An Exceptional‘Numbered’ Jun Jardinière
Probably for a small sculptured tree, this flower pot is exquisitely shaped and glazed. Such Jun pieces have a numeral inscribed in Chinese script on the base—possibly impressed but possibly incised or carved—likely to indicate the vessel’s size and to facilitate pairing it with a drainage basin of appropriate size. The inscribed numbers range from one to ten, with one designating the largest and ten the smallest; this flower pot claims the numeral three. Because of the inscribed numerals, such vessels are termed Numbered Jun ware in English, though they are categorized as Guan Jun, or “official Jun ware”, in Chinese.
This vessel functioned as a jardinière, or flower pot, for a growing plant, not as a cachepot, or ornamental holder for containing and disguising a flower pot. This particular interpretation of the jardinière shape is termed a hexagonal flower pot with foliated lip, walls, and foot in English, but is more poetically characterized in Chinese as a kuihuashi huapen, which is often translated as hibiscus-shaped flower pot. (Other interpretations of the shape include ones with barbed, or bracketed, rim, walls, and foot, ones of circular zun shape, ones of rectangular form, and ones of quatrefoil form, often termed “mallow-shaped” in Chinese.) Pierced during manufacture, 4 five meticulously spaced holes in the pot’s floor allowed any excess water to drain into the basin that once accompanied this pot. While an azure glaze—with the so-called earthworm-track markings so prized by traditional Chinese connoisseurs—covers the vessel’s interior and a variegated azure and purple glaze its exterior, a thin dressing of mottled brownish olive glaze coats the underside. In fact, the glaze on the base is believed to be the same basic azure blue glaze that covers the interior, but as it was applied very thinly it fired olive brown rather than blue. Like other Numbered Jun examples, this planter was fired right side up, standing in its saggar not on spurs but on its own footring, the bottom of which was left unglazed.
Classic Jun glazes are thick, opalescent, and translucent. Despite their color, often termed “robin’s-egg blue”, they fall within the celadon family of glazes. In fact, apart from their prized pale blue-glazed wares, the Jun kilns also produced traditional celadon wares —stonewares with transparent, bluish green glazes. Like all celadon glazes, the Jun glaze relies upon an oxide of iron as its basic coloring agent; fired in a reducing atmosphere, the glaze matures bluish green. The Jun glaze’s opalescence and distinctive robin’s-egg hue resulted from the spontaneous separation of the glaze into silica-rich and lime-rich glasses during the last stage of firing—in essence, the formation of tiny globules of lime-rich glass within the silica-rich glaze matrix—a phenomenon known as phase separation; during that stage, kiln temperature was maintained at, or just a little below, 1200° Celsius, after which the kiln was slowly cooled, circumstances that, in the particular Jun glaze mixture, cause phase separation. The glaze’s translucency, which sometimes borders on opacity, derives not only from phase separation but from the presence of numerous particles and bubbles (which are clearly visible with a magnifying glass). Jun wares were fired in mantou-type kilns — circular, domed kilns so-named because of the shape’s superficial resemblance to a Chinese dumpling, or mantou, (Mantou kilns stand in contrast to the long, hillside, dragon kilns that were popular farther south.) Due to their relatively small size and thick walls, mantou kilns permit more precise control of firing temperatures than did most other traditional Chinese kiln types.
Based on research by W. David Kingery and Pamela Vandiver, Rosemary Scott has succinctly summarized phase separation: “… the Jun glaze had to be kept at a high temperature for a significant period and had to be cooled slowly. If the temperature was raised too much, the emulsion would have decreased and the glaze would have been transparent, and if the glaze was cooled too quickly then the emulsion would not have time to form and a transparent glaze would also have resulted. If the glaze was cooled for too long a period, it would have appeared almost opaque due to the growth of too many wollastonite crystals. Some of these rounded white crystals were, however, desirable since the pale clouds that they formed added to the beautiful texture of the glaze, as did the gas bubbles which failed to escape from the glaze during firing. All these elements affected the passage of light through the glaze and contributed to its colour and texture.”
