Masters of Form: The Timeless Silhouettes of Chinese Vases

 

Mei Ping Vase:  Admirers say the “mei ping (梅 瓶)” vase, which translates to ‘plum vase’ (pictured far left) embodies ideal feminine features–large “bosom” and narrow waist.  It is a shape often found in Cizhou stoneware, the common ware of Northern China, named after the kiln-site town of Cizhou.  Others note the vessel’s pursed lip and delicate neck which dramatically opens to a broad shoulder and gradually tapers to a narrow foot.  It is believed that the narrow mouth was intended to hold a single plum blossom branch, thus showcasing the subtle elegant beauty of nature.  Hence the wonderful play of words, with mei (美) also meaning ‘beautiful’. 

A pair of jade glazed Mei Ping vases with lids

Bottle Vase:  The bottle vase (pictured below) is purely a ceramic form, however, scholars believe ceramists were likely imitating similar silhouettes from ancient bronze vessels.  It’s bulbous belly that barely tapers to the foot balances it’s dramatically long neck. Hard and soft, slender and round, the bottle vase embodies the spirit of yin and yang, harmoniously matching opposite aesthetics in one silhouette.     

Pair of miniature 19th century Satsuma bottle vases, 10" tall

An early 19th century Chinese Sang-de-Boeuf elongated bottle vase

Baluster Jar and Ginger Jar: Traditionally, the ginger jar (below) has a short and round silhouette with a flattop lid.  The Chinese traditionally used these jars to store a variety of goods, including ginger, salt, oils and other spices.  The jars became known as “ginger jars” because they often contained ginger when they were exported to the West, largely for decorative purposes.  The baluster jar has a tall feminine silhouette with broad shoulders and a body that either tapers to the foot or pinches at the waist then elegantly fans near its foot. The baluster jar is capped by a relatively tall bell-shaped lid, usually crowned with a figure such as a fu dog or an oval pinnacle.  Although the lovely casual shape of the ginger jar could never be mistaken for the sophisticated baluster, the name ginger jar often encompasses both shapes.  Both are innovations of Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) potters, perhaps it is their similar beginnings that tie them to each other. To the contemporary eye, baluster and ginger jars may seem like familiar jar shapes, especially in comparison to the dramatic silhouettes of the bottle and mei ping vases. However, the combination of folk ware with the rich decoration of these jars (such as lids and decorative handles) would have been considered barbarous during the Song dynasty (960-1279). Instead, they were admired and made popular by the Mongol ruling class during the Yuan dynasty.   
  
 

A petite Chinese ginger jar with painted crane from the 1920's

A 19th century Chinese blue and white ginger jar with swirling dragons and lotus

An early 20th century Chinese baluster jar with peonies and cranes

Double Gourd: China’s decorative arts borrowed inspiration from the natural world. The double gourd vessel (example below) demonstrates the integration of nature, function and technical agility. As the technical knowledge of ceramics improved amongst Chinese potters, the shapes and sizes of pieces became more elaborate, thus sophisticated shapes such as the double gourd emerged. The tight tubular mouth and neck juxtaposed against the graceful curves of the double gourd highlight how effortless and fluid the vessel appears to be crafted.

A 19th century Chinese double gourd vase with famille rose decoration

Fish Pond / Dragon Urn:  The fish pond is named so due to it’s large size– enabling an indoor or outdoor fish pool, a creative alternative to the modern aquarium.  Such large works demonstrate tremendous technical ability.  It is likely that their shear size contributed to the traditional name ‘dragon urn.’  These urns are either rendered with straight sides and a squared lip or slightly rounded sides with a large rounded lip.  The ornamentation is alive with movement. Our examples show a dragon chasing a flaming pearl, and butterflies flitting through a melon patch.  Naturally, the viewer’s eye follows the urns’ turns and form, reinforcing the imagery.  Dragon urns are a wonderful example of form and function.

An early 20th century blue and white dragon urn with two dragons chasing a pearl

A 19th century Chinese fish pond with unusual melon and butterfly motif

Phoenix Tail Vase:  Another feminine shape is the phoenix tail vase (below), with it’s delicate hourglass form.  One might see a narrow waist and wide hips in between it’s flared mouth and petite foot.  This shape was first produced with celadon ware in the Yuan dynasty.  As time went on, and it became more common, it could also be found in a variety of colors.  The exaggerated mouth and belly require perfect proportions in order for the piece to maintain its balance, both functionally and aesthetically. Although significantly smaller than the dragon urns previously mentioned, the creation of the dramatic form of the phoenix tail vase demonstrates a potter’s skill.

A blue and white phoenix tail vase with peacocks

Yi Tong Bottle: ‘Yi Tong’ means ‘being straight’ in Chinese due to the straight body of the ceramic.  It is also a pun on ‘unification,’ implying a kingdom unified. Unlike the curvaceous sensual shapes previously mentioned, the Yi Tong is a clean, cylindrical silhouette. Our example is adorned with figures in a scene from court life.  Like a simple floral design emphasizes form, the narrative of a figure painting requires the viewer to engage with the piece, circumambulating it in order to take in the entire scene.

A 19th century yi tong bottle with figures in a scene from court life

Pair of 19th century Chinese yi tong bottles with gilt and painted vases with peonies and incense burners

Chinese ceramics remain the admiration as well as the despair of the modern potter.  They are the classic expression of ceramic art, achieving an unsurpassed integration of shape, glaze and decoration.  The shapes, many rooted in the style of the Song dynasty (960-1279), appear to be extremely simple, with wonderfully fluid design, making it hard to know where the neck commences, the body leaves off, or the foot begins.  Since a textural history tracking the evolution of a ceramic silhouette is not always available, collectors and curators alike prioritize visual observations of shape as the dominant aesthetic element.  Tall, short, curvaceous or slender, Chinese ceramics highlight that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes.

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