29 February 2012


On a visit to the British Museum, London, this piece of blanc de Chine porcelain caught my eye. It represents a miniature garden, a plum tree in a rectangular bowl.  Miniature gardens like this are called penjing in China, the equivalent of the Japanese bonsai.

Blanc de Chine porcelain is made in Dehua in Fujian province, south east China.  It is a warm white or pale ivory colour, instantly recognisable and quite different from the porcelain of Jingdezhen, China's main ceramics centre, which is cold white with a bluish tinge.

The British Museum has the largest collection of blanc de Chine porcelain in the UK, most of which was donated by P.J.Donnelly, a collector who wrote the standard work on the subject.

For hundreds of years, Dehua has produced a large output, including religious figures such as Guanyin, Maitreya, Lohan and Ta-mo. Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy, was particularly revered in Fujian and there are innumerable figures of her, some models having been made with few alternations since 1600.  In Chinese shops in Soho you can find modern Guanyin and Maitreya figures for about £100 that are little different from Ming dynasty figures in the British Museum.

A Bodhisattva Guanyin (Nantoyoso Collection, Japan), 
Dehua, probably early 20th century 

Today, the Dehua porcelain factories also make figures in modern styles, of varying artistic merit.  During the Cultural Revolution, they produced statuettes of Mao Zedong, revolutionary heroes and the stars of the proletarian opera.  The Mao figures later fell out of favour but they have been revived for foreign collectors.

Mao Zedong figure in Dehua porcelain, contemporary, 

The porcelain penjing is in a case in the Joseph Hotung Gallery, labelled from “the miniature world”.  The case includes little carved gourds, brush-stands, tiny cages for crickets and similar objects which may have been found on the Chinese scholar’s table. The penjing is a charming and delicate object, glowing white and worthy of scholarly contemplation. The explanatory card in the case quotes lines from the Tang poet Li Bai (701-962), replete with Daoist references.

The penjing is 23 cm high.  It was obviously made to be viewed from one side as it has a front and a back, the back having less detail than the front, and it is flat in section.  It appears to have been modelled as a unique piece, not cast or moulded.  The twigs, blossoms and buds are very finely made and some of the ends have snapped off.  It is a convincing and realistic representation of a miniature plum tree, but it has been cunningly made with almost vertical branches that won't sag or deform in the kiln.

The British Museum dates it to between 1725 and 1775, the early Qing dynasty.  There are no records of the sources of Donnelly’s collection and nothing is known about where he got this piece, but the Museum's dating is consistent with the criteria set out by Donnelly and the dating may indeed be his.

Donnelly describes this type of ceramic in his book, Blanc de Chine: “Small ornamental trees, their blossoms usually of soapstone or coloured glass are among the most familiar ‘arty crafty’ products of China of the last (19th) century.”  There are specimens 45 cm. high and Donnelly illustrates one 60 cm. high, “with animals hiding among the roots, a lion, a kylin and an owl” which he dates from 1775-1825.  Its size apart, it is similar to the penjing from his collection in the British Museum.  Donnelly suggests that penjing from a later period were made for a more humble and less admiring market than that of the Chinese scholar gentleman.  “The smaller tress,” he says, “(about 9 in. [23 cm.] high) in rectangular or round tubs are more familiar objects, and are much later.  Between the wars they came to Europe in barrels of sawdust.  You felt among the sawdust and drew them out, hoping to find one unscathed, which was the case surprisingly often, so effective was the protection offered by this packing.  They used to be sold by Yanamaka for a few guineas a pair.  Today [1969] they have vanished, and the appearance of one of them is greeted with a reverence which is altogether undeserved – they even find their way into antique fairs.”

This suggests that 20th century penjing were similar to the British Museum piece, but that does not mean it was not made in the early Qing dynasty.  The similarity is not conclusive for dating.  Precise dating of Ming and Qing blanc de Chine is difficult because the conservatism of the Dehua potters led them to produce similar pieces for decades or even for centuries.

Donnelly says that the type of plum blossom applied ornament on Dehua porcelain may be a guide to dating.  The plum blossom on the British Museum piece is in the style Donnelly dates to 1725-75, as can be seen from comparison below between a figure in Donnelly's book and a close up of the blossom in the Museum.

The Chinese scholar class was a creation of the imperial administration, which recruited by competitive examinations based on Chinese classical literature.  The scholar-administrator could expect to be posted far from home, to have wearisome duties for which his studies did not prepare him and to lack intellectual stimulation.  He could turn from this uncongenial work to contemplate nature or to collect beautiful objects.

The growing of penjing was a pastime open even to poor scholars.  If they could not travel, they could at least make these miniature gardens to remind them of grand vistas and uplifting sights.  The porcelain penjing permitted the scholar to contemplate the perfect garden, either as a reminder of the real thing or an inspiration

(Thanks to Jessica Harrison-Hall of the British Museum and Professor Nigel Wood for discussing this piece with me.)