Chinese Bronze Vase
It is an intriguing fact that Chinese bronzes with Islamic inscriptions do not seem to have been made for export, but rather for domestic consumption. For this reason, they exist in vessel forms suitable for the Chinese market. A number were made during the late fifteenth to sixteenth centuries, when the Hongzhi (1488-1505) and Zhengde (1506-21) emperors both expressed an active interest in Islam. The Zhengde Emperor in particular is known to have studied Arabic, and many of his eunuchs came from the Muslim communities of western China.
This unusual piece is an incense tool vase, made to contain the spatulas and spoons used in the preparation of fragrance. Scent was used in Buddhism and in ancestor worship, but the preparation and use of incense also became a scholarly accomplishment that required refined vessels and implements. The vase is hexagonal, made of a sturdy yellow bronze with a high zinc content. It has an even, greenish patina across the whole surface that was probably induced. The artificial patination of bronzes was seen as integral to their appeal, and had been practised by craftsmen since the Song dynasty (960-1279).1 The cast decoration in the main field is of a lotus blossom with radiating petals enclosing an Arabic inscription that is repetitions of a phrase or part of a phrase, possibly ولا ال\ھ الا لله “And there is no god but God”. The invocations are well-written in Sini script, the style of Arabic writing used in China.
Emperor Zhengde was drawn to Tibetan Buddhism while retaining an interest in Islam, and the decoration exemplifies both religions. On either side of the central field are two bands containing a scrolling leaf pattern, whose design corresponds to that cited by the great ceramic scholar Geng Baochang as being typical of the Zhengde period.2
Bronze incense vessels with Islamic inscriptions, including a tool vase with spatula, are known.3 There are a few Islamic inscription bronzes with Zhengde reign marks, while many porcelain censers, brush rests and other scholar’s desk vessels, with Zhengde and Wanli (1573-1620) reign marks, exist. Bronzes with square facets are were common in the Ming dynasty, for example the vessel called touhu or pitch pot.4 Tall, hexagonal, slender vases are known in cloisonné.5 However, even taking all these examples into account, this vase still appears to be unique.
1. Two vases with similar green patination are in Rose Kerr. 1990. Later Chinese Bronzes (Victoria and Albert Far Eastern Series). London: Bamboo Publishing and the Victoria and Albert Museum. pl.14, p.25. Artificial patination is discussed on pp.70-72.
2. Geng Boachang 耿寶昌. 1984. Appraisal of Ming and Qing Porcelain 明請瓷器堅定 . Beijing. p.99.
3. See, Paul Moss. 1984. Emperor, Scholar, Artisan, Monk: The Creative Personality in Chinese Works of Art. London: Sydney L. Moss Ltd. no.119; and Paul Moss and Gerard Hawthorn. 1991. The Second Bronze Age. Later Chinese Metalwork. London: Sydney L. Moss Ltd. nos.69-70.
4. For example, two items displayed by the Cernuschi Museum in Paris, see Michel Maucuer. 2013. Bronzes de la Chine impériale des Song aux Qing. Paris: Paris Musées. nos. 102, 103, pp.150-151.
5. A tall, slim, hexagonal vase is shown in 花生Flower Vases, Tokugawa Art Museum and Nezu Art Museum (Tokyo, 1982), no.67. A hexagonal vase on a stand, dated to the first half of the sixteenth century, is illustrated in Lucia Caterina. 1997. Smalti cinesi nel Museo “Duca di Martina” di Napoli. Naples. no.6, pp.42-43.