IMPERIAL LOVE OF LOTUS
Senior International Academic Consultant
This exquisite imperial Kangxi bowl belongs to a small group of exceptionally fine porcelains which bear the mark ‘Kangxi yuzhi’. Such porcelains were thrown and fired at the Imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, but were then sent, in their white, unadorned, state, more than a thousand kilometres north to the court at Beijing. There, the porcelains were assigned to the imperial ateliers, established by the Kangxi Emperor, to be decorated to his exact specifications.
Indeed, the extent of the emperor’s intense personal interest in these porcelains can be seen from some of the imperial documents that have survived to the present day, which make clear that the emperor personally inspected each piece before it was sent to the palace ateliers for enamelling. One such document involves the Cao family, who had very close links to the Kangxi emperor. Cao Yin was a childhood friend of Kangxi, and his mother Lady Sun had been the emperor’s wet nurse, while Cao Yin’s father Cao Xi was appointed by the Kangxi Emperor to be Imperial Textile Commissioner. The post of Imperial Textile Commissioner was passed down through the family for three generations, and in 1720 it was held by Cao Yin’s nephew Cao Fu. It would appear that the Imperial Textile Commissioner in Nanjing was responsible for forwarding the undecorated porcelains from Jingdezhen to the palace in Beijing, and in the 59th year of the Kangxi reign (AD 1720) the emperor wrote a very terse response, in vermillion ink, on a report sent to him by Cao Fu. His Imperial Majesty noted:
“Your family is currently entrusted with many offices, including the provision of porcelain for enamelling. I have previously laid down quotas, which must be met. Only after I have finished inspecting them are the plain white porcelains, which have arrived in Beijing, approved for the application and firing of enamels. At present I do not know of how many porcelains you have cheated me.”
(Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of K’ang-hsi , Yung-cheng and Ch’ienlung Porcelain ware from the Ch’ing Dynasty in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1986, p. 14)
The Kangxi Emperor’s interest in these imperial porcelains was not, of course, limited to the inspection of the blanks sent from Jingdezhen. It was his personal fascination with painted enamel wares, such as those he received as gifts from Europe, coupled with his interest in technology, that caused him to establish and encourage the palace workshops to create fine enamelling on both porcelain and metal-bodied wares. The official workshops, making a wide range of items for the court, were run by a body known as the Zaobanchu (Office of Manufacture and Procurement), which came under the auspices of the Imperial Household Administration. Some of these workshops were within the Forbidden City itself in the Qixiang gong (Palace of Unfolding Auspiciousness) near to the Yangxin dian (Hall of Mental Cultivation), the emperor’s main residence, although many workshops were moved to the Cining gong (Palace of Benevolence and Tranquillity) in 1691. Other imperial workshops were set up in the Yuanming yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness) northwest of the Imperial City. They were in the area of the garden called Dongtian shenchu (Deep Vault of Heaven) in a complex bearing the evocative name Ruyi guan (Hall of Wishes Fulfilled). A crucial part of the Kangxi Emperor’s mission to have fine imperial enamelled wares made in China, was his establishment of an imperial glass factory in 1696. The emperor installed a Bavarian missionary, by the name of Kilian Stumpf, as director, and ordered the building of the glassworks near to the residence of the French Jesuits and the church at Canchiko, near the Xi’an Gate in the Forbidden City. In addition to making all types of ornamental glass and lenses, the imperial glassworks were also involved in the development of a palette of enamels for painting on metal and porcelain to augment, and eventually replace, the enamel colours being imported from Europe. According to the Collected Statutes and Precedents of the Qing Dynasty, in the 57th year of the Kangxi reign (AD 1718) the enamel ateliers were moved from the Wuying dian (Hall of Martial Valour) and came under the direct auspices of the Yangxin dian, with additional administrative staff.
The current stunning Kangxi yuzhi bowl employs three of the important colours from the new enamel palette, which were all developed in the imperial ateliers to different recipes than those used in Europe. The most famous of these is the ruby red, which provides the exceptionally rich background colour on this bowl, and was also used to create the pink lotus blossoms, while the other two colours are white and yellow – both of which have significantly contributed to the beauty of the design on the current bowl. Analysis has shown that the rose colour of the Chinese enamel was due to tiny colloidal particles of gold. Two aspects of the Chinese rose enamel differentiate it from the European colour - the so-called ‘Purple of Cassius’, developed by Andreas Cassius of Leyden in about 1650. The Chinese enamel has a significantly lower gold content than the European colour, and it does not appear to have been made in the same way as the European ‘Purple of Cassius’. The Chinese enamel also has a much lower tin content and was made by making a ruby glass and then grinding this up as a pigment to be dispersed in the clear enamel. The advantages of the Chinese method, which was well known among glass makers, was that it was less expensive - in that it used less gold - and it was also easier to achieve an even coloration within the enamel, allowing for a much more fluent painting style.
