Transitional Porcelain Censer, Late Ming Period c.1610 – 1640.
Late Ming or early Qing, Wanli to Chongzhen period blue and white porcelain censer c.1610-1640. This Transitional porcelain censer is painted with a pair of dragon-fish over waves contesting a flaming pearl (associated with spiritual energy, wisdom, prosperity, power, immortality, thunder, or the moon). This censer sits on three, rather perfunctory, feet. The base and the well of this censer are unglazed.
- In excellent condition, one very small glaze chip to the interior edge of this Ming porcelain censer. There is some glaze crawling to the rim, this is a firing fault. Minor wear.
- Diameter : 21.7 cm (8 1/4 inches). Height : 16.3 cm (6 1/2 inches).
- Stock number
The Transitional Period :
The roots of this unsettled period starts during the later part of Wanli`s reign (1573-1620). At the begging of his reign China was doing very well, new crops from the Americas such as peanuts, maize and sweet potatoes increased food production, while simplified taxes helped the state run smoothly. But this was not due to Wanli`s enlightened reign, but to his Mother championing a man that was to become the Ming dynasties most able minister, Zhang Zhuzheng (1525—1583). Wanli became resentful of Zhuzheng`s control but upon his death became withdrawn from court life. Between 1589 to 1615 he didn`t appear at imperial audiences, leaving a power vacuum that was filled by squabbling ministers. Mongols from the North raided as Japan invaded Korea. Wanli re-opened the silver mines and imposed new taxes but the money was lost due to corruption, as well as being frittered away by the indulgent Emperor himself . The next emperor of Ming China, Tianqi (1621-1627), was bought up in this self indulgent disorganised environment, at the very young age 15 his short reign started. He didn`t stand a chance. Tianqi made the mistake of entrusting eunuch Wei Zhongxian (1568-1627) who Anna Paludan in her excellent book “Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors” (Thames and Hudson, 1998) describes as “a gangster of the first order”. Tianqi was deemed to have lost the Mandate of heaven by the Ming people. Tianqi`s younger brother, the last of the Ming Emperors, Chongzhen (1628-1644), was not able to save the situation. The systems of administration had broken down, corruption was rife and so when a sever famine broke out in 1628 nothing much could be done. Anna Paludan describes the tragic end to the great Ming Dynasty “The final drama was worthy of a Greek tragedy. The emperor called a last council in which `all were silent and many wept`, the imperial troops fled or surrendered, and the emperor, after helping his two sons escape in disguise, got drunk and rushed through the palace ordering the women to kill themselves. The empress and Tianqi`s widow committed suicide; the emperor hacked off the arm of one daughter before killing her sister and the concubines. At dawn he laid his dragon robe aside and dressed in purple and yellow, with one foot bare, climbed the hill behind the now silent palace and hanged himself on a locust tree”. The Great Wall of China, started 2,000 years ago was built to protect China from the Northern barbarian hoards, it was often tested and sometimes failed. The Jin people invaded China, ruling the North between 1115 and 1234, it was their descendants the Manchus, Jurchens from south east Manchuria that took full advantage of the problems of the Ming dynasty. In 1636 they adopted a Chinese dynastic name, the `Great Qing` (Qing meaning pure). The first of the Qing emperors was Shunzhi (1644-1661) but for most of his reign his uncle ran the state. War raged on during this period and it wasn`t until the second Qing emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) that true peace was achieved. Kangxi was a wise and educated man, he became a highly successful emperor bringing China a long period of wealth and stability.
Chinese censers have a long history, they are thought to have originated in the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770 – 256 B.C.). They are normally association with paying reverence to ancestors, the smoke omitted was thought to be a way for the living to communicate with the spirit of the dead. However, from early times there have been different censers for different functions including fumigation and even pest control. They also occur in many different forms. During the Western Han dynasty Western Han (206 B.C. – A.D. 8) the Boshan Xianglu universal mountain censer was developed. These bronze censors had elaborate craggy mountain peaked covers which aloud the incense smoke to waft out of naturalistically rendered holes, like so many bronze forms they were copied by potters who made lead-glazed pottery versions. The incense cones that created this smoke were made from plants, including magnolia, grasses and lovage, however early Taoists might have preferred something stronger, adapted censers for the religious and spiritual use of cannabis. Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty ladies at court used novelty censers to fumigate new cloths, a Yuan poem includes the lines “The incense continues burning in the golden duck censor `til midnight, as court ladies keep trying on their new garments of silk and muslin”. For a Ming dynasty bird form celadon censer see sold items stock number 18026. Most Chinese censer are, however, of circular form and sit on three low feet, the interior is unglazed and left in a biscuit state. Some of the Yuan and Ming celadon censers have impressed decoration to this biscuit area. Sand was placed inside the censer and jossticks or cones were used. Many family`s had an alter at home where rituals were performed and respect was paid to their ancestors, incense burners were an important object in this context, often forming part of an alter garniature with a pair of vases. Indeed we know from the inscription on the famous `David Temple` vases now at the British Museum, not only that they were made in the year 1351, but that there was originally a censer with them, unfortunately now lost, (for an illustration of these important Yuan vases see our `Links` section, where they are shown next to the link to the British Museum website where you can read more about them). Because of there ritual use, censers, like the missing David censer, were sometimes commissioned for a specific temple or other building. They person commissioning them sometimes had a dedicatory inscription added. For example the Dehua blue and white censer, stock number 19766 (see `Sold` items). This has an inscription that mentions the name of the family who presented it, as well as the temple the piece was given to, along with a date, the twelfth year of Qianlong (1736 – 1795) equivalent to 1748. It also asks for more children and riches. China`s renewed connection with its spiritual past has meant that censers are once again being lit across the land.
A Wanli Censer Dated 1611
Sold at Sotheby's in London, 10th November 2017
Repaired from fragments, sold for £8,125