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Appreciating Blue-and-White Shang Vases from the Late Qing Dynasty

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

Text/Iris Zhang

The Shang vase (赏瓶) is the pinnacle of Chinese porcelain art, with its origins dating back to the Yongzheng period, Qing dynasty. Served as gifts that specifically honor deserving government officials, its form remained relatively consistent across successive dynasties, characterized by a flared mouth, an elongated neck, ornate shoulder decorations featuring raised string patterns, a rounded body, and a foot ring. Usually, Shang vases featured fixed patterns: blue-and-white banana leaf motifs adorned the neck while intertwining lotus patterns decorated the body. This symbolism carries profound meaning, where "青" (blue) embodies "清" (purity or clarity), and "莲" (lotus) represents "廉" (integrity or honesty). The combination of "青" and "莲" encapsulates the societal aspirations of the late Qing dynasty, reflecting a desire for a "transparent and honest" government.

Image 1-4: Lot 129, image 5-8: Lot 128, courtesy of Oakridge Auction Gallery

Lot 129 and Lot 128, both blue-and-white Shang vases, are highlighted in our Autumn 2023 Chinese Art and Antiques auctions. These exquisite vases come from the Xianfeng period (1851-1861) and the Guangxu period (1875-1908), embodying the distinctive traits of late Qing dynasty blue-and-white porcelain. Blue-and-white porcelain, characterized by its underglaze technique, involves an initial application of cobalt blue on a plain base, followed by glazing and a single firing. The blue-and-white layer is nestled between the body and the glaze. During the late Qing dynasty, cobalt blue was predominantly used in blue-and-white porcelain production. The domestically sourced cobalt blue patterns do not penetrate the body, creating a pronounced floating effect on the glaze.

Lot 129 and Lot 128 both utilized cobalt blue sourced within the country. During the Guangxu period, domestically sourced cobalt blue was primarily obtained from the southern region, particularly Zhejiang province. This variation in cobalt blue sources is evident in the contrasting blue-and-white patterns of these two items. Lot 129 exhibits a milder color tone that harmonizes seamlessly with the glaze, whereas Lot 128 boasts a richer and deeper shade.

Upon closer examination of the shapes and glaze of the two, you can find that Lot 129's body is slightly more delicate compared to Lot 128. The body's glaze appears whiter and thinner, and there is a "wave-like glaze" on the bottom of the vase. Lot 128, from the Guangxu period, has a fuller shape and a more complex body.

The Xianfeng's reign lasted only eleven years. During this period, the Qing court faced internal and external challenges. Jingdezhen (the primary production place for official kilns) was surrounded by warfare, and later, the Eight-Nation Alliance invaded. As a result, there are relatively few surviving exquisite artifacts from this era, and they have always been highly sought after and treasured by collectors. Lot 129, therefore, is listed as one of the highlight items in this auction. Among the surviving Xianfeng-era porcelain inscriptions, the reign mark primarily consists of six characters in regular script, which read "大清咸丰年制" (Made during the Xianfeng reign of the Great Qing Dynasty).

In the Guangxu era, there was a certain level of growth in the national economy, ushering in a short-lived period of prosperity referred to as "Tong Guang Zhong Xing" (同光中兴). To meet the demands of their opulent lifestyles, the Qing court allocated substantial funds to support porcelain production in Jingdezhen and implemented enhanced quality control measures. This led to a notable enhancement in both the quantity and quality of porcelain manufactured during this period. The renowned official kilns in Jingdezhen had either reached or approached the standards seen during the early Qing dynasty.

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