Shoulao Waterdropper

Object nr. 405 China, 18th Century Height: 7 cm | Width: 6,7 cm

Private Collection, The Netherlands

Condition Report available

€ 1,750

This object can be viewed in our gallery.

additional information

Enamel on Biscuit

Porcelain enamelled “on the biscuit” (i.e. without an intermediate layer of glaze) was manufactured at Jingdezhen from the 14th century onwards. The term is most commonly used, however, to describe artefacts made during the Kangxi reign (1662-1722), and decorated in a range of colours that favoured yellow, green, white, occasionally turquoise, and aubergine brown. The palette was sometimes employed later in the eighteenth century, and was revived in the nineteenth century. Technical and historical descriptions of the style are well attested, so in this essay I shall address the topics of subject and market.

Objects decorated in enamels on biscuit were made in a variety of forms. The fact that a very large number of items entered Western collections from the late seventeenth century onwards, demonstrates the fact that they were exported. However, in comparison to early Qing porcelain decorated over the glaze in enamels (famille verte), the ratio was small. Famille verte porcelains tended to be larger in scale, and to be made in sets, garnitures to place above doorways and on mantelpieces. Multiple runs of objects such as plates and teacups with saucers were made for Western dining and drinking. Biscuit-enamelled pieces, by contrast, tended to be small in scale and to be made as singletons, or in limited numbers (e.g. bowls and dishes).

These factors were not obviated by manufacturing or technical considerations, but resulted from their function. Many biscuit articles were destined for the scholar’s desk, or for a religious or ceremonial setting. In this manner, it is obvious that their primary market was not only for export, but also for domestic consumption. Originally they must have been utilised to fill up bulk orders on trading ships, a common practice for all types of wares. When it became obvious that their intricacy and novelty value delighted foreign buyers, they became a regular component of the export trade. Nonetheless, it is interesting to consider what their original intended destinations would have been, and towards this end we shall first consider religious and ceremonial context, and secondly employment on a scholar’s desk.

Buddhism and Daoism

The Chinese populace was both superstitious and religious during the early Qing dynasty, facets of behaviour and belief that are entirely understandable, for people lived in daily fear of disease, death, starvation and conflict. To assuage their fears, and to propitiate the forces that seemed to control their daily lives, people naturally turned to religion. Chinese people could be Buddhist, Daoist or Confucian in their beliefs, and very commonly paid due diligence to all three. In addition to worship in public temples, most people had domestic shrines at home, dedicated to the gods of Buddhism and Daoism, to Confucian dignitaries, to ancestors, and to fairy sprites and domestic spirits.

In the context of Buddhism, biscuit statuettes of the Bodhisattva Guanyin are common. Bodhisattvas are Buddhist deities who attain nirvana, but chose not to progress onwards to the realms of bliss, rather remaining to assist other mortals achieve ultimate enlightenment. Thus they personify helpful and merciful qualities, values especially associated with Guanyin “the Compassionate Bodhisattva”. Guanyin is commonly shown carrying a fly whisk, to wave away flies that Buddhist tenets do not permit to be killed, and a bottle containing the ambrosia of eternal life. Originally a male god, her depiction changed sex sometime in the fifteenth-sixteenth century, thus allowing her to join a small and immensely popular pantheon of female deities.

Other Buddhist figures with close ties to human beings were luohan, the Chinese name for monks attendant on the Buddha. They were often displayed as large statues, placed  in two rows along the east and west walls of the chief hall in a temple, which is possibly where the attractive Ming figure originally sat. Cheaper, miniature sets of luohan, such as the two figures, were created from identical moulds. They were customised to represent individual monks by modelling different postures and attributes. They even have blue eyes, tiny features filled in using cobalt blue.

Ubiquitous among figurines are Buddhist lions, fashioned in male and female pairs, the female with a cub and the male resting his paw on a brocaded ball. Images of lions guarding the Buddha throne entered China via the Silk Route during the Six Dynasties period (220-580), and paired male and female lions went on to become iconic guardian figures at the gates of palaces, official buildings and temples. By the Qing dynasty smaller images in porcelain had become playful, the lions looking more like Pekingese dogs than ferocious wild beasts.

Many references to Buddhism are seen in everyday objects, such as the turquoise brushwasher in the form of the fat, laughing Buddha called Budai (literally “hemp sack”, for he is often shown leaning on a such a sack). This aspect of the Buddha was widely popular in China as early as the tenth century, for a fat belly was equated with eating well and thus a happy life.

Daoist iconography and ideas are also common in biscuit wares. The fine figure on horseback is the deity Guan Di, one of the most important figures in Chinese mythology and popular culture. His image comes from an historical figure, Guan Yu (c. 161-220), a general who helped Liu Bei to establish the Shu Han dynasty in AD 221. After his death, he was venerated as a loyal and righteous figure, until he was given the title of Emperor (Di) in AD 1594. With the name Guan Di, he was worshipped in temples and households as the Daoist God of War and patron of honest merchants. In addition to large statues placed in city temples, smaller wooden or porcelain images of Guan Di were made for worship on household altars. This small biscuit figure is depicted in martial aspect, wearing full armour. He strikes a theatrical pose similar to those seen in Chinese opera, and his curled hands probably originally held a sword.

