Contributed by Andrew Nai, SEACS Vice-President (2017-2018)
In June 2013, I bought from an art auction house in Melbourne, Australia, a Chinese wine cup of 7.9cm diameter, the exterior painted with eight underglaze blue individual flower sprays and the base with an eight-character mark in two vertical lines of Xuantong Jiyou Yichun Tangzhi. This mark is translated as ‘Xuantong jiyou cyclical year (1909), made for the Hall of Pleasant Spring’.
All I knew at that time was this wine cup was dated two years before the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and had a very interesting studio hallmark. But I had no clue as to how this hallmark came about and who it belonged to.
Incidentally, in November 2013, a wine cup of the identical size and design as the above cup came up for sale in an art auction house in Sydney, Australia. However, this cup had a slightly different eight-character base mark in two vertical lines of Xuantong Gengxu Yichun Tangzhi. This mark is translated as ‘Xuantong gengxu cyclical year (1910), made for the Hall of Pleasant Spring’. I ended up purchasing that wine cup too.
Shortly after, I decided to trawl through my huge collection of Chinese art books, hopefully to satisfy my collector’s curiosity as to what those two base marks are. Lo and behold, I finally found the answer in Rare Marks on Chinese Ceramics: A Joint Exhibition from the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum by Ming Wilson 1999. There is on page 65 of this book a wine cup of an identical design and base mark to one of the cups I possess.
According to Wilson, Yichun Tang (Hall of Pleasant Spring) was the studio name of Liu Shiheng (1875-1937), alias Juqing, native of Guichi, Anhui. An unofficial history described him as an ardent collector of antiques. Liu did not hold important posts in government. The family fortune was made by his father, Liu Ruifen (1827-1892), who was assistant to Li Hongzhang (1823-1901), one of the most influential ministers of 19th-century China. Liu Shiheng’s financial position was apparently not affected by political turmoil during the final years of the Qing empire, for he had placed two orders for porcelain – one in 1909 and the other in 1910. Therefore, objects with the Yichun Tang mark have either the cyclical year jiyou (1909) or gengxu (1910) written on them. Based on published materials, all Yichun Tang pieces are blue and white wares.
This story illustrates how in a ceramics collector’s journey of acquisitions across the world, he would sometimes stumble upon an object of historical interest or importance without an initial intention of pursuing it or having prior understanding of it. However, with an inquisitive mind and aim of knowledge pursuit, the collector would eventually discover the joy of having acquired such an object.