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The David Vases (Chinese porcelain)

These vases are among the most important examples of blue-and-white porcelain in existence, and are probably the best-known porcelain vases in the world.
The David Vases, c. 1351, Yuan dynasty, 63.6 x 20.7 cm, Jiangxi province, China © Trustees of the British Museum
They were made for the altar of a Daoist temple and their importance lies in the dated inscriptions on one side of their necks, above the bands of dragons. The long dedication is the earliest known on Chinese blue-and-white wares.

The dedication

The dedication records that in 1351 a man named Zhang Wenjin from Yushan county presented these two vases and an incense burner (the whereabouts of which is unknown), to a Daoist temple in Xingyuan (modern day Wuyuan county). Yushan county is in northeast Jiangxi, which lies 120 km to the southeast of Jingdezhen, where these vases were made. This inscription demonstrates that blue-and-white porcelain production was already well-established at Jingdezhen by 1351. Originally the vases, modeled after bronzes, had porcelain rings attached through the elephant head shaped handles.
These vases were owned by Sir Percival David (1892–1964), who built the most important private collection of Chinese ceramics in the world.
Suggested readings:
R. Krahl and J. Harrison-Hall, Chinese Ceramics: Highlights of the Sir Percival David Collection (London, The British Museum Press, 2009).
J. Carswell, Blue & White: Chinese Porcelain Around the World (London, 2000).
M. Medley, "The Yuan-Ming Transformation in the Blue and Red Decorated Porcelains of China," Ars Orientalis, 9 (1973), pp. 89–101.
R. Scott, "Sir Percival David’s Yuan Ceramics," Arts of Asia, 39/3 (2009).
J. Stuart, "The Sir Percival David Collection in the Sir Joseph Hotung Centre for Ceramic Studies, "’ Arts of Asia, 39/3 (2009).
© Trustees of the British Museum

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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Scott
    I know in antiquity blue pigment was very rare and precious - in painting, it usually came from rare lapis lazuli. Is this the case here, or is the blue colour achieved through some other means?
    (4 votes)
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  • duskpin seed style avatar for user Jmad2030
    What do the images on the vases symbolize? Do they tell a story?
    (0 votes)
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    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Peace of East Place
      First let's analyze the dragons. In China in general the dragon represents either control over most forms of precipitation, like typhoons and rainfall, and also imperial power, strength, and good luck. Considering that this was for a temple, the latter option is more likely. In Daoism/Taoism specifically, the dragon represents the spiritual part of the cosmos, and the dragon is said to inhale the chaotic parts and unused potential of the tao (similar to the yin-yang, the underlying principles of the universe), and to exhale order. The floral motifs may come from the Middle East, as most Middle Eastern art shows flowers and geometric designs since depicting people was frowned upon. Since this was made during the Yuan dynasty, where the Mongol empire stretched all the way across Asia even into Eastern Europe, the influence of Middle Eastern artistic designs would have been present, especially with the strong trade connections within the empire. As for telling a story, I don't think that these really represent a narrative. I think it's just supposed to be different designs to create a visually appealing container for the incense. The corresponding video for this essay details more about what the images symbolize: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap-art-history/south-east-se-asia/china-art/v/david-vases
      (6 votes)
  • aqualine tree style avatar for user 10hi5
    but i dont under stand it i have a langley and i can speak spanish see yo puedo hablar español
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user mwells22
    Such beautiful vases but I would like to know:

    - How long were the vases part of the Daoist temple? Were they used for ritual purposes or something else?
    - Why were they removed or transferred?
    - How did Sir Percival David come to acquire the vases?

    Thank you! I enjoyed reading the essay.
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      I't most likely that these vases were part of the temple's treasure for as long as 500 years. As in many Taoist and other Chinese Folk Religion temples, they were 'treasures' for the purpose of being 'treasure", the ritual function would have been in the form of their associated incense burner, which is not part of the current collection.
      Sir Percival David purchased these in Europe:"...from two separate sources; the first from Mountstuart Elphinstone in the 1920s, the second from an auction in 1935 of the collection of Charles E. Russell. Russell was said to have acquired his vase from a Chinese collector Wu Lai-Hsi (吳賴熙, Wu Laixi), who in turn was claimed to have bought it from a priest of Zhilun temple in eastern Beijing, although this fact could not be verified."
      (1 vote)