An opaque pink was achieved by mixing this ground-up ruby glass with lead arsenic white, and the translucent bright purple, seen on some other porcelains from the same group as the current bowl, was created by adding ground-up ruby glass to a clear blue enamel. It is also significant that the new white opaque enamel pigment was lead arsenate, rather than the tin oxide used in Europe, and the new opaque yellow owed its colour to leadstannate, rather than antimony. The white enamel allowed mixing to create pastel shades and also could be used to form a base colour onto which other colours, such as pink or yellow could be applied to suggest shading. All three of these new colours were developed and used on fine imperial wares in the latter part of the Kangxi reign, and it is noteworthy that the decoration on this bowl, and others from the group, also includes a beautifully intense blue enamel. Blue enamel was developed a little earlier in the Kangxi reign, but it was not until later in the reign that this clear bright blue was perfected. It is tempting to see the current bowl, and the small number of other vessels in this group, as an imperial celebration of the success of the Kangxi Emperor’s determination to achieve Chinese painted enamelled wares of the highest standard. These were not porcelains produced in multiples. Each was an individual work of art, and when a pair of vessels was made, their decoration was not identical, but was complementary.
This beautiful imperial Kangxi bowl is extremely rare, not only for having been decorated at the imperial ateliers, and for the choice of enamel colours, but also for the choice of naturalistically painted lotuses as the decorative motif. These elegant lotuses encircle the exterior of the bowl like a handscroll. Indeed, the way in which the stems of both flowers and leaves appear to grow from the base of the bowl is very reminiscent of the way in which lotuses are painted on some important Chinese handscrolls. One such handscroll, in ink and light colour on paper, was excavated in 1970 at Zhouxian in Shandong province from the tomb of a member of the early Ming dynasty royal family (illustrated by Shandong Provincial Museum, ‘Report of the excavation of the tomb of Zhu Tan of the Ming dynasty’, Wenwu, 1972, no. 5, pp. 25-36, pls. 2-4; and J. Fontein and Wu Tung, Unearthing China’s Past, Boston, 1973, pp. 235-7, fig. 133). The handscroll, entitled White Lotus, by Qian Xuan (1235-1305) (fig. 1) was found in the tomb of Zhu Tan, Prince Huang of Lu (1370-1390) the tenth son of the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368-1398). The painting is likely to have been in the famous collection of the Grand Princess of Lu (Princess Sengge Ragi of Lu c. 1283-1331, great-granddaughter of Khublai Khan), as her seal ‘Library of the Imperial Elder Sister’ appears on two of the four paintings found in Zhu Tan’s tomb. The painting is important in relation to the current bowl, since it is an early example of this natural configuration in lotus painting, and is also an early example of the depiction of the tiny hairs on the surface of the lotus stems, which have similarly been painted in careful detail on the current bowl.
Another related handscroll in ink and colour on paper by the Ming dynasty artist Chen Chun (1483–1544), entitled Flowering Lotus (fig. 2), and dated by the artist’s inscription to the seventh month of the guimao year (AD 1543), is now in the collection of the Art Institute Chicago (illustrated in ‘Oriental Art Recently Acquired by American Museums, 1955’, Chinese Art Society of America Archives, X, 1956, fig. 6). This handscroll also shares the naturalistic arrangement in the depiction of lotus seen on the current bowl, and, like the Qian Xuan scroll, also shares the details of the hairs on the lotus stems.
However, naturalistically painted lotuses are very rare among the flowers included in the decoration of Kangxi enamelled yuzhi porcelains, and peonies are a more frequent choice. Nevertheless, it is entirely in keeping with what we know of the Kangxi Emperor that he should command that lotuses to be applied to such very personal ceramics. Despite being a Manchu, the Kangxi Emperor was fascinated by Chinese culture; he was himself something of a scholar, and in many ways his tastes were influenced by those of the Chinese literati. He was drawn to Neo-Confucianism, and would have been well aware of the auspicious symbolism of lotuses. Four poems on the subject of lotuses, written by the Kangxi Emperor himself, are recorded. However, the best known of all the Chinese literary references to this flower is the work entitled On the Love of the Lotus (Ai lian shou) By Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073):
‘Amongst the plants of water and land, there are many deserving of
In the Jin dynasty Tao Yuanming particularly cherished chrysanthemums;
Since the royal house of Li in the Tang dynasty people have been enamoured
But I especially love lotuses, for they emerge unsullied from the mud,
They are bathed by clear water and yet are not voluptuous,
Their stems are hollow [humble] on the inside and straight, without tendrils
At a distance their fragrance is all the purer,
Standing erect, they may be admired from afar, but should not be profaned by
I regard the chrysanthemum as the recluse of flowers.;
The peony as the flower of riches and honours;
But the lotus is the gentleman of flowers.
