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

A heavy earthenware ewer found in a rural Burmese market

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 Nwe Nyein Pottery 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 descendant of those graceful chicken-headed ewers of old that I was looking for—not at all. It was coarse and heavy and the green too garish, but I had been searching for more than two decades without success, and here was the closest I had come to finding a possible candidate 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 all of China, 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 an elegant ancestor, but the chicken head was undeniable. I asked the price and bought it. The year was 1998.

NweNyein Pottery Village, Burma (2009)

Jin Dynasty ewer

Phoenix-headed Eastern Jin (317-420 CE) ewer

Tang ewer

Tang Dynasty ewer, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Was it inspired by a phoenix-headed Eastern Jin (317-420 CE) ewer 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 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 despite asking all the workers I found in the any small workshops in the village, but I have come over time to admire the inescapable craftsmanship and whimsy of my contemporary Burmese chicken-headed teapot.

Not long after writing the above short article, while looking at the exhibition catalogue that accompanied the 1993 SEACS exhibition Ceramics in Scholarly Taste, to my surprise, I found a chicken-headed pot: an early 16th century B&W water dropper (7.5 cm x 11.1 cm). The catalogue, written by former SEACS member and kraak-ceramic specialist, Maura Rinaldi, noted that the water dropper had originally been a jarlet, “transformed into a water dropper by applying onto its shoulder the moulded head of a chicken, which serves as a spout; the chicken’s tail on the opposite side serves as the handle.” (p. 52) Definitely more elegant than my green teapot!

The water dropper in the Art Gallery of New South Wales

The chicken-headed water dropper in the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Having now learned where the design had strayed, I knew where to look and began a more earnest search. Shortly thereafter, I spotted a similar water dropper in The Asian Collections catalogue of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (2003, p. 137). This one was rounder in shape (see photo above), taller than the SEACS water dropper (8.8 cm), but with an almost identical diameter (11 cm). It, too, is described as porcelain with underglaze blue decoration, 1500s, but with a country of origin: South China. But are they truly water droppers? I can’t tell from the photographs if the chickens’ mouths are indeed a spout…and to my still-not-sufficiently-experienced eye, they look Annamese!

Links to sites with more information about chicken (or phoenix-) headed ewers and pots