Friday, 11 September 2015

Chenghua Chicken Cups

In 2014, a Ming dynasty wine cup, more commonly known as the Chenghua Chicken Cup, was auctioned and sold for 280 millions HK$. Twelve years ago, the same cup was auctioned and sold for a mere 5 million HK$. Amazing, isn't it?

 This cup may looks very simple and very ordinary, but there is a story behind it that made this cup so special. It is interesting to look back at the year 1481 when Emperor Chenghua issued a decree for these wine cups to be made in the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen.

The Chenghua chicken cup

Emperor Chenghua of the Ming dynasty
Chenghua Emperor, real name Chu Jianshen, was the Ming Emperor from 1464 to 1487. When he was 2 years old; his father, Emperor Zhengtong, was captured by the Mongolians in a battle. His uncle seized the throne and he was known as Emperor Jingtai; Chu Jianshen's status as crown prince was removed by his uncle who made his own son the crown prince. However, when the Mongolians released Emperor Zhengtong, he was immediately put under house arrest for seven years by his brother, Emperor Jingtai.

When Emperor Jingtai was very sick, Emperor Zhengtong sized this opportunity and recaptured the throne with the help of his royal supporters. Chu Jianshen was again made the crown prince. When his father died in 1464, Chu Jianshen succeeded the throne at the age of 16 and became Emperor Chenghua of the Ming dynasty. He then married Lady Wan who was twice his age (Lady Wan took care of him during his childhood years). Lady Wan was a motherly figure to the young emperor who would do anything and everything to please her.

Emperor Chengua and Lady Wan drinking wine from the chicken cups
Lady Wan was a simple person who liked to live a simple life. She had a taste for things that were simple. For instance, she liked domestic lifestocks like mother hen and chickens. She would very much enjoy the sight of mother hen feeding her chicks. As a result, in 1841 Emperor Chenghua instructed his officers in Jingdezhen to make some wine cups with paintings of mother hen and chicks hunting for food. He wanted the paintings of the chickens to be simple yet lively. These cups were very well made and glazed. The paintings of chicken were indeed very simple and the chickens also appeared very lively. These cups become what we know today as the Chenghua chicken cups and there were only a handful of them left in this world, many of them in museums.

After the wine cups were made and delivered to the palace, Emperor Chenghua would be seen every night in the company of Lady Wan in the palace enjoying and drinking wine with the chicken cups. This was an ideal setting for a love story movie. That wine cup on auction earlier could have been used by Emperor Chenghua or Lady Wan. Now you know why these cups are so special!

Incidentally, the chicken cups were also highly sought after even during the later part of the Ming dynasty. It was recorded that the cup would cost a hefty ten thousand gold (don't know how much is it in today's currency). As a result, emperors of the Qing dynasty wanted to make copies of these cups following the same techniques. What exactly is this technique that made the chicken cups or the Chenghua ware so valuable?

This technique is known as Douchai,or competing colours/glazes. In this technique, the outline of the subjects was first drawn on the cup using the blue-n-white glaze. The cup was then fired to secure the glaze.

After firing the cup with the outline of the subjects in blue-n-white, the glazes for the rest of the subjects were filled in. When all the glazes had been applied to the cups, they were fired to secure the final texture/appearance. In this way, the over-glaze was competing with the under-glaze for supremacy, hence the name douchai.

Filling in the rest of the colour

The under-glaze of the outline of the subjects in blue-n-white

The over-glaze of the final subjects in colourful glaze

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