Traditional Chinese opera has been a part of popular culture since the Yuan Dynasty, with its powerful scenes inspiring various forms of art, such as decorative folk arts.
However, despite its early emergence, it was not until the late Ming Dynasty, with the advancement of print, that people deepened their understanding of these works through illustrated books of the plays. Potters also began to depict famous scenes to enhance the new trend, creating porcelain not only for practical uses but also for entertainment.
Running until February 8, Folklore in Ming and Qing Porcelain at the Sun Museum in Kwun Tong showcases 46 pieces of porcelain selected from seven private collections in Hong Kong, each depicting scenes from popular plays, novels and folk tales.
“Drawing these scenes on decorative art pieces allowed them to spread among people of different classes,” said museum director Yeung Chun-tong. “Intellectuals read the plays and dignitaries watched the operas, but ordinary folks could not afford either. They could only appreciate decorative arts, namely porcelain, or even cheaper New Year pictures.”
One of the pieces on show features the story of the poet Li Bai, painted on a blue-and-white oviform jar. Part of the Ming Dynasty vernacular stories collection, Stories to Caution the World, the scene depicts Li being asked by Emperor Xuanzong to interpret a war declaration written in Balhae script. The emperor then grants the drunken Li’s request to have two powerful officials, who earlier insulted Li as an unlearned scholar worthy only of holding their inkstones and removing their footwear, to do the same for him.
“Drawing on porcelain is more complicated than painting on paper, especially when it comes to blue-and-white porcelain,” said Yeung. “The blue pattern is gray before firing, which is similar to the color of porcelain. Therefore, without experience, it isn’t very easy to distinguish the color and paint good works.”
The art of porcelain-making reached its height with the reigns of the Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong Emperors during the Qing Dynasty. A rouleau vase with famille-verte decoration from the Kangxi reign represents the era’s excellent skill of colored porcelain.
Yeh Hu Carrying Off Tripod, a story from the novel Legends of the Sui and Tang Dynasties, is painted on the vase. According to the story, to quell the An-Shi rebellion, Emperor Suzong borrowed 10,000 troops from the Uyghur Khaganate, who demanded to take all the people and treasures in the capital of Chang’an as payment. When Chang’an was recaptured, the khaganate’s heir-apparent Yeh Hu and his troops set off to plunder the capital.
However, Li Yu, who would later ascend to the throne as Emperor Daizong, pleaded with Yeh Hu to wait until the restoration of Luoyang, and later kept his promise to let the Uyghurs empty their treasuries.
Romantic stories are also popular, especially in 18th-century porcelain. An example is the Romance of the Western Chamber, in which a scene from Listening to Zither Music is painted on a baluster vase with famille-pink decorations.
The painter perfectly captures the various character’s essences in key scenes: Zhang Gong desperately longing for Cui Yingying, who shyly listens to him playing the zither; her clever maidservant Hongniang plotting with Zhang to introduce Yingying through his music; and Zhang’s attendant falling asleep.
The refined brushstrokes and colors make this vase an exquisite example of early Qing Dynasty porcelain painting.
Auspicious motifs are also often painted on porcelain. These include magpies, a symbol for returning good news in Chinese culture, and Guo Ziyi’s birthday celebration, a symbol of longevity, wealth and honor.
Yeung said that the auspicious themes are one of the few common characteristics of royal and folk porcelain, but patterns on royal porcelain are usually dragons and phoenixes.
“The quality of porcelain on display is as high as royal porcelain, but the folk stories depicted on them are definitely for ordinary people,” he said. “Porcelain presented in the exhibition is an integration of the art of literature, porcelain and painting.”
(This article was published at The Standard on January 31, 2020: Weekend Glitz: Past preserved in porcelain )