Section 3: Fit for the Emperor

The emperors, who ruled China’s vast lands, had ceramics made especially for them. No one else was allowed to use them. Come read a letter from a new government official, responsible for overseeing the creation of sacred royal art pieces.

16th year of the Kangxi reign (European year 1677)

Dear Cousin:

I wanted to share my good news with you. It may not sound very exciting to you in the army, but I am thrilled because I have just passed my exam to be an official of the Chinese government! I will be very proud to serve, the Kangxi emperor, in the Imperial Parks Department. There we will supervise the rebuilding of the great kilns at Jingdezhen, destroyed by rebels during the turmoil that followed the end of the Ming dynasty.

As you know, the Kangxi emperor is a great emperor, the second of the Qing dynasty. He is truly like the imperial dragon that appears on the ceramics, clothing, and furniture that only he is allowed to use. With the help of you and the army, he has helped bring China together again. It is once again the center of the universe.

See the green five-clawed dragon twisting through the clouds on this plate? The five claws tell us this is an imperial dragon.

Cup with dragon 
Qing dynasty (1662–1911)
Porcelain, glaze
1.8 in. high x 2.25 in. diameter
Estate of Mr. and Mrs. Wilmont Gordon
1990.14.19

Charger (large platter) with dragon
Qing dynasty (AD 1644–1911)
Kangxi period (1662–1722)
Porcelain, enamel, glaze
4 in. high x 14.25 in. diameter
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Roy Bayly
1971.91.

By becoming an official, supervising the making of ceramics for the emperor and his court, I become part of a tradition that reaches back hundreds of years. The ceramics made in Chinese kilns during the Song Dynasty are among those most highly prized by our emperors.

This Song incense burner that we use in rituals is a beautiful blue-green color the Europeans call celadon. One of the things that I learned in my studies is that the beautiful and delicate color—like a bird’s egg—comes from small amounts of iron in the glaze. When the pot or bowl or incense burner is heated very hot in the kiln, the glaze turns blue-green. We still make celadon ceramics—some for the emperor, some for use by Chinese people, and others to sell in far away lands.

By the way, some of the kilns that we use are called dragon kilns. That’s because they are tunnels that twist up along the slope of a mountain like a dragon twists through the clouds. They also become very hot, just like a dragon’s breath!

Censer (incense burner)
Song dynasty (AD 960–1279)
Stoneware, glaze (celadon)
2.75 in. high x 3.5 in. diameter
Museum purchase
(formerly in the collection of Ambassador Alexander Otto)
1994.46.5

Incense burner (Longquan ware)
Yuan/Ming dynasty
(Yuan dynasty, AD 1279–1368; Ming Dynasty, AD 1368–1644)
Stoneware, glaze (celadon)
11.5 in. high x 12 in. diameter
Estate of Ruth Prime
1991.30.16A-D

The Kangxi emperor has three empresses, and the kilns make ceramics for them too. Just as the dragon stands for an emperor, the phoenix stands for an empress. The sages say that the phoenix is the most honored among birds: It appears only when the country is at peace and there is a virtuous ruler, hiding itself at other times.

These phoenix plates are in the blue and white style and are made of porcelain, which is a very fine ceramic that we Chinese developed. Although the phoenix is a royal symbol, blue and white porcelain is sold all over the world.

Charger (large platter) with phoenix
Ming dynasty (AD 1368–1644)
Porcelain, glaze (blue and white)
3.5 in. high x 17 in. diameter
Museum purchase
(formerly in the collection of Ambassador Alexander Otto)
1994.46.10

Jar with phoenix
Ming dynasty (AD 1368–1644)
Jiajing period (1522–1566)
Porcelain, glaze (blue and white)
14.75 in. high x 13 in. diameter
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal
2000.34.9

The Kangxi emperor is not only a great leader, but he is also a great scholar and artist. He has even learned western sciences from the Jesuit priests—especially mathematics and matters connected with calendars. We consider scholars and artists to be some of the most important people in the country—even government officials like myself strive to be poets and painters.

Calligraphy—writing poetry or stories with beautiful brushstrokes—painting, and poetry are the most important arts. Ceramics are beautiful, but they are not considered to be as important. An artist does want fine materials, however, so we make pots to hold brushes, objects to for brushes to rest on, and water droppers for scholars. This celadon brush pot, which looks a little like a tree stump, and this tiny, boldly painted rabbit water dropper will inspire a poet or painter to think of the beauties of nature.

Brush pot
Qing dynasty (AD 1644–1911)
18th century
Porcelain, glaze (celadon)
4.25 in. high
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal
1996.44.42

Rabbit water dropper
Qing dynasty (1644-1912)
Porcelain, sancai (multicolor) glaze
2.5 in high x 3.75 in. long
Estate of Mr. and Mrs. Wilmont Gordon
1990.14.41

Roof tile (lion dog)
Ming dynasty (AD 1368–1644)
Terra cotta, glaze
16 in. high x 4.5 in. wide x 21 in. deep
Gift of Ms. Jane Hood
1984.29.2

The kilns of China make ceramics for trade with other countries and for the imperial court. There are also many well-to-do Chinese clients of our kilns who wish to have ceramics for their households. Some even want ceramics for their roof! This noble lion dog might go on a nobleman’s roof to scare away evil spirits. The glaze is in an ancient three-color style called sancai. Perhaps if you advance through the ranks of the army, you too can have a lion dog for your roof!

Sincerely,

Your Cousin