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The head of this vase is shaped like a bulb of garlic with distinct lines marking the natural delineation of cloves. The long, slender neck transitions to slanting shoulders and a round body. The high foot slants downward in a curve. Covered in white glaze, the vessel has a fine, lustrous texture. The body has visible traces of various steps in the production. The neck and shoulders are ornamented with an appliqué of a coiled dragon covered in red glaze. Oriented as if making an upward motion, the dragon holds an auspicious plant in its mouth. Its tail and head touch in a full coil as it rests its feet against the neck and body of the vase.
During the Jiajing reign (1522–1566) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), artisans often sculpted hornless-dragons, lions, qilin (a mythical creature), fish, and other zoomorphic ornamentations to attach onto vases and other ceramic vessels. This white vase is minimally embellished with salient red features, yet the purity of the two colors employed in the piece is diversified with the fantastical qualities of the ornamentation. During production, the vase and the dragon were made separately. The newly-sculpted dragon was then attached to the unfired vase. The combined piece was then covered in white glaze, and the copper-red glaze was applied to the dragon. After firing, the red of the dragon became even more prominent and added to the mystical allure of the piece. The vase lacks the mark of the imperial reign in which it was crafted, so the date of the work must be determined by the material and style of the work. The heavy white glaze is very similar to that used in the Yongle reign (1403–1424), but the form and craftsmanship of the attached dragon are characteristic of works from the Jiajing reign. Consequently, art historians have decided, without a doubt, that this work was produced in the middle of the sixteenth century.
Archives from the Jiajing reign record how artisans were forcibly enlisted to produce ceramics with the copper-red glaze (xianhong you). The administration offered great rewards to those able to produce the desired effect with the glaze, but none were unable to accomplish the task in the instance recorded in the archives. Rather than employing the more challenging copper-red glaze, the artisans substituted it with vitriol red (fanhong). As can be deduced from this example, vessels with copper-red from the Jiajing period are highly unusual. With its application of the deep color, the rare vase is truly a tour de force by the unnamed artisans of the imperial kilns during the Jiajing period.
Vitriol red (fanhong, lit. “alum red”) is a coloring agent made with ferric oxide (iron oxide) used as a red glaze when firing ceramics with oxidizing conditions at low temperatures. The resulting red color typically has a tint of orange; it is not a pure copper-red. However, the coloration is rather stable, and the technique needed to produce it is much easier to master than that with copper glazes produced with high-temperatures. Therefore, the imperial ceramic workshops often used vitriol red instead of the copper oxide-based alternative. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), this red was used to produce quantities of ceramics with polychrome (wucai) and contrasting-color (doucai) designs.
As indicated above, copper-red glaze (xianhong you, lit. “brilliant red glaze”) is a colored glaze used in ceramic production. Artisans at the Jingdezhen kilns began using high temperatures to fire copper-red glazed ceramics in the Yuan dynasty (1271–1368). The earliest works produced there with the necessary techniques had a darker shade of red. By the early-Ming period from the Yongle (r. 1403–1424) to the Xuande (r. 1426–1435) reign, the artisans at those kilns began to produce works with this copper-red glaze in its purest tonal manifestation (formerly known as brilliant red, xianhong). This glaze uses copper as a coloring agent and is fired at high temperatures in a reduction atmosphere. Due to its extreme sensitivity to temperature and atmospheric conditions, the glaze will not have the desired color if the artisan does not strictly employ the necessary techniques. It is, thus, considered the most challenging glaze to use, and the ceramics with the glaze have been highly prized throughout the past several centuries. The glaze is deep in color and produces a lustrous effect when properly applied to ceramics. Since this glaze was used to make the ritual vessels for offerings at the Temple of the Sun (Ri tan), it has been called sacrificial red (jihong); other titles such as accumulated red (jihong) and gem red (baoshi hong) have been used to indicate the unique glaze.
Author: Wang Liying
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying with contributions by Xu Bingbin