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Blue-and-white bowl with scenes from The Romance of the Western Chamber, by Chinese collection

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About the artwork

“Wind plays the sounds of bamboo:
 I take it for the echo of her golden pendants.
Moonlight moves the shadows of flowers:
Can it be the jade person coming?”

Wang Shifu (ca.1250-1300)

The fashion in Europe for Chinese porcelain began in the late 17th century. Europeans were attracted by the vivid blue and brilliant white of Chinese porcelain and its figurative decoration. This taste reached a peak in the 18th century with the craze for Chinoiserie. The use of ‘china’ was revived in the mid-late 19th century as a glamorous backdrop in homes of the wealthy, as illustrated in Country Life Magazine. Lord Leverhulme (1851-1925) began to collect Chinese art in the 1890s. He acquired works illustrating landscape images, and narrative themes from plays, novels and history. Not only was it perfect for country house decoration, it was also much admired by artists associated with the ‘aesthetic movement’. These included James McNeil Whistler, Frederic Leighton and Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

This large bowl (LL 6158) at the Lady Lever Art Gallery was originally owned by Richard Bennett (born 1849) and was probably used for serving punch. Bennett came from Horwich, near Bolton. By 1881 he was living at Great Lever Hall and was owner and manager of John Smith Junior & Co., a bleaching and chemical manufacturing company in Great Lever. In 1890/91 Bennett moved to Southport and then to Manchester, but before 1911, when his collection was sold to Lord Leverhulme for £275,000, Bennett had moved to Thornby Hall, Northamptonshire. The collection was sold by Edgar Ezekiel Gorer (1872-1915), an international dealer in Chinese art, particularly ceramics, boasting major clients in Britain and across the Atlantic.

The bowl is made of refined clay and has a smooth glaze, painted with underglaze blue, probably Chinese cobalt, subtle and elegant. The idea for painting on ceramics with a cobalt-blue pigment was not actually a Chinese invention, but a Middle Eastern process developed in Mesopotamia. The Chinese first encountered cobalt material in the late Yuan to early Ming period (14th century). They called such a rich, dense, deep blue colour ‘Huihuiqing’ or ‘Muhammadan blue’. Later, in the late 15th century, the Chinese discovered cobalt in their own country, which was a kind of cobalt with a manganese mixture. The manganese tended to make the blue colour lighter, and less intense than the imported cobalt. Afterwards, in the second half of the 17th century, Chinese porcelain painters learned to combine the lighter and richer cobalt colours to create more dramatic decorations. The colour has different shades and produces the same effect as Chinese ink and water painting.

The decoration of the bowl can be divided into three parts. Inside, a medallion is painted with a carp rising from the waves. The carp seems to be a popular motif in Chinese decorative art. In former times it signified success in the civil service examination. The two borders are decorated with prunus branches and phoenix pattern. Outside, there are two belts on the main body of the bowl, depicting highlighted scenes from Xi Xiang Ji, by leading playwright Wang Shifu (ca. 1250-1300), generally referred to in English as The Romance of the Western Chamber, which is the most-widely used story on narratively decorated ceramics in 17th century China.

The reasons for the interest in this play and its representation on ceramics were numerous, but can be tied to three major trends: greater artistic freedom enjoyed by the artisans of the kiln centre of Jingdezhen after the death of the Ming Wanli Emperor in 1620 (when the kilns were forced to seek new patrons due to the cessation of imperial patronage), the great flow in popularity and quality of woodblock illustration in the Shunzhi and early Kangxi reigns, 1644-61 and 1662-1722, and the increasing use of narrative themes in literature for social and political commentary. At that time, Xi Xiang Ji achieved extraordinary popularity both on the stage and as reading matter, going through more than a hundred editions between 1600 and 1900.

The play is described as 'a rollicking tale about love and lust'. In the play, a young scholar Zhang Sheng travels to the capital city in order to take the highest imperial examination. When he stays in a monastery, he meets Cui Yingying, daughter of the Prime Minister, and falls in love with her at first sight. Yingying is staying there with her widowed mother. Zhang decides to rent a room in the same monastery to be near her. They begin to exchange poems, but have to keep their communication secret. Yingying’s legendary beauty also attracts a local bandit and his troops move towards the monastery. This alarming situation, however, turns to Zhang’s advantage: he prepares himself to take the ultimate test when a group of bandits besiege the royal family. Yingying’s desperate mother pledges to marry her daughter off to any man who can rescue them. Though Zhang eventually succeeds in the task, Yingying’s mother subsequently reneges on her promise citing that there is no way she will allow her daughter to wed an impoverished scholar. As a result the bond between Zhang and Cui only strengthens, and with a little assistance from Cui's maid Hong Niang the couple is eventually able to shatter the traditional societal barriers that bind them.

The Chinese approach art objects by ‘reading’ them. Actually, the Chinese verb that means ‘to look at’ (kan) also means ‘to read.’ This attitude is especially suited to painting and porcelain. ‘Reading’ such themes on ceramics of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties indicates a profound shift in taste among the literati toward these wares from the early Ming. The design of the bowl improvises a way of reading, much as we read comic books in modern times.