The Peabody Essex Museum's collection of Chinese export ceramics

 Jingdezhen, 1736-1795. Porcelain; height 3 ½, width 9 ¼ inches. 
Copeland Collection gift. 

This tureen modeled in the form of a crab on a lotus leaf is one of only three published examples. The eyes-formed like dumbbells-are set freely in openings so that they move when the lid is handled. A sauce tureen would be the obvious function of this form, though the 1783 inventory of Joaquim Inácio da Cruz Sobral refers to tureens shaped as a pomegranate, a crab, and ducks all used as butter dishes.

The museum owns a series of China trade watercolors depicting the production of porcelain, including the one shown above right, which illustrates a potter putting the finishing touches on the construction of an object much like this tureen, while a completed one is on the ground nearby.

The "IHS" monogram on this large dish makes it one of the earliest Chinese porcelains to reflect European influence. While IHS surrounded by a crown of thorns is generally accepted by scholars to indicate the Jesuit order, here the motif is intended neither as a Jesuit symbol nor as a crown of thorns. The crown of thorns is almost always depicted as  two branches entwined, whereas here the monogram, one of several variations used since the third century to stand for Jesus Christ, is surrounded by an olive or laurel wreath, easily recognizable by the ribbon at the bottom and the tied ends at the top.

Evidence suggests that orders for porcelains showing the IHS and wreath motif may have been placed by Portuguese Christians as early as the 1520s. For example, certain Chinese porcelain bowls from this period exhibit the IHS monogram interspersed among depictions of an armillary sphere, an emblem first used by Manuel I of Portugal. If the bowls bearing the arms of Manuel I were ordered for him, they-and this charger-would necessarily predate 1521, the year of his death.

The Society of Jesus, founded in 1534, was recognized officially by Pope Paul III in 1540, at which time the society adopted the IHS monogram, typically surrounded by rays of light. It was not used in conjunction with the crown of thorns until the nineteenth century. In any case, the dating of this dish to between about 1520 and 1540, disproves its once-suspected association with the Jesuit order.

Jingdezhen, 1590-1620. Porcelain; height 7 ¾, width 6 ½ inches. Museum purchase. 

This ewer is molded to represent a shrimp rising from the waves among lotus plants. A lotus stalk forms the spout and a lotus pod the filling aperture. The original lid (now missing) would have been in the form of the top of the lotus pod, and cuts made into the rim of the pod indicate that the lid would have locked into place. It has been replaced by a lacquered and gilded lightwood lid, possibly of Asian manufacture, that appears to have significant age. At one time, the tip of the spout had broken away and was repaired with gilded lacquer. Both alterations suggest that the ewer was once in Japan, perhaps made for the Japanese market, though this cannot be confirmed.

The shrimp (xia) is among the rarest forms used for zoomorphic ewers and kendis in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Considered flexible and able to bend at will, the shrimp became symbolic of things going smoothly and of the ability to change one's fate. Although early versions were undoubtedly made for local markets, such ewers were collected avidly by visiting westerners, and a number of examples can be found in early collections in Europe.  

WILLIAM R. SARGENT is an independent scholar and curator, and the former H. A. Crosby Forbes curator of Asian export art at the Peabody Essex Museum.  His publications include The Copeland Collection: Chinese and Japanese Ceramic Figures (1991) and Views of the Pearl River Delta: Macao, Canton and Hong Kong (1996), as well as an essay in Chinese Ceramics: Neolithic to Qing (Yale University Press, 2010).

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All