For the Love of an Older Woman

In April, 1999 a Ming dynasty ceramic cup was sold at an auction for over US 3.7 million dollars. It broke the Chinese Ceramic auction record for the highest priced piece sold. It's small, only 8.1 cm. in diameter and 3.1 cm. high. It's painted with a couple of hens, a couple of roosters and several chicks. What is it? It is a "chicken cup" from the reign of the Ming emperor, Chenghua.

Chenghua reigned from 1464 to 1487 AD. The Empress dowager assigned a palace maid, Wan, to take care of him when he was but a child. Wan, who was 18 years older than Chenghua, cared for him not only as a mother but also as a lover. By the time Chenghua became Emperor at the age of 17, Wan had used her relationship with Chenghua to spoil herself with a position of power within the palace. She persuaded the Emperor to drop Wu, the official Empress, and had herself declared Empress instead. In the second year of Chenghua's reign, Wan gave birth to a prince. Chenghua loved his son very much and instantly promoted Wan to the level of the highest-ranking Imperial Concubine. The prince died before he was a year old, but this did not affect the Emperor's love for no one but Wan. Wan loved to dress as a male, believing this would help her give birth to another son. She would often set up worship ceremonies to pray to conceive a son. Historical records show that during the ceremony she would have 20 tables, full of plates of food piled very high to show her sincerity. Gold and silver nuggets would be spread across the floor to increase the power of her prayers. At the same time, she would carefully keep track of which other concubines were visited by the emperor. If any of these concubines became pregnant, Wan would order an abortion. Despite her best efforts, a concubine gave birth to a son. The concubine hid this from the Emperor and Wan. She hid her son in the cold palace for six years to keep him alive. Finally, the concubine Wan died of a stroke at the age of 58, in the middle of a caning she was giving to a palace maid. The forty year old Emperor went into a depression and died a few months later.

Chenghua was so much in love with Wan that he is reported to have given her a gift everyday of the year to please her. Many of these gifts were small and delicate pieces of ceramics. Of the various types of ceramics, one type, called Doucai, would have the outlines of scenes done in a pale underglazed blue with the scenes filled in with various overglaze lacquer colors. Doucai literally means "competing colors". It started earlier in the Ming dynasty but the quality of the earlier doucai cold not match with the doucai produced during Chenghua's reign. Some of the gifts given to Wan were doucai chicken cups. Chicken cups were reported to have been used in wedding ceremonies. The cup pattern consists of a crowing rooster with his head raised, a hen with her head down busily looking for worms, and three chicks. Many believe the pattern showed the Emperor's desire to have a family with several children. At the bottom of the cup is a seal that proclaims the cup to have been created during the "Great Ming Chenghua" period in chinese. The calligraphy for the seal came from the young emperor himself.

To please his favorite concubine, Chenghua had ordered his artisans to produce the most beautiful pieces of doucai ceramics. In order to produce a perfect piece of imperial ware, many pieces were made; the imperfect pieces were destroyed. Many of the shards from these destroyed pieces have been found at kiln sites. According to the records, just to make sure a cup was perfect, 72 workers were involved in its production. The production of doucai is done in two parts. First the cup is painted with a cobalt blue scene, covered with a transparent glaze and fired with the underglazed blue at high temperature. Then the overglaze enamel paints were applied and the cup was fired again at a lower temperature that would allow the enamel paints to fuse with the glaze but not affect the glaze in the areas without the enamel paint. This meant that the cost of producing a single chicken cup was very high. By the late Ming dynasty, during the Wanli period (11573-1620AD), many collectors and scholars had begun reporting on the extremely high cost of chicken cups. An early Qing dynasty scholar named Chen Jia mentioned in his ceramic appreciation and value article, that one pair of chicken cups would cost around 100,000 dollars. At this time, a large county would only take in about 5,000 dollars of tax revenue a year.

By the late Ming dynasty, imitations of Chenghua chicken cups were being produced because of the high value of the originals. But the quality of these imitations were not very good. In the Qing dynasty the Emperors, Kangxi, Qianlong, and Yongzhe all produced chicken cups. Some bore their own marks while some bore a copy of Chenghua's mark. Even at this time collectors were lamenting the high cost of Chenghua cups and the high number of "forgeries" available. These Qing copies all sell for high prices at auctions today. Last year a chicken cup with Qianlong's mark sold for almost US $15,000.

Chenghua ceramics have a very distinctive style and character:
1. Continuing the Ming's traditional concept of gentle and tender beauty, most of the ceramics were small, delicate, with soft colors.
2. Because Chenghua was continually trying to please Wan, the colorful decorative patterns mostly described toopics that a lady would favor such as children playing, flowers and birds, etc.
3. Their belief in Buddhism meant that often Buddhism patterns were used with many pieces designed for altar uses.

During Chenghua's 23 year reign the government spent a tremendous amount of money in ceramic making, but the quantity of production was only a fourth of the amount produced during his grandfather Xuande's 10 years of reign. Chenghua Imperial wares are all very thin and light. At that time, charcoal fired kilns were used. The small amount of iron deposit in the clay and glaze produced a tint of yellow, which under light appears as a flesh color. A friend of mine once described it "as a pearl". This is what most of the imitations could no produce.

By the Chenghua period, the imported Lajiward cobalt blue was almost used up. So the government started to mine the Po Tang domestice cobalt mine. The color of the cobalt blue is soft, light and elegant with the feel of translucence. The late Ming dynasty Chenghua reproductions used Huei Ching Cobalt blue, which has a purple tone and is no comparison with Chenghua's light and elegant Po Tang color.

The Chenghu Imperial ware collection worldwide is just over 600 pieces. Among them, about only a fourth are doucai. The Taiwan National Palace Museum has over 400 pieces of Chenghua ceramic in its collection. They all came from the Old Qing Palaces. One of the rooms that the emperor Qianlong spent most of his time in, has the best quality Chenghua small cups totaling 67 pieces kept in a Japanese lacquered box. Chenghua ceramics were among Qianlong's favorites.

One of the things I enjoy very much about living in Taipei is the accessibility of the National Palace Museum. Even in steaming hot weather the museum is quiet and cool and full of beautiful things. Many of my collector friends would make a trip to the museum just to look at a chicken cup. Now we have even more exciting news: from August 2nd, the Museum will have a special exhibition of Chenghua ceramics, with 205 pieces of ceramics on display. Among them are 6 chicken cups. Given that Chenghua ceramics are arguably the most beautiful of Ming ceramics, this is an exhibition that should not be missed. I know that I will be going several times.