When Chi Fan Tsang, Christie’s Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, first saw this falangcai bowl it made an immediate impression on her. ‘The colours were so vibrant, they ignited the senses,’ she recalls of that initial encounter.
At the time the bowl — which was sold in Hong Kong on 27 November 2019 for HK$87,200,000 — was in the collection of the flamboyant art dealer Robert Chang, a legendary figure in the world of Chinese porcelain.
Falangcai, which can be translated as ‘foreign colours’, refers to porcelains painted in the imperial workshops of the Forbidden City in Beijing with enamels partly introduced from the West. It was made exclusively for the imperial court and royal family.
The blue-enamelled reign mark on the base of the bowl indicates that it was made during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1654-1722), one of the greatest rulers in the history of China, famed for his deep interest in science and art.
In fact, the Kangxi emperor was a workaholic. There are reports of him rising at 4am to practice calligraphy and painting before attending to state affairs. It is recorded that he personally visited his workshops to check every piece of porcelain sent from the city of Jingdezhen to be enamelled for his collection.
The falangcai bowl is one such object. Its beauty lies in the seductive European-influenced painting technique perfected by master craftsmen in the imperial workshops in Beijing.
In his desire for knowledge and advancement, the Kangxi emperor welcomed the foremost scholars and artists to his court. They included Jesuit missionaries from Italy, who brought with them scientific instruments and new enamelling techniques from the West.
New enamel colours were introduced to the artisans, including the ruby-red, yellow and white colours. The most famous was a ruby-red enamel, which is responsible for the falangcai bowl’s deep background colour.
Analysis shows that the red pigment was made up of ground ruby glass; white lead arsenic was added to the paste to create the opalescent pink of the lotus blossoms. ‘It is such a rich, strong colour, it almost makes the flowers on the porcelain life-like,’ says Tsang.
The bowl is decorated with an unusual species of lotus flower which originated from Mongolia, with double blooms borne on a single stem.
In traditional Chinese culture the lotus has many auspicious meanings. It is associated with Buddhism, is symbolic of beauty and purity, and both the lotus flower and the lotus leaf provide a pun for harmony. The various names for the lotus also provide rebuses auguring the imminent arrival of illustrious sons.
When depicted in classical paintings, or indeed on Kangxi enamelled wares, all parts of the lotus are celebrated — the flower buds, the flowers and their seed pods, and the leaves.
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The lotus was the emperor’s favourite flower. ‘It connects to what we know of him being a keen scholar,’ says the specialist. ‘He was drawn to Neo-Confucianism and would have been well aware of the auspicious symbolism of lotuses.’ For this reason, this bowl was very probably a personal object.
The poem On the Love of the Lotus, written by the 11th-century scholar Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), is the best known of all Chinese literary references to the lotus, and reflects the Confucian idea that the lotus represented the ‘gentleman’ or ‘superior man’.
‘The Kangxi Emperor wanted to be remembered as a harmonious and enlightened ruler,’ says Tsang. In many ways his tastes were influenced by those of the Chinese literati, so it is entirely in keeping with what we know of him that he should have commanded lotuses to be applied to his most personal ceramic objects.