Print this page

Earth and Fire – Engobe painting

Earth and Fire – Engobe painting

„Breathtaking Masterpieces“

China, during the ZHENGDE period (1506-1521) of the MING dynasty, is regarded as the origin of   Yixing ceramic goods (especially tea pots in naturalistic styles). The bonsai pots shown in this article are nearly all from the CHING dynasty (1644-1900). They also belong to Yixing pottery and are from the years 1840-1900.

The zenith of Chinese pottery had already passed by the end of 1900 and it has not developed anymore or regenerated. Japan and Europe had great influence on Chinese kilns. Nearly all the produced goods were made to match the requirements of those countries.

Yixing bonsai pots still have a high cultural value in Japan today. For some time now Chinese collectors have been trying to buy back top-quality pieces all over the world .

They are not used much any more. This is because they are so valuable and rare. The exception is Japan where first-class bonsai are prepared for two or three years to be shown at an exhibition (like Kokufu or Sakufu etc.) in such a pot. Only for this purpose the pots are taken from the treasure room and trees are planted into them. Somtimes the pots are even rented from a collector (and highly insured). After the exhibition the trees are repotted and the valuable pots are wrapped in silk and velvet again, stored in the closets of collectors and enthusiasts. 

John Naka explained in his book „Bonsai Technique 2“ (Verlag Bonsai-Centrum-Heidelberg) how to recognize a Chinese bonsai pot.
The Chinese pots which were imported to Japan were labelled according to the time of their arrival. The pots which were imported about 200 to 300 years ago were called  KOWATARI which means „old crossing“. Pots imported about 100 years ago (Meiji era 1869-1911) were called NAKAWATARI, „middle crossing“. The pots which were imported up to world war 2 were referred to as SHIN-WATARE or SHINTO which means „new crossing“. Pots imported after world war 2 are  SHIN-SHIN-TO or „new new crossing“.

During the last few years Japanese collectors and enthusiasts have taken high quality KOWATARI pots back to Yixing, China, to have them copied there. 
The old Chinese pots weigh a bit less than Japanese ones because the clay is more porous. The surface is a little coarser and if you knock at them the sound is a bit deeper.

There is another sentence by John Naka about old Chinese pots which is very relevant I think:

„Something about the quality of Chinese pots is hard to describe. It is a feeling new pots are lacking. The shape and color might be the same but the quality of old age is missing.“

This YIXING pot measures 48 cm x 32 cm x 18 cm, it is unglazed and painted with engobe.

This picture was painted with quick and steady brushstrokes without a gauge, it looks nearly modern. It is amazing to learn that this pot is from the 18th century. It looks youthful and fresh. The motifs are typically Chinese. They were applied with a dark brown, almost black engobe.

Water, mountains, animals and plants are one single obeisance to nature. The picture composition on the front side shows water, small islands, a sunset, wild ducks and sailboats. On the island in the foreground grows a pine tree whose needles appear three-dimensionally almost like in an oil painting. Around the pine there are fluttering bats and dragonflies.

The backside of the pot shows a plum tree flowering on leafless wood. Around it there are also dragonflies and bats.
(Unfortunately there is no photograph available)

On the two narrow sides of the pots there are painted bamboo twigs with bats (I copied the motif for my library)

This pot catches the eye with its cheerfully exhilarated painting with bamboo, dragonflies and bats. The pot is about 100 years old. Measurements: 25 cm diameter x 14.5 cm high.

Measurements: 21 cm x 21 cm x 16 cm

Measurements: 40 cm diameter x 20 cm high

Measurements: 46 cm x 46 cm x 30 cm

An exceptionally beautiful piece, made about 1840. Regard the warm red and brown hues of the clay which result from the firing process and on which the engobe painting looks very bright.

Measurements: 31 cm x 31 cm x 22.5 cm

Measurements: 57 cm diameter x 28 cm high

This pot is also a masterpiece of the Chinese art of pottery. It has an octagonal shape and its pictures show a multitude of floral motifs.

Measurements: 56 cm diameter x 28 cm high


A thousand butterflies in the stomach while viewing this little pot, a gem of bonsai pottery.

Measurements: hexagonal – 24.5 cm diameter x 15 cm high

The peak of exquisite beauty.

(Article to be continued as required)

All these pots are from the collection of Paul Lesniewicz.
Text and photographs: Peter Krebs
Translation: Heike van Gunst