Alas, few since Tao [Yuanming] have loved the chrysanthemum;
Who else can match my love of the lotus?
As for peonies, they are always popular.’
Zhou Dunyi makes clear his admiration for the modesty and purity of the lotus compared to other flowers and likens it to the Confucian ideal of a ‘gentleman’. However, the lure of lotus is celebrated in even earlier Chinese literature, including a shamanistic chant, the Zhao Hun (Summoning of the Soul), included in the Chu Ci (Songs of Chu), named for works attributed to Qu Yuan and Song Yu of the Warring States period and anthologised by Wang Yi in the 2nd century AD. The shamans’ chant is intended to persuade the soul of the king to return to his body and amongst the earthly delights with which they tempt him are gardens. The description of the gardens includes pavilions and galleries that are cool in summer, overlooking a winding pool in which the lotus blossoms have just opened (David Hawkes trans., ‘The Songs of Ch’u’, in Cyril Birch ed., Anthology of Chinese Literature, New York, 1965, p. 76).
Lotuses have been admired by many Chinese literati over the centuries, and in his poem On the Pond the revered Tang poet Bai Juyi (AD 772–846) described the pool in front of his famous ‘grass hut’. He noted the white lotus and the purple water chestnuts, and expressed the pleasure he felt in the whole scene, while drinking wine or declaiming verse. The enjoyment to be found seated in a cool pavilion, watching the waves on a pond, seeing the aquatic plants gentle waving in the breeze, and breathing in the delicate scent of lotuses became a popular theme amongst Chinese poets. There are also many paintings depicting a scholar in summer, seated in a waterside pavilion, leaning out over the water to enjoy the fragrance of the lotuses. This was not only a representation of the pleasures of summer, but again a reference to the Confucian idea that the lotus represented the ‘gentleman’ or ‘superior man’ – the junzi of Zhou Dunyi’s poem.
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 and continual arrival of illustrious sons. An unusual feature of the lotus is that the seedpod is already visible when the flower begins to open, and this too is believed to suggest the early birth of 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. The fact that the lotus displays buds, flowers and seed pods at the same time is felt to represent the three stages of existence – past, present, and future. Even the delicate bronzing and tracery of the leaf edges as they age is carefully depicted on both the current Kangxi yuzhi bowl, and on the finest Kangxi famille verte ‘birthday’ plates (fig. 3), made for the 60th birthday of the Kangxi Emperor in 1716, such as the example in the collection of Sir Percival David (illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Elegant Form and Harmonious Decoration – Four Dynasties of Jingdezhen Porcelain, London, 1992, p. 115, no. 124). As all parts of the lotus were prized, so all stages of the lotus’s life cycle were revered. Even in the winter, when all that remained above the surface of the pool were the bent and broken stems, these were admired by scholars, who saw in the reflection of the stems in the still water a likeness to the brush strokes of fine calligraphy.
The appreciation of lotuses by the emperors of the Qing dynasty is attested to not only in the art created for their courts, but in their own determination to surround themselves with the living plants. Among the many poems on the subject of lotuses composed by the Kangxi Emperor’s grandson, the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95), several refer to special warm springs or warm ponds (wenquan, tangquan or wenchi) in which lotuses were grown. One of these poems, entitled Tangquan xinhe New Lotus in the Hot Spring (recorded in Qing Gaozong yuzhi shi chuji , juan 40, makes it clear that these warm pools or warm springs enabled lotuses to blossom much earlier in the year than they would naturally have done. Part of the poem may be translated as:
‘In the other pools the new leaves are just beginning to sprout,While the warm pool is already full of glorious lotus blossoms.The temperature difference between the cold and warm [pools] is suchThat the speed [of growth] is altered accordingly.’
As the poem was composed in the fourth month of the dingmao year (equivalent to AD 1747) it would seem that, by employing these specially warmed pools, the court could enjoy the beauty of lotus flowers in late spring, rather than having to wait for the warmer summer months.
