Two porcelain bowls from China’s Qing dynasty’s Qianlong reign (1736-1795) were sold at an auction in London in 1929. They were from the collection of Captain Charles Oswald Liddell, who had obtained most of his porcelains between 1877 and 1913 while he was in China. The two bowls were purchased separately for £150 each, one by Hon. Mountstuart William Elphinstone and the other by Charles Russell. Currently, the Elphinstone bowl is on loan at the British Museum, while the Russell bowl is part of Alice Cheng’s collection in Hong Kong, purchased in 2006 for about £10m.
The porcelain bowls are small in size, but they are considered among the most highly esteemed group of Qing dynasty porcelains known in Chinese as falangcai. The bowls were made at the imperial kilns in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, and then sent more than 1,000km north to the imperial ateliers within the Beijing palace to be decorated with overglaze enamels by the most skilled ceramic artists.
The decoration on the two bowls is complementary rather than identical, and the designs are in approximate mirror image. When viewed together, the decoration is arranged as a Chinese horizontal handscroll depicting swallows flying among blossoming apricot and willow branches. On the other side of the bowls, there is a calligraphic poetic couplet accompanied by three painted seals, each containing two characters that translate to “beautiful,” “early spring,” and “dawn radiance.”
The selection of decoration for the bowls was deliberate, with apricot, willow, and swallows all imbued with auspicious meaning. Willow leaves are a sign of spring, vitality, and the return of light, and they were also used as a rebus for gaiety and pleasure in Chinese art. Because of its delicacy, beauty, and suppleness, willow was sometimes seen as an emblem of beautiful women.
Apricot trees were cultivated in China for their fruit as early as 500 BC and were popular in gardens, temple courtyards, and palace courtyards. The apricot was also a symbol of a beautiful woman. Swallows are also an essential part of the message conveyed by the bowls. In China, swallows were considered auspicious, a sign of spring, symbolizing a successful future, happiness, and the arrival of children.
The Chinese word for swallow is a homophone for the word for banquet. So, when combined with the apricot, the swallows suggest the wish: “May you attend the spring banquet in the Apricot Grove.” The poetic couplet accompanying the apricot blossom and swallows on the bowls seems to have been abstracted from a poem “written by imperial command” on a fan-painting of apricots and swallows by a powerful Ming dynasty official, Grand Secretary Shen Shixing (1535-1614).
The decoration of the two bowls is a masterpiece of Chinese porcelain craftsmanship, incorporating complex symbolism and literary references that convey a message of auspiciousness and beauty. The falangcai technique, which involves applying enamel colors over a previously fired glaze, was highly valued in the Qing dynasty and was reserved for the imperial court and high-ranking officials. Today, the bowls are highly sought after by collectors and museums alike, not only for their aesthetic beauty but also for their historical and cultural significance. The pair of bowls sold in London in 1929 is a testament to the enduring allure of Chinese porcelain and the rich tradition of Chinese art and poetry.
Based on an original article by Rosemary Scott