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The Treasures Of Mr I. C. Su 1

The bonsai pot collection of Mr I. C. Su from Taiwan is one of the finest in the world.



I. C. Hsu 004

This pot was created in Qianlong during the Qing-Dynasty (1644-1911). On the side shown here you can see a group of lions, beautifully painted in the traditional blue-white technique. SHIH-TSE, the Chinese term for Lion, is derived from the Persian word “sir. The Chinese got to know the lion only through diplomats from western Asia who brought with them lions as presents. The lion shown here has little resemblance with a real lion (artists had this artistic freedom already long times ago). Like in the West, the lion was called King of the Animals in China too. Lions are often found as guards in front of official buildings and temples.

I. C. Hsu Detail

The right lion is male, the left one female. The left paw of the male lion holds an embroidered ball, the right paw of the female lion holds a baby lion. Tradition has it that it is not a ball, but a large pearl with which the lion is playing to soothe his temper. It seems that the artist of this pot preferred another interpretation.  In the background of the playing lions you can see cloud ornaments. Clouds are a symbol of happiness, and such happy clouds are a sign of peace. Perhaps this pot once was a gift for a high official. With this pot, happiness, peace, strength and harmony should enter his house.

This article first appeared in the Swiss bonsai magazine MENSCH UND NATUR.



China was one of the first countries to have ceramic articles on use. The invention of ceramics was one of the most important achievements of the Neolithic period. In the Immortal Cave (Shenxian Dong) in the JIANGSU province, ceramics were found that were dated as early as 10 000 B.C. China was also called the home of porcelain. From here it started its triumphal course around the world. So there are 10 000 years of experience with pottery between a Neolithic pot and the one I'd like to show you here - an incredible amount of time.

This pot is painted with a five-colored decoration. It was put to auction at Sotheby's in the Netherlands. The images on the pot show two dragons salvaging a pearl. Historically, dragons were considered Guardians of Heaven in China, a concept that as been passed on from generation to generation and thus became deeply ingrained in the people's minds. The story of the two dragons salvaging a pearl is very dramatic. Originally dragons had been portrayed as monsters since they were thought to be able to swallow the sun or the moon, thus causing solar and lunar eclipses. Later this idea became a myth.

This scene shows two dragons recovering a fireball, which symbolizes both the sun and the moon. In China, this picture symbolizes a safe and peaceful world.

This article first appeared in the Swiss bonsai Magazine MENSCH UND NATUR.



The history of China, and also the history of its art, was heavily influenced by the Chinese emperors. This is why the various epochs were named after them. They had a huge influence on the ways in which art developed, especially on porcelain manufacture. The most precious porcelain was exclusively produced in the imperial manufactories.  The pieces were marked with the name of the emperor and with his motto, which was sometimes very poetic: NIEN-HAO. These marks were written either in a brush script or in the older seal script. Covering all the single epochs would go beyond the scope of this article. Instead, I'll focus on two periods only: The MING and the QUING dynasty. Almost all ceramics that will be presented here are from these two, and the majority from the QUING dynasty.


The MING dynasty (1368 to ca. 1643) had been weakened by inner fights and an impoverished population, and Manchurian tribes seized the opportunity to invade the country. Their leader Abahai (later emperor Huang Taiji) gave his dynasty the name TA QING or shortly QING/ (“Pure”).

The ceramic that I would like to show you here is not a bonsai pot, but a vase; it is presented here for its exquisite decor. It was made during the QING dynasty, in the period called QIANLONG (1736-1795) or Heavenly Prosperity”. The vase decor shows four dragons. The empty space was filled with symbols of fire and bats. The fire stands for one of the five elements and is a symbol of change. It is also a symbol for the masculine and pleading for a good life. The term for fire, “huo”, also means “alive. The bat is a lucky symbol in China, the term “fu means both bat and luck. In the context of the picture on the vase, it probably means “quietness and peace”.

The main symbol on the vase are the four dragons. Interestingly, they are not shown with a pearl of thunder or luck, but with the plant of immortality CHIH. The herb CHI or LING-CHIH is a magical herb or drug which in Chinese literature is often shown in the mouth of a stag or the beak of a crane. It also symbolizes longevity. On the upper and lower rim of the pot there is a lavish ribbon decor.

The crux and the secret of this pot is however the way it was made, which is extremely demanding, rare and also beautiful. The technique is called cyanic flower with inglaze red. Cyanic flower refers to a decoration with blue painting. Inglaze red is a red glaze colored with copper oxide. Now the cobalt oxide of the blue glaze can be fired under either an oxidation (with oxygen) or a reduction atmosphere (without oxygen). The glaze colored with copper oxide can only be fired under a reduction or at least an oxygen-deficient atmosphere, which is usually produced artificially by adding a material that binds the oxygen, e.g. silicon carbide.

