western flavor, perhaps due to the long influence of colonization. The Portugal settlement of Macau dates to 1557. Until 1999, Macau was one of Portugal’s last surviving colonies. Portuguese is an official language along with Cantonese. Macau’s respect for historical culture extends to the written language: while Simplified Chinese Characters are used on mainland China, the Traditional Chinese characters have been in continuous use as the Macanese standard for centuries.
Thus, when still under Portuguese influence, D.P.’s pieces were produced between 1970-90. I found this date by referring to Gotheborg.com, the invaluable online tool based on the donation in 2000 of a huge collection of “markings” gathered by Karl-Hans Schneider, of Euskirchen, Germany. Jan-Erik Nilsson authored the description of Macau marks including photos of Macau “chops” (boxed pictographs). D.P.’s chop says “Da Qing Tungzhi Nian Zhi Great Qing Tungzhi (1862-74) Period Made.” This, however, does not mean the porcelains date from the 3rd quarter 19th century, but are made in that period style of the Qing Dynasty. The colors are consistent with elegant Macau style 1970’s enamels, as well as the health admonition that states “Decorative Purposes, not for food.” This is also a dating tool because in the 1970’s concerns were raised about the health aspects of certain porcelain glazes.
Interestingly, the term “Period Made,” which is perhaps meant to be intentionally misleading was, in some more honest porcelain houses, replaced with a “Fang” character, which means to “imitate.” D.P.’s pieces imitate the Qing Dynasty style reintroduced in relative safely after the Cultural Revolution ended in the mid 1970’s, because, in the Cultural Revolution’s People’s Republic of China (1966-76) cultural, historical knowledge was viewed as leading to social divisiveness.
Think of the posters, songs and uniforms of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution: imagery was a propagandist tool in a nation with a high illiteracy rate. D.P.’s porcelains are a quiet reminder that tradition and historicism in art and form lived on through a revolution that was anti-intellectual and high-culture adverse. The value of the set is $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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