Other figures include the Eight Daoist Immortals, who are depicted travelling across the sea, employing their magic powers and bearing special attributes, on the outside of the bowl. They are also seen crossing the ocean to attend a special party hosted by the Royal Lady of the West, on an exquisite miniature boat. The piece is marked as being made by Chen Guozhi. Chen Guozhi (c.1800-1860) was a skilled craftsman famous for his meticulous carved porcelain style. 

One of the three Daoist Star Gods, deities linked by astrologers to planets and stars in the sky, holds an ingot denoting wealth and robes painted with the character for “long life”. He wears scholar’s robes and hat, as does another figure who possibly originally held a scroll. The Lucky Twins, their name in Chinese making a pun with wishes for harmony and thus a happy marriage, make another clear link with folk Daoism. One of the Twins is shown holding a tablet decorated with the yinyang pictogram. Wishes for longevity are embodied in the decoration of cranes and pine trees, for both the bird and the tree live for a long time.

The models of mountains are not simply pastoral scenes, but are associated with the mountainous Gardens of Paradise inhabited by Daoist Immortals. One such was the West Flower Paradise ruled over by the Royal Lady of the West, the queen of the female Immortals. It contained an enchanted palace with beautiful pagodas and halls built of marble and jasper, a nine-storied tower, sparkling brooks and waterfalls, and a magical garden.  There the Royal Lady of the West cultivated herbs and plants that conferred everlasting life, including a famous tree with peaches of longevity. In one of China’s folk tales Sun Wugong “The Monkey King” steals and eats the peaches of immortality. On one biscuit mountain a seated monkey figure can clearly be seen. It is interesting that these biscuit-enamelled porcelain mountains appear to predate similar mountains in jade, ivory and carved bamboo, that became popular in the mid-late eighteenth century.

Several modelled elements of the mountains, for example pavilions, figures and rocks, were used interchangeably on objects with quite separate functions, such ornamental items and brushwashers used on scholars’ desks. This suggests that they were manufactured in the same workshop or workshops at Jingdezhen, within a fairly limited time period. It is purely conjectural (without more detailed archaeological evidence), but quite possible, that such workshops were clustered together. Moreover, judging from the quality and function of biscuit objects, it is also probable that such businesses operated at the higher end of the manufacturing market.

Objects for the Scholar’s Desk

We have already mentioned the Buddha-and mountain-shaped brushwashers, used to contain water for cleansing soft-haired brushes after painting or writing. Small brushwashers in organic forms are a popular staple of biscuit-glazed porcelain, such as those modelled as lotus pods and leaves. The lotus is one of the few plants whose seed pods are already evident when the flowers begin to bloom, and to Chinese people this excellent omen augurs the early arrival of sons. Crabs symbolise success in passing the civil service examinations, an appropriate emblem for a scholar’s waterpot. One of the crab waterpots being offered here is glazed inside, the other unglazed and stained with ink, showing that it was actually used for cleaning inky brushes. The brushwasher in human form depicts the famous Tang dynasty poet Li Bai (701-762) leaning against his wine jar, for Li Bai was best known for the extravagant imagination of his verse and his great love of alcohol. The unfortunate poet is said to have drowned in the Yangtze River, having fallen from his boat while drunkenly trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. Two charming cups shaped like ducks with lotus leaves offer the wish that the owner should be paired happily for life with a spouse while the oblong box with a lion acting as handle on the lid could have been used for many things, including as a container for ink cakes and sticks.

A turquoise-glazed brush pot was employed to store brushes when not in use, tip upwards. Its openwork form imitates carved bamboo, another material appreciated by scholars. While actually writing or painting, a scholar would rest lean their wet brush tip upwards on a stand, to avoid marking the paper or silk. The brushrest is shaped like a range of five mountain peaks, an auspicious number and also a reference to the mountain scenery that literati loved. A very unusual piece is the large scroll weight, which when placed on top of a sheet of paper or silk, or used to weigh down an unrolled scroll, would keep the surface flat.

An elegant stand has legs painted to mimic carved wood or bamboo, while its top is shaped like a ruyi , a form encapsulating the wish that everything should be “what is wished-for”. Such a stand could have been placed under a vase or jar, but could also have been used as a tidy-all for small implements on the desk. Another oblong stand with incurving legs imitates the shape of hardwood stands for scholars’ desk paraphernalia.

The two vases probably formed part of a garniture that also included differently-shaped vases or jars, and possibly candlesticks. The square vase imitates the shape of an archaic bronze form called gu, and is decorated with Daoist trigrams. Both shape and decoration would have been incomprehensible to a European buyer in the 17th-18th centuries. The 19th century vase with dragon handles also imitates ancient bronze, and its “famille noire” style of decoration  formed part of a decorative schema much favoured by European and American collectors in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. Thus both vases epitomise objects that were manufactured in Chinese idiom, but also exported to the West.



Floris van der Ven