Now here's the great difficulty when burning such a glaze on a vase (or also a bonsai pot): The glazes cyanic flower and inglaze red need different firing temperatures and kiln atmospheres, so it is very difficult to have both colors come out adequately on a single ceramic piece, especially the copper red. The firing temperature must be controlled between 1250-1270°C, so it mustn't fluctuate for more than 20°. If the temperature is too high, the copper oxide will evaporate and the red color will fade. If it is too low, the color will become dark or even black. This is why pieces of art made with cyanic flower and inglaze red were very difficult to produce, and there exist only very few good examples of them. 

The masterpiece shown here was auctioned by Sotheby's in Hongkong in 1999 (the price? - don't ask ...)

This article first appeared in the Swiss bonsai magazine BONSAI KUNST.



The dexterity of a good potter and the imagination of a gifted painter are the prerequisites to create a small work of art. It is the symbolic plea for a state which is considered paradisiac by mankind.

This small pot from the YONGZHENG period of the QING dynasty is a vivid example of such a symbiosis of painting and pottery. The porcelain production from this period surpassed all other types of porcelain and showed the highest degree of technical abilities. The possibilities of painting porcelain, too, had reached a pinnacle. The scenes resembled paintings in their unsurpassed colorfulness.


This was made possible by newly developed color glazes. FENCAI (HUA), delicate colors, or RUANCAI, “soft colors”, which were known as “famille rose” in the western world, substantially extended the possibilities of painting. The already existing technique of enamel painting or panting in the five color technique YICAI (HUA) was improved by the new color glazes.

The color range was extended by two new pigments: Gold chloride originating from Europe (which created a ruby red), and a whine enamel color. The white pigment took a key role, since it could be mixed with many other pigments. This greatly extended the color palette. Mixing it with strong red resulted in rose, and from other strong colors, softer graduations could be created. The pot shown here is an excellent example for this kind of pastel or famille rose painting.

The scene shows children playing in a garden. Here too, as mentioned in previous articles, everything has a symbolic meaning. On the left there is a large stone, a symbol for longevity. The two boys symbolize harmony. Their attributes, lotus stem and vase, mean “joined in harmony”. One of the boys has a toy fish. The word for fish, , also means abundance and therefore stands for wealth. A child with a fish means “you shall have noble children in abundance”. In the sky there's a bat, FU, which is also the word for luck. The feet and the lower and upper border of the pot are decorated with a thunder meander. Thunder, LEIWEN, is the sound of fire and the laughter of the sky.

The pot's painting of the upper rim with flowers and other plants is very elegant and natural and typical for the YONZHENG period. Everything is lively, soft and elegant. Bonsai pots with this pastel decoration technique are still produced today in small, limited numbers.

This article first appeared in the Swiss bonsai magazine BONSAI KUNST.


Western Porcelain

In the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong (1662-1795) periods, Chinese porcelain manufacturing reached its highest perfection. The high respect for porcelain manufacturers even meant that the social and legal status of a potter was the same as that of his employer. They greeted each other on the same level. In the daily work there was no distinction between master and servant.

This pot was acquired by Mr. I. C. Su in 1999 on an auction by Christie's in Hongkong.

During the Kangxi period (1662 - 1722), among other extraordinary kinds of porcelain, the porcelain artists created enamel porcelain. It corresponded to the European taste and had become fashionable. The style of the decor was vibrant and life-affirming. The official kilns in Jingdezhen produced fine white porcelain articles, still unpainted, exclusively for the emperor's court. At the court lived the best and most famous decor painters, some of them artists invited from Europe, who embellished the white porcelain with their painted art. Thus the European and the Chinese taste fused with each other.

The white enamel glaze was applied to the raw body, both at the outside and the inside. After that the body got a first high firing. After firing, the pure white body was an ideal base for applying the painting with the colored enamel. These overglaze techniques required a high level of expertise from both potter and painter. Only the very best could satisfy these requirements. Faults in the enamel, like blistering, peeling, cracking, flowing off, bubbling, “needle pricks” or slippings were unforgivable.

With those colored enamel glazes, the court painters decorated the white body with a kind of oil painting technique, which made the images appear almost three-dimensional. Since the glazes were fine and glossy, they even looked more brilliant than on a canvas. They painted scenes from dramas and novels with enamel, heroes, dragons, plants, beautiful stones, poems in Chinese calligraphy and, not least, erotic scenes. During the Quing period, this type of porcelain was at its peak, mainly due to the partiality of emperor Quian Long. White Quing porcelain and European style of painting fused to a pure enjoyment of art. In China this style was called “Western Porcelain”. Due to the technical difficulties of its production (like the glaze faults mentioned above), enamel decorated porcelain was very rare. Only the emperor possessed such pieces, even ministers weren't allowed to own them.

The pot shown in the picture above is one of these masterpieces, and very rare. The image clearly shows that the Chinese landscape and the people in it were shown in a Western style, splendidly colorful and full of life.

This article first appeared in the Swiss bonsai magazine BONSAI KUNST.


All articles by Peter Krebs.

Translation: Stefan Ulrich