This beautiful old Chinese pot was decorated using the engobe technique. The word engobe comes from the french language and means clay slip. The engobe technique is as old as pottery itself and naturally it has been used in old China to decorate bonsai pots. The pot shown here was coloured with yellow engobe on red clay. On the inside the red colour of the massive clay can clearly be seen. The single working steps were in most cases carried out by different persons. The potter built the basic form of the pot. An artistic member of the family then took the unfinished pot and decorated it with writing (parts of poems or songs in most cases) and ornaments of plants and animals. They were carved into the moist clay. Then the coloured engobe was applied with a sponge or fur. This way, the ornaments and writing that were carved into the pot's walls did not get any colour. On the dark underground they became now clearly apparent. After drying the pots were completed with just one firing process.
This pot impresses with its shape and finish. It is a remarkably beautiful pot that will not have been produced in a series. I am fascinated ever again that old Chinese pots which have an exact symmetrical shape look perfectly balanced in spite of the unevenly placed image frames, figures and ornaments. In this pot, which is beyond all criticism of being amateurish, the even and the uneven create an inimitable harmonic unity. The unusual shape (width 28 cm, height 18 cm, depth 17 cm / 11 x 7 x 6.5 in) is perfectly suitable for semi-cascades or cascades. The two image frames on the front and backside are embossed on the pot's walls. They were probably pressed into a small wooden mould by hand. The traces of the fingers can be seen inside.
A poem or song has been carved into the image frame on the back side.
The frontal image frame is beautifully executed. The figures and flowers have additionally been coloured by hand. Unfortunately I wasn't yet able to find an expert who could fully translate the writing. One suggestion was: “You will always come back to the place where you have picked chrysanthemums as a child”. The picture shows a boy and a scholar or wise man with a bunch of chrysanthemums. In the background there are rocks, bamboo and chrysanthemums.
This photograph shows Paul Lesniewicz buying old pots in China, about 1979/80. It must have been a feeling like digging for gold at Klondike. Today this is no longer possible. The pot shown in this article is hidden by half behind the leg of the Chinese interpreter.
The pot had a little damage at the right foot.
These photographs show the pot after it has been restored with massive gold by the goldsmith Bernd Braun - he has done a master piece! Now the pot shines again with all its dignity and is part of my modest little collection.
Photographs 1 - 5 by Helmut Rüger
Photograph 6 by Paul Lesniewicz (see also section Museum)
Photographs 7 - 9 by Peter Krebs
Translation: Heike van Gunst
Mr Hoe Chuah from Huston, Texas kindly sent us more information about the Chinese poems on this pot. The following text is a slightly edited extract from his Emails.
Dear Mr. Krebs,
I recently saw your web pages on bonsai pots. I enjoyed them very much, thank you for sharing. In one of your pages, entitled Fingertraces, you were wondering about the writings on the pot and their translations. I want to shed some lights on their meanings.
The writings which someone translated as “You will always come back to the place....” are the last two lines of a poem by the Tang poet, Meng Hao Ran. The title of the poem is “Passing Through the House of an Old Acquaintance”. Literally, these two lines read “Till the Zhong Yang Day, I will come back for the chrysanthemum”.
Zhong Yang Day is also called the Double-Nine Day, it occurs on the ninth month, ninth day of the lunar calendar. It roughly corresponds to mid-October in our calendar. The double-nine day is significant to the Chinese because the pronunciation of “nine” is a homonym of “long and everlasting” in Chinese.
Thus double-nine signifies longevity. This day is also a day of honoring old people.
Coincidentally, chrysanthemum is also called “mums” in the US, and it is common for people to buy chrysanthemum for mothers; sort of an honoring gesture, a hint but not of the same meaning as the Chinese honoring old people. In addition, the double-nine day coincides with fall harvest and the blooming of chrysanthemums. The traditional double-nine day celebrations also include excursions, climbing a hill, appreciating chrysanthemum blooms and drinking chrysanthemum wine etc.
The last two chrysanthemum-related activities create competing interpretations of this poem. Some people interpreted it as the poet wanting to come back on the double-nine day for the chrysanthemum flowers, others interpreted it as coming back for his friend's chrysanthemum wine on the double-nine day.
What the poet really meant is beyond my knowledge of Chinese poem. Thus the lines could be translated as “Till the double-nine day, I will come back for the chrysanthemum (flowers or wine?)”. From the painting on this pot, the artist interpreted it as the poet coming back for the chrysanthemum flowers. Since many ancient poets were also fond of drinking, the meaning could very likely be coming back for his old acquaintance's chrysanthemum wine during the double-nine day trip. (On the topic of poets and driking, see also the note on this page). Therefore, knowing the content of the poem, these two lines are not related to the poet's childhood.
Since I am not into poetry, just enjoy reading them, I checked the internet whether there are better translations. Lo and behold, the wonderful internet turned out more information than I anticipated.
The poet's name is spelled Meng Haoran in Wikipedia. He was born in 689 or 691 and died in 740. Many of his poems are about landscapes and pastoral scenes. This particular poem was in the “Anthology of 300 Tang Poems”, which is a Chinese classical literature. This anthology has been translated by many people. A famous translation that came to mind is by Arthur Waley. Wikipedia has a link to other translations: http://wengu.tartarie.com/wg/wengu.php?l=Tangshi&no=128
In this link, the double-nine day was translated as “Mountain Holiday”. Climbing a hill on this day was certainly one of the activities, perhaps it sounds better in the translation than a double-nine day. Interestingly, the third last line read “with our cups in our hands”; so the returned visit could very well be about drinking chrysanthemum wine rather than seeing chrysanthemum blooms.
On the other side of the pot, there are two lines of a poem, but I do not know their origin. What is interesting is they were signed off as: “Copying from the old by Ding Tai (name of the potter or calligrapher) during the summer month of the year of ren-shen”. The Chinese years are based on a sexagenary cycle, i.e. a 60-year cycle. The year of ren-shen, based on the probable age of this pot, is most likely 1932 or you could keep on subtracting 60 years to reach the right age of this pot if you think it is older. In Chinese art especially in pottery, the mark stating it is a copy is a flattery to the old master and not an intent to deceive. In fact, some of the imperial potteries made for the Qing dynasty emperor, Qian Long, have marks saying they are copies of the Ming! In this case, I think the potter or the engraver meant the two verses were in the style of an old master, i.e. the words were taken from an old poem with some modifications.
I also searched the web for the Chinese words from the writings on the opposite side of the pot, and it returned interesting results. Those two verses were not part of a poem but in the style of a couplet written by a Qing general, Zeng Guoquan. Again you can see his biography in Wikipedia. He died in 1890, so the pot most likely dated 1932 since the potter paid his homage by emulating Zeng's couplet. Couplet is a Chinese style of writing in two verses which compliment and rhyme with each other. In Zeng's original couplet, the two verses were:
The flowers in the vase (pot) had fallen on the inkstone, their fragrances turned into words;
The wind blown bamboos knocked on the windows, their sounds entered into my writings.
This potter retained Mr. Zeng's first verse and replied with his own second verse: “The bamboos in the courtyard knocked on the tablets, their sounds rhymed with my poems”. So the potter signed off as “copying from the old” is not about reproducing an old pot but emulating the style of the couplet.
This particular type of pottery is from Yixing, with a beige-color slip over the purple clay, and the writings were carved by a Mr. Tao Ding Tai, who was not necessary the potter himself. The surname “Tao” appeared in the chrysanthemum painting within a circle.
Hope these will help your readers to better appreciate this bonsai pot.