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KANGXI PERIOD (1661-1722)


Height: 29 ½ inches


  • Tonying & Company, New York

  • St. Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri

  • Christies New York, 30th March 2005, lot 396



This important vase is painted with a lively continuous scene taken from the Feng Shen Bang (Investiture of the Gods). Huang Feihu, Prince Wucheng of the Shang dynasty, and one of his younger brothers are depicted bowing before King Wu of the Zhou; acknowledging the ascension of a new dynasty. The Zhou entourage includes a variety of deities, immortals, demons, spirits and magicians such as the Dragon King, the Thunder God Lei Shen, and Nezha alongside the famous military strategist Jiang Ziya  and mounted cavalry bearing banners. The Zhou were the first to employ the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to justify a change in regime. The gods favored the Zhou over the corrupted Shang but only as long as they ruled wisely and well. Heaven would bestow the right to rule to those who were ethically worthy. Throughout Chinese history, the Mandate of Heaven is recorded as having influenced changes of dynasties and emperors, with the rise and fall of dynasties and emperors being inextricably and divinely linked to the morality of human beings.

It can be no accident that this scene, so vividly and deftly painted, appears on an imposing vase of large dimension during the Kangxi reign. When the conquering Manchus overthrew the reigning Ming dynasty and established the Qing dynasty in 1644, they announced that the Ming had lost the Mandate of Heaven. By setting up this shift in power, the Manchu claimants needed to tread carefully. The Mandate of Heaven was centered on the principle of legitimacy, the Ming and all preceding dynasties staked their claim to power based on mutual belief in the Mandate.The Manchu readily adopted and adapted the concept to support their right to rule. It was this system that allowed them to present themselves to the populace as 'Sons of Heaven' rather than as conquering foreigners who had no legitimate claim over China.

Technically, the present vase represents the very best of wucai enameled forms of the period.  The cylindrical form and elongated neck are perfectly proportioned to the exceptional height of the piece. The porcelain body of a pure and startling white, covered in a lustrous, clear glaze, provides an ideal surface for the vivid transparent enamels. While the greens, iron-red, yellows, aubergine and over and underglaze blues are all wonderfully rich and vitreous; the deep intensity of the painting is characterized by the very fine and detailed use of black as an outline or to define figural features. While notoriously problematic to achieve, overglaze black enameling adds a richness and painterly quality to the composition. The addition of gilt decoration, which would have compelled a third firing, enriches the surface; its bright reflective qualities providing an effective counterbalance to the depth of the black.

Provenance from Tonying & Co. is notable. The company was founded  in 1902 by Zhang Renjie (1877-1950) who was an attaché of the Qing government to Paris.  Through his government connections he had access to works of the highest quality, many of them imperial. In 1925, a close friend, Li Shizeng was appointed Chiarman of the recently formed Palace Museum.  In 1933 Zhang personally  supervised the shipment of over half of the Imperial collection to Shanghai.  Zhang left China in 1939, living first in Europe and then in New York. From at least 1925 the firm held several sales through the American Art Associates in New York, which in 1938 was taken over by Parke-Bernet Galleries who continued to hold auctions for Tonying through the 1950s. For further reading on the subject see Roy Davids and Dominic Jellinek,Provenance, 2011, p. 421-422 and no. 23 in this catalogue.


A vase of similar large size and painted with a related scene of military subjugation is the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco and illustrated in He Li, Chinese Ceramics, San Francisco, 1996, no. 646, p. 302-303.



Text and images on this page appear courtesy of 
​Sotheby's New York and are excerpted from:
Sotheby's New York. Embracing Classic Chinese Culture: 
Kangxi Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection. 
March 14, 2014, p. 12. [exhibition catalog].

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