The TT Tsui collection of Chinese ceramics

Introduction | History | Burial Rites and Mingqi | Spiritual Beliefs | Ceramics




PPair of funerary urns - late 11th – early 12th century - underglaze painted decoration - Gift to the National Collection of Asian Art from Dr TT Tsui LLD JP, of the Tsui Art Foundation, HK, through the National Gallery of Australia Foundation 1995


Song Dynasty
Pair of funerary urns
late 11th – early 12th century
stoneware, underglaze painted decoration

This pair of funerary urns demonstrates the complex links that existed between the mythological and the classical. The form of the vase is very traditional. Graceful and well proportioned the ovoid body tapers in to a narrow shoulder, the neck rises and extends gently outwards and the lid is carefully rounded.

The body and lid of each vase are decorated with luted bands which have been attached freehand while the clay was still moist. The shoulder of each vase is decorated with hand moulded relief figures which appear quite crudely executed. Such non-realistic modelling may reflect a lost skill as potters rarely made human forms for funerary sculpture after the Tang dynasty.

The imagery draws on Daoist symbolism. The bird on top of each vase is probably the phoenix, representing good luck and happiness. Each vase has a central figure – a tiger (yin) and a dragon (yang). As a pair, the tiger and dragon represent the yin and yang of the Daoist cosmos. A Daoist legend tells of an old woman called Feng Po who controls the winds and rides her tiger through the clouds. This may be the intention of the cloud-like forms and the figure riding on the tiger's back.

The other vase is dominated by the image of a dragon. Dragons can be powerfully protective and wreck havoc on the enemy. The standing figure may be one of the Immortals, perhaps Li Tieguai who carried a gourd of medicines which could revive the dead.

The figures are also open to other interpretations, reflecting the complex nature of Chinese philosophy. The birds may represent the Red Bird of the south, the dragon is a symbol of the east, the tiger is also a symbol for the west and the north is represented by a turtle or snake, the latter would help explain the strange curled creature on the tiger vase.

It is also possible that the fluting around the vase represents water and the central scenes are set on an island. In this case the vases could symbolise the mythical home of the Immortals, the island of Penglai which is said to be vase-shaped.

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Funerary jar

Three Kingdoms (220–280) – Six Dynasties (220–589)
Funerary jar
stoneware, early celadon glaze

This unusual green glaze jar belongs to a particular type of funerary vessel which was made during the Three Kingdoms and Western Jin dynasties. Called a hun'ping (spirit jar), it has a conventionally shaped body topped by a configuration of architectural elements and animals. In this example, birds dominate the scene as they swarm up the neck of the container.

The pots around the neck are also a common feature and are thought to represent grain stores. The archway may be a shrine, providing the ancestral spirit with a place to worship. The figures of domestic animals and people, probably worshippers, are references to the deceased's life.

The band of horsemen around the body of the jar may represent travelling to the afterlife while the purpose of the odd fish-like creatures which are poised to enter the vessel is unclear. They are called spirit jars as they act as a shrine for the ancestor who will hopefully look favourably on his living relatives ensuring they have sons to continue the family line, healthy and reproductive livestock and bountiful harvests.

When compared with funerary vessels of the Han Dynasty, this piece demonstrates a significant refinement in technique. It is elegantly formed and carefully constructed. The green glaze is also a development of the period as potters came to understand more fully the effects of oxiding or reducing atmospheres in the kiln.

The celadon type glaze, produced in a reducing atmosphere, is quite even and being on a grey pottery form, the colour is light. Many techniques were used in its construction. The body of the container is shaped on a wheel, pressed forms have been applied around the widest part of the body, the figures have been pressed onto the form while some of the birds have been attached using tenons which can be seen if looking down into the container.

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