ANTIQUE BONSAI POTS FROM THE PALACE MUSEUM
In 2003 Beijing’s Capitol Museum was having a special exhibition, called Treasures of the Palace Museum – Empress Dowager Cixi’ Porcelain. Since I am also interest in Chinese porcelain, it was a rare opportunity for me to see one hundred pieces of late 19th century imperial porcelains and their related archived documents on public display in one place. A special treat for bonsai enthusiasts is to see more than ten antique bonsai and flower pots among the displays. I could take pictures here, but no flash or tripod.
This exhibit focused on porcelains made for Empress Dowager Cixi’s (1835-1908) use. Many of them incorporated a red seal mark and three Chinese characters, Dayazhai (Abode of Great Refinement, 大雅斋) in the design. Dayazhai is the name of a building in the old summer palace where she lived. The old summer palace, Yuanming Yuan, is now a ruin. It was burnt down in 1860 under the order of Lord Elgin in retaliation when China lost the second opium war. I had visited Yuanming Yuan in my previous trip and saw the famous remnants of the European Baroque style garden designed by Jesuit priests in the 18th century. The looting and destruction left indelible marks, it is still a sore issue in China today. For those interested, there is an article by an ex-curator of the British Museum with a provoking title:“Barbaric Destruction or Symbolic Retribution – The Razing of the Yuanming Yuan“.
I found the following four famille rose rectangular pots intriguing because one can readily associate them to each season by the flower blooms. I wonder whether they were used only at the appropriate season accordingly.
The following two have magpies perching on a flowering plum (Prunus mume) tree. Note the gnarly trunks with calluses from pruning, a desired sign of age for an ume bonsai. Interestingly the Chinese and Japanese use the same character for Prunus mume (梅) but in China the fruit is translated into English as a plum; whereas in Japan it is translated as either an apricot or a plum. Confused about your fruits? It happened to me too. Both cultures use plum flowers to symbolize courage and hope because they are the first to bloom after withstanding the adverse winter. Magpies with flowering plum trees symbolize the coming of spring, and is a popular theme in Chinese art objects.
The design in the next pot is similar to the above two, but the magpies are replaced by parrots, and the plum flowers are replaced by peach flowers and fruits. Peach flowers bloom in mid to late spring and it bears fruit in early summer, so the painting is colorful and more vibrant than the above two pots.
This pot was displayed with its original illustration on paper, it showed the whole design around the pot, perhaps used for official approval or as a template for the potters.
The flowers on the next pot are peonies, their peak blooming season is spring, April to May. Peony signifies prosperity, wealth and honor in Chinese symbols.
Another pot with its original paper design is a round pot with everted rim. The flowers are a combination of gardenia and chrysanthemum.
I group the following pots which have a four character mark “Ti He Dian Zhi” (Made for Ti He Hall) at the underside of the pots They were commissioned by the Qing emperor, Guangxu, to celebrate Empress Dowager’s 50th birthday, held at the Ti He Hall. The artistic renditions of these pots are quite different from the Dayazhai pots. Instead of just famille rose, there were underglaze blue and white, pots with incised designs, contrasting illustrations in shades of black against a yellow background. Yellow is the imperial color.
Blue and white rectangular pot with chrysanthemum sprays.
Pot with banana leaves and flowers in black on a yellow ground color.
Scalloped rim flower pot with peach and bat design on yellow ground.
Yellow ground pot with incised flowers.
Yellow ground flower pot with orchid and osmanthus sprays design.
Text and photographs: Hoe Chuah