The Kangxi Emperor also ensured that he could enjoy lotuses within his palaces. Lotuses were especially associated with relief from the heat of summer and so were also a feature of the Imperial Summer Palace in Jehol (present-day Chengde in Hebei province). The Kangxi Emperor ordered the construction of a summer palace in this mountainous area, and work was begun in 1703. When the main palace complex was completed in 1711, the Kangxi Emperor bestowed upon it the name Bishu Shanzhuang (Mountain Villa for Avoiding the Heat), and also selected thirty-six scenic views, composing a poem for each of them. The emperor commanded the artist Shen Yu to create illustrations for each poem, and the poems with their illustrations were published in 1712 in Thirty-six Imperial Poems on Bishu Shanzhuang, with a preface by the Kangxi Emperor himself and annotations inscribed on the emperor’s instructions. It is remarkable how many of the views chosen by the emperor included areas of lotus, and it is recorded that the emperor required lotus ponds to be incorporated into the design of the palace, and lotus are planted in profusion throughout the Bishu Shanzhuang. Indeed, one entire courtyard was given over to a pool containing golden lotuses. Lotuses were imported from an area in Mongolia that was part of the Aohan Banner and so the lotuses are known as Aohan lotus, and were appreciated not only for their beauty, but also because they were less susceptible to cold weather. There is specific mention in the Qinding Rehe zhi, juan 94 (included in the Siku quanshu Complete Library in Four Branches of Literature, compiled on the orders of the Qianlong Emperor between 1772 and 1781), noting that the lotuses from Aohan are even better than those grown in Rehe, and that as the area beyond the border is very cold, many other plants wither earlier than elsewhere. Only this lotus blooms well into the autumn, and was sometimes even in bloom after the court returned from the autumn Mulan hunt.
Of the four surviving poems written by the Kangxi Emperor on the subject of lotuses, three refer to the ‘thousand-petal lotus’. The following poem captures the tranquil pleasure experienced by the Kangxi Emperor as he sat at dusk in the imperial garden, enjoying the beauty and fragrance of the lotuses and watching the palace ladies in their boats viewing the blossoms, while favoured ministers try to capture the likeness of the lotuses in paintings.
‘Early autumn in the Forbidden garden, the Jade Palace is cool;
Green lotuses in rushing stream, deliver clear music.
Thousands bloom above water, layered bright colours;
Countless rounds of wind blow, every stem fragrant.
Palace ladies row their boats, shaking the blue-green leaves;
Trusted ministers move their brushes, praising the red beauties.
Calming my mind, I sit quietly opposite the Western mountain;
Not disturbed by the scenery glowing in the setting sun.’
So great was the Kangxi Emperor’s admiration for thousand-petal lotuses that in the 61st year of his reign (AD 1722), which was also the last year of his reign, he commanded the court artist and Grand Secretary to the Imperial Court Jiang Tingxi (1669-1732) to create the painting Lotus of a Thousand Petals (fig. 4) (illustrated Emperor Ch’ien-Lung’s Grand Cultural Enterprise, Taipei, 2002, p. 85, no. II-8). The Kangxi Emperor was so delighted with the painting that he instructed seven of the ministers who were in attendance to compose poems and inscribe them on the painting. Looking at this painting, which is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, it is possible to see a clear similarity between the lotuses in the painting, which include a pink double lotus, and those on the current bowl. In view of the fact that the bowl was made late in the Kangxi reign, it seems quite possible that the painting served as inspiration for the ceramic artist who painted the bowl – probably at the instigation of the emperor, and thus the bowl should be dated to 1722. This dating would also explain the close similarities with a Castiglione painting of Assembled Auspiciousness, discussed below, since the latter is dated to the first year of the Yongzheng reign, 1723. Interestingly, the 1722 paintings of Lotus of a Thousand Petals was also greatly admired by the Kangxi Emperor’s grandson the Qianlong Emperor, and in the 50th year of the Qianlong reign (AD 1785), 63 years after it was painted, the emperor visited the Summer Palace and had the painting brought out so that he could view it. The Qianlong Emperor was so impressed by the accuracy with which it represented the lotus flowers, that he instructed his son and five of the ministers in attendance to add their own poems to the painting.
