J.S. sent me a beautiful 18-inch canister-shaped Chinese vase, and she is wondering about its age and why it is designed with a repeating “grasses” theme.
She brought up a profound element of Chinese porcelain design: the symbolism of the objects, animals, plants, birds and vegetation that are pictured. Why?
This tradition of symbolism goes back way before the Ming Dynasty ( 1368-1644). But J.S., the green stuff is not grass.
It is a repeating design of cabbage.
Cabbage, you say? What deep symbolism might the connoisseur of Chinese porcelain have found in cabbage?
The Chinese cabbage is white in the stalk and spreads to a delightful delicate rich green, and when harvested, contains insects sequestered in its tight leaves. The cabbage symbolizes female purity – the white stalk, which spreads to green abundance and fertility, can harbor small beings.
If you look at the picture of J.S.’s vase, you will see the cabbage is harboring beautiful little butterflies or yellow moths, which repeat. I love how a simple vegetable can take on such dimensions, not the least of which is that the Chinese cabbage shows us the global domination of a Chinese vegetable.
The cabbage’s medicinal qualities were written about as early as the 14th century and planted in places typically too cold to harbor vegetable life, and therefore “suan cai” (Chinese sauerkraut to mix heritages) became a staple.
We also see the butterfly or moth, which also repeats around the cabbage design of the vase. This is an example of the Chinese porcelain-painter’s interweaving of the name of a thing and the image of a thing. The word that sounds like butterfly also means “to repeat.”
Although we usually think of a homophone as being two words that sound the same and yet are spelled differently (“knew” and “new”) in this case the Image of a butterfly conjures up the word for repeat. Why is this important?
Because the butterfly is a symbol of the search for love that is found! And so, to repeat the image (and saying to yourself the word) repeats the blessings conferred by the symbol of a butterfly.
Now we mix the butterfly symbolism with the cabbage symbolism, and what do we get? Cabbage is also an audio-visual homophone: the word for cabbage “bai cai” contains the word “cai,” which means wealth and money. Now who wouldn’t want to give someone a piece of art that says in symbolism. I wish you wealth and well-found love?
Let us add to this that the vase also pictures birds. The bird is also multiplied symbolically because the bird represents one of the five elements of nature. Each element has a compass direction as well.
The five classes of animals are scaled, naked, furry, feathered, and shelled. Birds symbolize the south direction of the compass. (You might think, there are only four compass points, and this is also true in Chinese symbolism. However, there is a middle to the compass, and that middle is occupied by the naked animal. Who is the naked animal? Why, we are. We are the only naked animal, us humans, and we stand at the center of the compass.)
So you can see how deep the reading of a Chinese vase can be and how the connoisseur in the 19th century who ordered this to be made in China would have known every inch of the symbolism involved. He/she could read it like a book.
Finally, J.S. asks about the vase’s age. It is a type of hard paste porcelain made in the early 19th century and still flourishing in the late 19th century, called Chinese export porcelain. Europeans did not know how to make porcelain until the late 18th century, and even into the 19th century, the recipe was expensive and inaccurate in Europe.
So, from the port of Canton in China were sent tons of porcelain as ballast in ships to European ports, and the upper class bought the pieces hungrily.
This is a type of Chinese export called Famille Verte, which is the green family, and there are also classes of rose, yellow, etc.
J.S.’s vase has been repaired, which is not uncommon and actually points to the value it must have had in former eyes. The foot is unglazed as most of the real export porcelain was. (I began my career with Chinese export porcelain, and still own a piece which has been repaired with a metal staple).
The value of J.S.’s vase is $800.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press Life section.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.