About the Artist
We do not know who made this porcelain dish, only that the artists at imperial porcelain workshops were very skilled. The fine details of the painted design would have required a very small brush and many hours of work. There were probably several craftsmen who worked on this dish—one may have specialized in outlining all of the decorations, while another filled in the colors. All of these craftsmen worked from a detailed design, made to please the Empress Dowager (mother of the emperor), for whom this dish was made.
This dish is made out of porcelain, a type of ceramic made from clay. The techniques used for making porcelain were invented by the Chinese during the T’ang Dynasty (618-906 CE) and were kept a closely guarded secret for many centuries. Porcelain is different from other types of pottery because of the addition of a special type of clay called kaolin. To make porcelain, an artist fires the clay in a kiln (a special type of oven used for hardening or drying materials) at a high temperature. Once fired, porcelain is delicately thin, translucent, and waterproof. Chinese potters were the first to produce porcelain because they had both large deposits of kaolin and the technical expertise to build high-temperature kilns.
What Inspired It
A blue mark on the bottom of the dish tells us it was made for a powerful woman by the name of Cixi (TSUH-she) (1835-1908) for use in the Palace for Gathering Elegance, one of her palaces in the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is the name for the Imperial Palace complex located in the heart of Beijing. Cixi was the Empress Dowager and was known for her luxurious lifestyle and shrewdness in politics. Between 1861 and 1908, she could be considered the real ruler of the empire. Though she did not officially rule, she was the most powerful person in the country.
The imagery on Chinese decorative arts is often imbued with wishes of good fortune, long life, prosperity, and many children. The Eight Buddhist Emblems that are depicted on this dish were popular decorative elements during the Qing Dynasty, when this dish was made. The eight emblems are: the Wheel of Law, a conch shell, a victory banner, an umbrella, a lotus flower, a vase, a pair of fish, and an endless knot.
In the inner circle, notice the vase, fish, endless knot, and lotus flower. The outer circle is filled with the victory banner, conch shell, wheel of law, and umbrella.
Holds the nectar of life, symbolizes long life and prosperity.
Symbolizes all living beings swimming freely, just as fish swim in water without fear of drowning.
Represents Buddha’s never-ending love, represents the union of wisdom and compassion.
Symbolizes purity of body, speech, and mind.
Gives protection from all evil and from the lure of evil desires.
Represents the teachings of Buddha that lead to perfection.
Stands for the complete victory of Buddhist doctrine over all harmful forces.
Used to frighten away demons, its sound is sacred and brings good luck.
There are many tiny details to be found throughout this dish, including a variety of flowers. For example, look at the flower near the lotus emblem. Each small blue circle has a slightly different shape and color. Inside the small blue circles are even smaller white circles with tiny black centers. Other details include the pomegranates and peaches. The pomegranate, with its many seeds, stands for a desire to have children. Peaches symbolize immortality.
Ribbons of a variety of colors swirl around each emblem. Notice each ribbon consists of two shades of the same color to help create the look of three-dimensional twists and turns.
The central circle consists of two different kinds of flowers (lotus and chrysanthemum) as well as some vines ending in leaf-like shapes. The vines create symmetrical shapes similar to the shapes on the border pattern. The green areas are finely outlined in black to highlight the forms. This medallion is the only part of the dish that is monochromatic (of one color).
Glaze is a glass-like coating that is applied to a ceramic vessel to make it waterproof and to allow for decoration. This dish has an overglaze, which means colored enamels were fired onto the surface of the glazed vessel.