Emblematic of nature’s power, the dragon has long been a symbol of the emperor in China.
The sinuous beast on this vessel moves to the right, turning its head to look backward. Clouds and flowering lotus scrolls fill the background. The dragon has a blunt nose, fangs, a flowing beard, pointed antlers, and it holds flaming pearls in its three-clawed paw. Because five-clawed dragons were reserved for use by the emperor, this three-clawed version would have been more appropriate for less senior members of the Chinese imperial family or for foreign rulers.
This dragon vase was probably made at Jingdezhen: the world’s largest site of porcelain production since the fourteenth century. It was likely produced in either an imperial kiln or a private kiln that produced wares of imperial quality.
Because this vase is thickly potted and lacks an identifying mark, it may have been made for export. Indeed, several similar vases that date to the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1403–1425) have been traced to pre-modern collections in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.1 The Yongle Emperor tasked Zheng He with commanding maritime expeditions in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and beyond, which brought with them porcelain, silk, and other trade goods. As such, it is conceivable that vases like this one were used as diplomatic gifts for these expeditions.
In 1966, the Class of 1908 established a fund to acquire this and other works of Asian art for Krannert Art Museum. In 1958 they had given the University an initial gift on the occasion of their Golden Anniversary. The commencement speaker for the Class of 1908 had been Wu TingFang, the Chinese diplomat to the United States, who had spoken about “Why China and America Should be Friends.” The commencement speech was part of the reason why this class decided to support the purchase Asian art for the museum.
Comparable dragon vases can be found in prestigious collections, including the National Museum of Iran, Palace Museum in Beijing, National Palace Museum in Taipei, National Museum in Oslo, and Princessehof Ceramics Museum in The Netherlands.
Text by Maureen Warren, Curator of European and American Art, 2018
1 The National Museum of Iran’s dragon vase came from the Ardebil Shrine Collection. In 1611, Shah Abbas the Great gave his sizeable collection of Chinese porcelain to the shrine of Sufi Sheik Safi al-Din in Ardabil. Along with the Topkapi Palace, the Ardebil Shrine housed one of the most important premodern collections of Chinese porcelain outside of China. The Princessehof Ceramics Museum’s dragon vase came from the Sangihe Islands in Indonesia. Their curators speculate that it may have been a diplomatic gift for a Muslim ruler on the Indonesian archipelago, brought by Zheng He during the treasure voyages.
Sheh Ch’eng, Blue-and-White Porcelain of the Ming and Chʻing Dynasties. (Taipei: Chen Kuei-miao, 1988), 25.
“In Honor of the Class of 1908,” Bulletin of Krannert Art Museum 3, no. 3 (1978).
Johanne Huitfeldt, “Two Important Collections of Chinese Ceramics in Norway: The Daae and the Munthe Collections,” Transactions of the Oriental Ceramic Society 70 (2006–2005): 53–58.
Takatoshi Misugi, Chinese Porcelain Collections in the Near East: Topkapi and Ardebil. Vol. 3. The Ardebil Shrine Collection. (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1981), A.75, 152–153.
“De ‘Mona Lisa’ van het Princessehof.” princessehof.nl. https://www.princessehof.nl/collectie/topstukken/mingvaas/ (accessed March 30, 2018).