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Rare Kosometsuke
Elephant-Form Incense Burner


Height: 17.0 cm. (6 3/4 in.)
Length: 15.3 cm. (6 in.)
Late Ming dynasty
Circa A.D. 1620-1645

The incense burner is made in two parts in the form of a portly figure riding an elephant. The hollow receptacle for holding the incense is the elephant, standing four square, facing forward, his trunk curved down with tusks painted on, the hooded eyes, in front of drooping ears, with a look of resignation. The body is covered with blue-hair markings with molded ovals on the sides to read as decorative blankets penciled with vajra symbols enclosed by florets and pearls. The elephant’s tail is molded as part of the body and swishes across the right flank. A hollow seated figure forms the cover, his mouth and ears pierced to allow the incense smoke to escape. He appears barely dressed with a blue monk’s robe falling well below the shoulders, the robe decorated with an overlapping petal pattern in front and a scarf with a Buddhist-wheel decoration flowing behind. The figure’s eyebrows, mustache, beard and chest hair are painted like fringe and the eyes have a merry expression beneath close-cropped hair. The inner rim of the hand-modeled human-form lid fits loosely into the elephant’s back. While the elephant is painted in a pale underglaze-blue, the rider is decorated in an inky-cobalt color. The transparent glaze is smooth and bright and covers the exterior of receptacle and lid overall save for the pads of the elephant’s feet.

The present elephant appears to have been the delightful figment of someone’s rich imagination, one who had likely never seen an elephant and thus could produce a whimsical image, made even more so by the huge human figure on its back. The client or potential owner in Japan was likely equally in the dark but would not have been judging his new incense burner on the basis of anatomical likeness. The construct is charming and bizarre, quite individualistic and exotic. The white elephant is the mount associated with the Buddhist saint Samantabhadra, the virtuous protector of the Buddhist L aw. The portly figure here, with his vast belly exposed, brings to mind Maitreya, the Buddha of the future in his manifestation as Budai (Japanese: Hotei), the Buddhist god of happiness and contentment, usually depicted with a sack of his belongings at his side or thrust over his shoulder, a smiling face and a bald head. The blue-haired elephant and the blue-haired figure preclude identification with either of these specific deities. We thus have a rather generalized image that is quietly intriguing, suggestive and with very positive connotations. It is furthermore functional within a tea ceremony setting, as is another like it from the Umezawa collection in Japan (fig. 1) and a related incense burner with a similar human figure, identified as Liu Hai, on the back of his three-legged toad (fig. 2), all thoroughly fitting the bill for kosometsuke Chinese underglaze-blue decorated porcelain made for Japan.[1]

The appearance of the elephant in the world of kosometsuke does not stop with such incense burners. Among the most inventive forms of dishes created by kosometsuke potters were those molded in various unlikely shapes, in sets of five or more, and these include representations of elephants, the creatures appearing almost cartoon- like, comical, and awkward (fig. 3). The elephant was also a subject for the kosometsuke painter where the holy status of the sacred white elephant is recognized in an extraordinary dish with scalloped rim to provide a handsome halo for the subject (fig. 4). One popular theme was based on word- play, the theme ‘mounting the elephant’ or jixiang in Chinese which is a homophone for ‘auspicious’ and therefore the subject a most attractive one (fig. 5).[2] The elephant also lent its form to the kendi, a vessel for communal drinking; the late Ming underglaze-blue decorated porcelains from Jingdezhen would have been destined primarily for Southeast Asia, the homeland of the kendi, but were also accepted easily by the Japanese fans of kosometsuke (fig. 6). Samantabadra’s white elephant was also a beloved subject for potters at Dehua in Fujian province, where the famous ‘blanc-de-chine’ porcelain figurines, incense burners, and ewers in the form of elephants were produced, the potters there with ideas as enchanting as those held at Jingdezhen of how a elephant should look (fig. 7).


1. The Christie’s Peony Pavilion sale catalogue notes in regard to this type of incense burner: ‘The way incense (either rare perfumed wood, or blended ground mixtures), should be used in the tea ceremony, was a very important consideration for the tea master. It was inelegant to have any smoke emanating either from the censer in the anteroom, or the hearth in the tearoom, so fine glowing charcoal was used. Small pastilles of carefully- blended incense mixed with glue are laid on top of a thin sheet of mica, itself balanced on top of a charcoal stick glowing inside the censer, and the scent permeates the anteroom…’ See The Peony Pavilion Collection: Chinese Tea Ceramics for Japan (c. 1580-1650), Christie’s London, 12 June 1989, p. 23.

2. See Julia B. Curtis, Trade, Taste and Transformation: Jingdezhen Porcelain for Japan, 1620-1645, China Institute Gallery, New York, 2006, p. 122.


fig 1
Fig. 1: Kosometsuke elephant-form incense burner, late Ming dynasty, 17th century A.D., after Umezawa Gallery, Summer Exhibition, Tokyo, 1968, no. 31.

fig 2
Fig. 2: Kosometsuke incense burner in the form of Liu Hai on the back of a three legged toad, late Ming dynasty, 17th century A.D., from the Peony Pavilion Collection, after Transitional Wares and Their Forerunners, Hong Kong, 1981, no. 138, p. 171.

fig 3
Fig. 3: Kosometsuke elephant-form dish, late Ming dynasty, 17th century A.D., after Kosometsuke to Shonzui Ten, Tokyo, 1981, no. 50, p. 30.

fig 4
Fig. 4: Kosometsuke plate with white elephant, late Ming dynasty, 17th century A.D., after Julia B. Curtis, Trade, Taste and Transformation: Jingdezhen Porcelain for Japan, 1620-1645, China Institute Gallery, New York, 2006, cat. no. 103, p. 121.

fig 5
Fig. 5: Kosometsuke plate with boy mounting an elephant, late Ming dynasty, 17th century A.D., after Julia B. Curtis, Trade, Taste and Transformation: Jingdezhen Porcelain for Japan, 1620-1645, China Institute Gallery, New York, 2006, cat. no. 104, p. 123.

fig 6
Fig. 6: Underglaze-blue decorated porcelain elephant-form kendi, late Ming dynasty, 17th century A.D., after South-East Asian and Chinese Trade Pottery, Oriental Ceramic Society, of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1979, pl. 119, p. 121.

fig 7
Fig. 7: Dehua porcelain elephant-form ewer, 17th century A.D., Kaikodo.

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