It is significant that one of the plants depicted in the painting of Lotus of a Thousand Petals is a double lotus – one which has two blooms on a single stem, and that three of the flower stems depicted on the current Kangxi yuzhi bowl bear double flower heads. Double lotuses – bingdilian or bingtoulian - are highly prized, being regarded as particularly auspicious and in the current context also suggesting the reign of a wise and virtuous ruler, and successful future endeavours. Such flowers are also a literary reference to a loving couple who enjoy eternal harmony. They are sometimes known as qianbanlian (a thousand things accomplished lotus). On a double lotus the original bud divides into two meristem centres and produces twin flower buds, which open into paired blooms. Such double lotuses are especially valued because they cannot be induced artificially nor specially bred. Their appearance is rare and entirely natural, and their two flowers will in turn produce two seed pods. Double lotus stems are amongst the plants depicted in the famous hanging scroll in ink and colours on silk, entitled Assembled Auspiciousness (fig. 5), by the Italian Jesuit court artist Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining 1688-1766), signed and dated by him to the first year of the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor, AD 1723 (now in the collection of the National Palace Museum, the painting is illustrated in New Visons at the Ch’ing Court – Giuseppe Castiglione and Western-Style Trends, Taipei, 2007, pp. 50-51, no. 11). In this painting both a double lotus blossom and a double lotus pod are prominently displayed. There is also a portrait of the Yongzheng Emperor, (fig. 6) apparently from early in his reign, delicately holding a sceptre carved in the form of a double lotus. This hanging scroll in ink and colour on silk is preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in Forbidden City – Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing, Virginia, 2014, pp. 70-71, no. 47).
On the current bowl the lotuses are accompanied by the slender leaves which may be intended to represent another aquatic plant, sweet flag (Acorus calamus, in Chinese changpu). This too is an auspicious plant, which was believed to have magical properties, including the ability to ward off evil and prolong life. However, the second plant may, alternatively, be a type of reed luwei (Phragmites australis), although no seed heads are depicted. These reeds are also regarded as auspicious – on a practical level because their root system prevents soil erosion, but also because one of these reeds provides a pun for ‘all the way’, and they can provide auspicious wishes for imperial examination candidates.
As already noted, naturalistic depictions of lotus are very rare on the yuzhi enamelled wares of the Kangxi reign – either on porcelain or on metal bodies. Indeed, perhaps the closest vessel in terms of decorative arrangement and painting style is a beautiful metal-bodied Kangxi yuzhi mark and period tripod censer, which was sold by Christie’s London on 9th November, 2004, lot 21 (fig. 7). This censer came from the famous Fonthill Collection, and had been in the family since it was acquired in the 19th century by Alfred Morrison (1821-1897). It is decorated with lotus plants and reeds arranged in a similar fashion to those on the current bowl. The censer has a yellow ground, and so in place of the yellow blossoms on the bowl, the censer has some purple flowers, in addition to the white, pink and blue blossoms shared by both vessels. The metal-bodied censer has a blue four-character Kangxi yuzhi mark, while some of the marks on porcelain vessels were written in rose pink enamel.
Only two other Kangxi yuzhi vessels with an encircling decoration of naturalistically painted lotuses appear to have been published. These are both porcelains with yellow grounds. One is a shallow dish (fig. 8) in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Good Fortune, long Life, Health, and Peace: A Special Exhibition of Porcelains with Auspicious Designs, Taipei, 1995, p. 160, no. 82. The other is a small cup, formerly in the collection of the American heiress and philanthropist Barbara Hutton, which was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong on 3rd November 1998, lot 960 (fig. 9).
A third Kangxi yuzhi porcelain is described, but, sadly, not illustrated, in the catalogue of a Sotheby’s London sale, which took place on 26th May, 1937, lot 100. This bowl, from the collection of the famous Chinese collector-dealer Wu Laixi (Wu Lai-hsi), is described in the catalogue as having a pink ground – possibly a dark pink similar to that of the current bowl. It is also described as being decorated with two yellow lotuses, one green lotus and one blue lotus, accompanied by buds and leaves and with a pink Kangxi yuzhi mark. Although no additional plants are mentioned in the description of the Wu Laixi bowl, the metal-bodied censer and the two yellow-ground porcelain vessels all have delicate reeds included amongst the lotuses. The small cup from the Hutton collection also includes small blue flowers amongst the lotuses and reeds. Naturalistic lotuses also appear on a pastel pink ground porcelain Kangxi yuzhi bowl (fig. 10) in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in Special Exhibition of Ch’ing Dynasty enamelled Porcelains of the Imperial Ateliers, Taipei, 1992, p. 42, no. 6). However, on this Taipei bowl the lotuses are restricted to one of the four panels on the sides of the bowl, each of which contains one of the flowers of the four seasons – the other three being peony, plum, camellia, and chrysanthemum.
Interestingly, none of the other vessels include double lotus, like those seen on the current bowl. This suggests that the current bowl was a very special order, probably for an occasion regarded by the Kangxi Emperor as being of exceptional importance. This bowl with its sumptuous red ground and exquisite encircling lotus design, incorporating double lotus blossoms, appears to be a unique, auspicious, imperial treasure of the Kangxi reign.