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Folklore in Ming and Qing Porcelain

2/10/2019 - 8/2/2020


“Folklore in Ming and Qing Porcelain” showcases over forty pieces of porcelain made in the late Ming and early Qing periods. They mainly feature stories excerpted from folklore, history and auspicious motifs. Popular stories such as Romance of the Western Chamber, The Peony Pavilion, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Investiture of the Gods and Legends of the Sui and Tang Dynasties are vividly illustrated. These famous stories could rekindle interest in traditional Chinese culture and arouse curiosity in how to translate ancient folklore into porcelain decoration. The exhibits are selected from seven private Hong Kong collections.

Folklore in Ming and Qing Porcelain

It took centuries to translate folklore from text into porcelain decoration.

Folklore was originally known as chuanqi or “story of the marvelous,” a kind of novel that became a separate literary form in the Tang Dynasty. It was shaped by a range of literary genres such as the narrative style of Records of the Grand Historian, records of the strange popular in the Wei and Jin dynasties as well as Tang poetry and Buddhist song-tales. Chuanqi features stories that reflect social reality while retaining supernatural and strange elements and are narrated in an elegant and concise language. Many stories familiar to us originated as chuanqi like the Curly-bearded Knight, the Magistrate of Nanke and Yingying.

Authored by Yuan Shen, Tale of Yingying describes the love story between Zhang Junrui and Cui Yingying which ends with Zhang’s abandonment of Yingying. As chantefable became popular in the Song and Jin periods, Dong Jieyuan remade the tale of Yingying into Romance of the Western Chamber which was performed through alternate verse-singing and prose-reciting. In the Yuan Dynasty, opera replaced chantefable as the most prevalent performance. The master playwright Wang Shifu based on previous renditions of Yingying’s story and wrote Romance of the Western Chamber which became the blueprint for future modified versions.

The mid-Ming saw a new phase of development of Chinese society. The booming industry and commerce conduced to the development of cities and towns in Southern China. A large population including the gentry, affluent households, merchants as well as craftsmen relocated to cities and towns, forming a huge consumer market. As printing technology made major breakthroughs which slashed production cost, books became lucrative products. Publishing houses scrambled to print volumes of vernacular books such as chuanqi, novels and plays, as well as selections of ancient proses, collections of travel records, painting manuals and even encyclopedias. Pages of illustrations were inserted to appeal to a larger audience. These books were published in gargantuan numbers.

Take Romance of the Western Chamber as an example. There were over a hundred editions published in the Ming and over sixty in the Qing. These chuanqi stories enjoyed prolonged popularity and had a sizable market value.

Illustrated books were widely circulated among the masses. To cater for popular taste, potters started to depict these stories on their products. That is why many porcelains made in this period feature folklore such as Romance of the Western Chamber, The Peony Pavilion, Mandarin Duck Girdle, Celebrating a Harvest Year, Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Stories to Caution the World. Historical stories like the first encounter between Emperor Wen and Jiang Taigong, Sima Xiangru inscribing on the column of a bridge, the Eighteen Scholars and Dou Yujun’s five sons passing the civil examination also made their appearance. Even auspicious motifs were rendered in the form of figural depiction, for instance, “pointing at the rising sun” and “plucking an osmanthus branch from the Palace of the Toad.”

Literati also had a role in the publishing industry. Apart from publishing their own anthologies, writing book reviews and authoring chuanqi, some were even commissioned by publishers to create illustrations. Chen Hongshou, for instance, was invited to make illustrations for Zhang Shenzhi’s corrected version of Romance of the Western Chamber to attract more consumers. Literati culture also affected porcelain decoration. This exhibition features four objects that are inscribed respectively with Wang Changling’s “Boudoir Laments,” Li Bai’s “Preface to the Banquet at the Peach and Pear Blossom Garden on a Spring Evening” and Su Shi’s “The Second Rhapsody on Red Cliff.” One famille-verte vase is adorned with landscape forms modelled with texture strokes, a mark of influence from the Southern School painting espoused by literati since the late Ming.

These works of porcelain are hence not only staging chuanqi stories; they also feature an exciting time in Chinese history.

Rachel LEUNG
Associate Curator


Exhibition Catalogue

Editor: Rachel LEUNG
2019, hardcover, Chinese/English, 200 pages, 26 x 27 cm
ISBN: 978-988-78196-9-1

A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue featuring 46 pieces of porcelain made in the late Ming and early Qing periods, all selected from 7 Hong Kong private collections.

Price: HKD$120

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