Home to roost, cup takes center stage

(chinadaily.com.cn) | Dec 29, 2014


Chenghua doucai chicken cup from the Ming Dynasty. [Photo/provided to Shanghai Star]

It made headlines around the world when Liu Yiqian paid a record sum for the "holy grail" of Chinese ceramics. Now the chicken cup is on display, and the collector wants people to know there is more to the piece than its impressive price tag. Zhang Kun reports.

After paying $36 million for a cup, what do you do with it? Liu Yiqian has chosen to put it on display at Long Museum, a private establishment owned by himself and his wife, Wang Wei.

The exhibition, The World of Zhu Jianshen: The Life and Times of a Chinese Emperor, features the chicken cup, alongside other ceramic pieces and art works from the same period.

The exhibition, showcasing about 30 items, opened at Long Museum West Bund, and will continue until Feb 8, 2015.

Liu was aware of the challenge of putting the cup on public display even when he bought the valuable item via a telephone bid at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong in April. The cup set an auction world record for Chinese porcelain.

Although nicknamed the "holy grail" of Chinese art, Liu says the cup with a diameter of 8.2 centimeters can hardly warrant a proper exhibition on its own. He decided to present it in context, showing the ideology and culture of the historical era. "I intend to let people learn about the history and culture behind the piece, rather than its high price," he says.

Liu had the museum fa?ade painted bright yellow, like the imperial palace walls, and had replicas of the chicken cup made. Ten thousand of the replicas have been sold, the cheapest priced at 288 yuan.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) marked China's first tentative steps toward the modern age, says Xie Xiaodong, curator of the exhibition. The central Ming period, dating from the mid 15th to 16th century, was especially meaningful because lots of changes took place in Chinese society. The economy developed rapidly, handcraft and trade progressed. The culture and spiritual life of Chinese people also took on a new look.

Besides fine ceramic pieces from the Long Museum's own collection, Xie also borrowed a series of pieces, including fragments and incomplete chicken cups, from the ceramic museum of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province.

Jingdezhen was China's ceramic capital for centuries, and these pieces reflect the development of the craft and technique of ceramic processing during the period the chicken cup was made.

The exhibition presents almost 20 procedures showing the creation of the chicken cup featuring "doucai" glaze.

Doucai literally means "colors which fit together", and it was difficult to achieve in the 15th century because blue had to be done under-glaze, while other colors over-glaze, and no satisfactory over-glaze blue enamel was available at the time.

The cup is named after the image of a rooster and hen tending to their chicks, which signifies harmonious country life.

It is said that the emperor Zhu Jianshen, who reigned from 1465-1487, was in love with a woman 18 years older than himself. He had a troubled childhood. His mother died young and his father was taken captive by Mongolians. The woman, surnamed Wan, provided motherly care and when he grew up and became the emperor, she remained the love of his life.

It is said that Madame Wan shared with the emperor a great enthusiasm for ceramics. Academics sometimes argue whether it was Wan or the emperor himself who proposed the design of the "doucai" glaze.

Whatever the case, the royal family and the emperor's aesthetics and interests had a great impact on the trend and development of the craft, says Fang Zhiyuan, a leading researcher of Ming period history.

Thousands of craftsmen were promoted during the Chenghua period. "It was an extremely colorful era," he says. The social values became diversified; a very interesting literati group emerged. It was an important turning point in China's history.

Ming was the last dynasty ruled by the Han ethnic group. In 1644, the Manchurian took over the country and started the Qing Dynasty.

If you go
10 am-6 pm, Tue-Sun, Dec 12-Feb 8, 2015, Long Museum West Bund, 3398 Longteng Avenue, Xuhui district, 龙腾大道3398号021-6422-7636
50 yuan; 80 yuan (combo ticket for the two venues)


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