A Modern Burmese Chicken-headed Teapot

A Modern Burmese Chicken-headed Teapot

Contributed by Patricia Bjaaland Welch, SEACS President (2017-2020)

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3

It was lying in a stack of similar green-glazed earthenware pottery beside a dirt path on an almost denuded, treeless island in upcountry Myanmar. The villagers’ livelihood was ceramics and the tale of their trees’ demise could be seen in the roof-high stacks of firewood, now aging in great mounds waiting their turn in the village’s wood-burning kilns.

It wasn’t the pot I was looking for—not exactly. It was coarse and heavy and the green too garish, but I had been searching for the descendants of the famed chicken-headed ewers of old for more than two decades without success, and here was one in the most unexpected of places.

The chicken-head design may have come to Southeast Asia from regions further northwest, most likely as elegant metalware ewers, which were probably inspired by ancient Mediterranean wares.  We first find their Chinese counterparts in the Eastern Jin Dynasty, but the Chinese handles connect with the ewers’ mouth on the top, whereas the typical Sassanian silver ewer of the fourth to seventh century, which many believe inspired the Chinese ceramic twin, stop at the shoulder.

I have rummaged through stacks of ceramics in local markets or village fairs throughout Asia, along both the northern and southern old Silk Road routes in Xinjiang numerous times, but none before had turned up.  Yet here was a chicken-headed pot [Fig. 1] resembling more a teapot than its elegant ancestor, but the chicken head was undeniable. I asked the price and bought it.  The year was 1998, and the name of the village now lost.

Was it inspired by a phoenix-headed Eastern Jin (317-420 CE) ewer [Fig. 2] that appears to be almost a cross between an ewer and a kendi, or the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) ewer on display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art [Fig. 3] more likely used to hold wine or water?  Had my potter ever seen a chicken-headed ewer or was this his or her own design? I’ll never know as I never found its creator, but I shall always be amused by my contemporary Burmese chicken-headed teapot.