Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Chicken cup for drinking tea

The world most expensive tea cup, the Chenghua Toicai Chicken Cup, was auctioned last year in Hong Kong for a record 36 millions USD. Guess what, the owner of this cup used it to sip Chinese tea. Actually, the Ming Emperor, emperor of the Chenghua reign, made the cup for wine drinking. This cup is more common referred to as the chicken cup.

A rich businessman from China successfully bought this chicken cup during an auction in Hong Kong last April after paying a hefty 280 millions HKD for it. He was reported to have signed 24 times using his black gold credit card. When asked if he would use it to drink tea, he said it would disrespectful for him to do so as this cup was the emperor's favorite cup to drink wine.

Sipping tea with a 280 million HKD cup
However, not long after he owned the chicken cup, he was seen sipping tea from it. He broke his promise. So what is so special about the chicken cup?

It is one of 20 such cups remaining in the world. Most of them are in museums with only 3 in private collections. Emperor Chenghua (Ming dynasty) married his care taker (maid in the imperial court) who was 17 years his senior after he succeeded his father as emperor. He made her concubine (Concubine Wan) and loved her a lot. The emperor had a weak personality and most of the time he would seek advice from Concubine Wan on state affairs. As she loved simple things, especially porcelain ware with light glaze and simple d├ęcor. The emperor ordered the imperial kiln to make fine porcelains using light glaze and simple designs like chicken (mother hen with some chicks searching for grains on the ground). This chicken cups ad been used by the emperor to drink wine with concubine Wan. Incidentally palace records had shown down the chicken cups were worth hundred thousand qian (ancient Chinese currency) even during the Wanli reign (later part of the Ming dynasty). The chicken cups and other porcelains made during this era is collectively known as the famous Chenghua ware that worth hundreds of millions of dollars in auction markets.

Less than 20 of chicken cups in the world

The Chenghua ware was unique in a way. The thin chicken cups were made from very fine superb Kaoliang clay from Jingdezheng. It was difficult to make the chicken cups as most of them would either broke or distorted during the firing process. Hence there are so few of such cups in existence today. Moreover the type of clay used for the cup was already depleted during the Ming dynasty. No matter how good you are in faking the design, you are not going get this clay to make the cup. The wall of the cup is so thin that if you shine the torch light through it, you would seen fine yellowish hue (with a trace of pink) through it.

This is how the Chenghua ware was made. The potter would use blue and whit glaze to draw the outline of the drawing on the ware. It was then sent to the kiln to fire the ware at a high temperature of 1200 degrees. Then the potter would use different glaze to fill up the rest of the picture. The fully coloured ware was then fired again at a lower temperature of several hundreds degrees. Hence this type of ware is also called Toucai meaning glazes compete against each other, the outline which was underglazed and the picture which was overglazed.


Another set of  Chenghua cups depicting grapes
Chenghua jar

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