National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Stem Cup Chinese Ming Dynasty (artist)
Stem Cup, Jiajing period, 1522/1566
porcelain with enamels on the biscuit
overall: 12.3 x 17.3 cm (4 13/16 x 6 13/16 in.)
Harry G. Steele Collection, Gift of Grace C. Steele
Not on View
From the Tour: Chinese Porcelains
Object 1 of 24

The shape and the decorative motifs of this finely potted stem cup are characteristic of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The interior is decorated with two incised dragons chasing flaming pearls around the cavetto and covered with colorless glaze. At the center is an incised double circle containing three stylized ruyi-shaped clouds. The exterior has two five-clawed dragons slip-trailed onto the surface, chasing flaming pearls among clouds. A ring of eleven lotus lappets encircles the cup just above the foot. Around the base of the foot is a classic scroll bounded by parallel lines. While the green enamel that highlights the high relief designs is uniform in tonality, the yellow enamel background has a mottled appearance.

The presence of slip-trailed decoration is rare on this type of vessel, as the majority of middle-Ming stem cups with similarly styled yellow and green enamel decoration have the designs incised into the body.1 The technique of slip-trailing is common, however, on the so-called fahua wares of the middle Ming dynasty.2 The style of this stem cup and its decoration, however, is more typical of the reign of Zhengde (1506-1521).3

An unusual feature of this stem cup is the four-character 'Phagspa script mark inscribed in underglaze blue on the interior wall of the foot. This script was invented in the early Yuan dynasty (late thirteenth century) by the Tibetan monk 'Phagspa (d. 1280) for the phoneticization of Chinese words into Tibetan and Mongolian.4 The mark is the phonetic equivalent of the Chinese reignmark, "Jiajing nian zhi" (made in the reign of Jiajing [1522-1566]). Two other vessels are known that bear this same mark. The first is a bowl in the British Museum, London, decorated in an identical style, with two slip-trailed dragons chasing flaming pearls on the exterior.5 The second is a blue-and-white dish in the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, decorated with dragons among floral scrolls.6

Since all three vessels are decorated in the style of the Zhengde reign, and yet have 'Phagspa marks corresponding to the Jiajing reign mark, it is probable that they were produced in the first years of the latter period. It is also likely that these vessels were made as an imperial gift to a Tibetan temple or high-ranking lama. The vessels were probably produced no later than the first years of Jiajing, since the ceramic decorative style changed soon after the beginning of the Jiajing reign in 1522. Furthermore, the Jiajing emperor's growing obsession with the Daoist religion (at the expense of the influence of the Buddhist church) would have made such a gift unlikely late in his reign.7

(Text by Stephen Little, published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue: Decorative Arts, Part II: Far Eastern Ceramics and Paintings; Persian and Indian Rugs and Carpets)


1. Margaret Medley, The Chinese Potter, New York, 1976, fig. 154.

2. Medley 1976, 207-208, fig. 155; see also Suzanne Valenstein, Ming Porcelains: A Retrospective [Exh. cat. China Institute Gallery, China Institute in America, New York], New York, 1970, pl. 22.

3. Compare Valenstein 1970, pl. 38.

4. On 'Phagspa, see David Snellgrove, A Cultural History of Tibet, New York, 1968, 169; and Herbert Franke, "Tibetans in Yüan China," in John D. Langlois, Jr., ed., China under Mongol Rule, Princeton, 1981, 304-322.

5. Previously published in R. L. Hobson, "Chinese Porcelain Fragments from Aidhab and Some Bashpa [sic] Inscriptions," Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society 6 (1926-1927), pl. 6, fig. 2.

6. John Alexander Pope, Esin Atil, and Josephine H. Knapp, Oriental Ceramics: The World's Great Collections. The Freer Gallery, Tokyo, 1975, 9: pl. 109 (where the mark is incorrectly recorded as the phonetic equivalent of "Zhengde nian zhi").

7. See Lienche Tu Fang, "Chu Hou-tsung," in L. C. Goodrich and Chaoying Fang, eds., Dictionary of Ming Biography, 2 vols., New York, 1976, 1: 320-321.

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