Among the most famous of Chinese ceramics, Jun wares fall into two typological groups. The first, generally regarded as earlier and often termed classic Jun, includes such food- and wine-serving vessels as dishes, bowls, cups, small jars, and the occasional bottle or vase. The second category, termed Numbered Jun ware, or Guan Jun, includes vessels that not only are generally much larger than classic Jun wares but are almost exclusively flower pots and associated drip-basins. So revered was Jun ware that connoisseurs of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) ranked it among the “Five Great Wares of the Song Dynasty”, alongside Ding, Ru, Guan, and Ge wares. Even so, those Jun wares described in early Ming records seem to include only classic Jun pieces, as no mentions in those records suggest the large vessels that were made as flower pots; by contrast, depictions of flower pots and basins, seemingly of Numbered Jun ware, occasionally appear in Ming and Qing paintings.
The general dating of classic Jun ware is comparatively well understood, even if an exact chronology has yet to be firmly established, but the category of Numbered Jun ware has sparked much controversy in recent decades. Classic Jun wares of the Northern Song (960–1127) and Jin (1115–1234) periods sport a robin’s-egg blue glaze sometimes enlivened with suffusions of lavender or purple from copper filings sprinkled or brushed on the surface of the glaze before firing. Following a tradition set during the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) some specialists assert that numbered pieces were produced at the same time as classic Jun wares, 9 but many other scholars now favor a fourteenth- or fifteenth-century date for the numbered examples10 —that is, a date in the Yuan (1279–1368) or early Ming period. Standing apart from the subtly colored monochrome glazes of most Northern Song and Jin ceramics, the exuberant purple glazes of Numbered Jun wares find aesthetic kinship in the copper-red glazes of the early Ming. Their use as pots for plant cultivation differentiates numbered pieces from classic Jun wares, just as their large size not only distinguishes them from classic wares but links them to fourteenth- and fifteenth-century ceramics from other kilns.11 Moreover, the formalized floral shapes—in particular, the barbed and foliated rims with their thickened edges—find parallels in those of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century vessels in lacquer and metalwork; more to the point, the formalized shapes are akin to those of ceramics produced at other kilns, particularly to blue-and-white porcelains produced at Jingdezhen in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for a fifteenth-century date, however, is the technique of manufacture of this jardinière and other Numbered Jun vessels; rather than being turned on a potter’s wheel or shaped over a so-called hump mold, such vessels were formed with double-faced, press molds. Although Chinese potters had employed single-faced, or hump molds since antiquity, the use of press molds is not otherwise documented before the fourteenth century, when it came to be used at Jingdezhen, in Jiangxi province. Such double-faced molds allow the foliations (or barbs) and indentations of the rim to continue down the walls of the pot with the perfect placement and symmetry that hand crafting would seldom permit. Beginning in the late fourteenth and continuing into the fifteenth century, potters delighted in continuing those foliations / barbs and indentations into the footring, so that the footring perfectly echoes the rim of a barbed or foliated flower pot. This feature finds parallels in the elaborately molded forms of blue-and-white porcelain stemcups and brush washers produced during the Xuande period (1425–1436); in fact, this technical relationship and its happy aesthetic effects signal that Numbered Jun pieces are unlikely to have been produced earlier than the Xuande period, though they possibly could have been produced as late as the mid-fifteenth-century, during the Chenghua reign (1465–1487).
