To the untrained eye they don’t look like much, but Ming dynasty “chicken cups” are top of the pecking order when it comes to Chinese porcelain. There are only 17 in the world, two of which reside in the Palace Museum in Beijing.
In April 2014 a “chicken cup” was purchased at auction for $36m (£21.5m). It will now be displayed at one of two new art museums in Shanghai, having returned to the country of its origins. “Chicken cups” were made at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen exclusively for the court of Emperor Chenghua, who ruled China from 1465 to 1487. They are so-called because they are decorated with a rooster and hen tending their chicks.
Chenghua (portrait right) may have had good artistic taste, but his politics were reminiscent of later eras. His reign was autocratic and freedom was sharply curtailed with the establishment of a surveillance network that monitored the actions and words of civilians. Anyone suspected of treason was duly punished.
The city of Jingdezhen is known as the “Porcelain Capital” because it has been producing quality pottery since the 4th century. It has a well-documented history stretching back over 2000 years. Its porcelain has been famous not only in China but in time it became known internationally for being “as thin as paper, as white as jade, as bright as a mirror, and as sound as a bell”.
The story goes that Chenghua’s mother, the Empress Dowager, was especially fond of small utensils and Chenghua ordered the production of light porcelain ware to match her taste. The beauty of the cup lies in its size, delicacy and the way the colours were applied – a technique called doucai. Colours are laid both under and over the glaze requiring firing the cup twice at different temperatures.
A Southby’s catalogue entry recently described one cup as follows: “The exterior painted in faint outlines of cobalt blue under the glaze and picked out in overglaze enamels of yellow, green, light and dark olive green, and two tones of iron red with a lively continuous scene of a red rooster and his golden hen out in a garden with their chicks, one side of the cup depicting the rooster with his head turned back to see the hen pecking at a red-winged insect on the ground as one of the chicks looks on, while the other two chicks chase each other around a small patch of leaves, the reverse with the proud rooster arching his neck forward raising his head with his beak slightly opened as if to crow.”
After the end of the Chenghua period, the most frequently copied doucai piece under the succeeding Qing dynasty was the “chicken cup”, which is referred to in Chinese texts as a “wedding cup”. Many later copies have spurious reign marks and only experts can tell them apart.
A British expert in Chinese art was Sir Percival David (1892-1964), whose collection of ceramics opened to the public in London on 10 June 1952. Since 2009 this stunning “must see” collection has been on long-term loan to the British Museum and contains two chicken cups, one of which is an original from the Chenghua period.