Just as the precise dating of Numbered Jun ware remains vexingly problematic, so does its place of manufacture. As Rosemary Scott has aptly explained, “Stonewares with Jun-type glazes have been found at the Northern Song Ru ware site at Qingliangsi, Henan province, but the eponymous site for normal Jun wares is Juntai in Yuxian, Henan province, which was excavated in 1964 and 1974,12 and was located just inside the gate in the northern part of the town of Yuzhou. Yuxian was a very active ceramic producing area from the Tang to the Ming dynasty, as evidenced by the discovery of more than 100 kilns in the area. However, Jun-type wares were also made at kilns in other parts of Henan, as well as in Hebei and Shanxi provinces. Everyday Jun wares such as bowls, dishes, cup-stands, vases and ewers have been found at these sites and also in tombs and hoards which can be dated to the Song, Jin and Yuan periods. These include both monochrome blue and copper splashed wares. The dating of these everyday wares is relatively straightforward.”
The use of press molds that permitted the continuation of the foliations of the rim through the walls of the flower pot and into the footring provides technical evidence that Numbered Jun pieces must date to the fifteenth century. Given that Numbered Jun pieces are exceptionally rare, that they are extraordinarily homogeneous in style and technique of manufacture, and that most have, or once had, documentable palace associations, it is tempting to ask if all such pieces might have been made at a single kiln as part of one large commission for the palace, perhaps to celebrate the dedication of a new complex within the Forbidden City, whose origins of course date to the early fifteenth century. As yet, no evidence has yet come to light to substantiate this speculation, but a thorough scrutiny of palace archival records might one day prove revealing.
Controlled kiln excavations one day will settle the much-debated question of the dating of Numbered Jun ware; such archaeological investigations doubtless eventually will identify the kilns that produced the numbered wares and will clarify the relationship between numbered and classic wares. As flower pots and associated basins were made for use by the living and thus seldom appear among tomb furnishings, archaeology probably will shed less light on the identity of the clients for whom the vessels were made, but perhaps a detailed search of palace archives one day will reveal a long-forgotten commission.
A closely related jardinière, also with the number three inscribed on the base, appears in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei;14 the Taipei Palace Museum collection also includes two additional flower pots of similar shape including one with azure blue glaze, impressed with the numeral five, and one with a variegated azure and purple glaze, impressed with the numeral seven.15 The collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, includes a similar azure-purple-glazed planter with impressed numeral three on its base (C.35-1935).16 Two similarly shaped jardinières, each with a variegated azure-purple glaze, each inscribed with the numeral three, and each formerly in the collection of J. Pierpont Morgan (1837–1913), New York, sold at Sotheby’s, London, on 25 March 1975 (lots 224 and 225).17 The similarly shaped and glazed jardinière with the number four inscribed on its underside and once owned by renowned British collector George Eumorfopoulos (1863–1939) was sold at Sotheby’s, London, in 1940.18 A similarly shaped and glazed planter in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (45.42.5), bears the inscribed numeral six on its base.
The largest and most diverse collection of Numbered Jun wares outside of the National Palace Museum is in the Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA. Given in 1942 by Ernest B. Dane (1868–1942) his wife, Helen Pratt Dane (1867–1949), of Brookline, Massachusetts, the Harvard Numbered Jun ware collection includes forty-one complete jardinières and one fragmentary jardinière modified to serve as a censer. In addition, the collection includes sixteen drip-basins, one zun-shaped flower vase, and one fragmentary zun-shaped vase modified to serve as a censer. Of the forty-one complete jardinières, thirteen are hexagonal with foliated rims—that is, in the shape Chinese collectors traditionally call kuihuashi. Among the hexagonal flower pots, two are virtually identical to the present jardinière, each with variegated azure and purple glazes on the exterior and each with the numeral three inscribed on the base (numbers 1942.185.9 20 and 1942.185.10 21). The first-mentioned Harvard jardinière (1942.185.9) has incised into the glaze on its base a Qing-palace inscription reading Chonghuagong Cuiyunguan yong, which might be translated “Palace of Double Glory, used in the Lodge of Emerald Clouds,” indicating that the vessel formerly was part of the Imperial Collection and was housed in the Forbidden City.
Robert D. Mowry
Alan J. Dworsky Curator of Chinese Art Emeritus,
Harvard Art Museums, and
Senior Consultant, Christie’s