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A Shonzui Cong-shaped Bottle
with Trigram Decor

Height: 21.7 cm. (8 1/2 in.)

Ming dynasty,
Mid 17th century


(NOTE: Further information is provided below the detailed images.)


Side A


Side B






Box with Textile Bag:


Box inscription:
“Shonzui Blue [painted] Divining-block Decorated Four-sided Bottle”



The tall sturdily constructed white porcelain rectangular bottle, square in cross section, rests on a flat base, the top terminating in flat shoulders surrounding a high cylindrical neck. The four sides are identically molded with a series of long and short horizontal ridges in high relief against recessed rectangular fields. The ridges and the rectangular borders surrounding the fields are in white reserved against an underglaze blue repeat swastika pattern. The four sections of the shoulder are decorated with the swastika pattern in two alternating with a repeat trefoil pattern in the others. A row of pendant leaves circles the mouth rim. A clear, colorless bright glaze covers the vessel aside from the base, accentuating the intense blue of the painted design.

This ceramic bottle is a most compelling example of late Ming porcelain for the Japanese market. The strong construction, dense porcelain body, the bright fluid cobalt blue and the brilliant glaze along with very specific diaper patterns are typical of the Chinese wares of early 17th century Jingdezhen known as Shonzui.1 The two diaper patterns here are among the most common appearing on Shonzui ware of every shape including two dated pieces: a small cylindrical napkin holder dated by inscription to the eighth year of the Chongzhen reign era, corresponding to 1635 (fig. 1), and an inkstone inscribed on its base with the fifth year of the Chongzhen era, 1632 (fig.2).

While even the pendent leaves are present on the interior mouth rim of the 1635 piece, the décor on the sides here is both derivative and inventive. The cylindrical shape has precedents in 16th-century porcelains for the Western market as well as in its closest of kin, kosometsuke (fig. 3). However, the shape is based ultimately on an ancient jade form, the cong, comprised of a cylindrical tube surrounded by walls that formed a square outer casing (fig. 4). The function of the cong in the 4th to 3rd millennium BCE Liangzhu society where it originated is unknown to us today although we assume it was ritual in nature. The most direct influence on the Shonzui potter, however, were the predecessors who had replicated the ancient shape in ceramic during the Song/Yuan era, closing one end to form vases, and most commonly in Longquan celadons (fig. 5) and the Southern Song official guan wares (fig. 6). Such ceramics based on ancient icons must have delighted Song-dynasty aesthetes whose antiquarian bent is so well known. They were also perfect for their Japanese clients who were no less than besotted by the celadons of Longquan. A rendition of the shape and close relative of the present piece is modified with underglaze blue highlights. The corner décor mimics the ancient cong and the symbols and floral sprays in the rectangular fields running down each side brings the porcelain up-to-date (fig 7).

The present Shonzui vessel designer also wisely picked up on another feature that characterized Song/Yuan celadons and that also had it origin in antiquity. The series of broken and unbroken or solid lines are meant to represent, in somewhat abbreviated form, the bagua or “Eight Trigrams.” From ancient times the bagua were believed to signify the principles, on every level, of all reality and were the fundamental basis for divination. A Longquan celadon tripod incense burner, the shape itself based on an ancient bronze form, was among a vast number of ceramics recovered from the Sinan shipwreck that sank off the coast of Korea on it way to Japan in the early 14th century (fig. 8). Again, closer to home precedent are the underglaze blue and overglaze enamelled porcelains, the kosometsuke and ko-akae made for Japan during the late Ming period (figs. 9 and 10). A Longquan celadon cong-form vase of the 15th-16th century is a most compelling precedent as it has a similar arrangement and short-hand form of the bagua, like the present (fig. 11). Interestingly, the origin of the bagua is credited to China’s most revered ancient culture hero, Fuxi, who lived during the third millennium BCE when the cong itself was created.


1. These were produced for the Japanese market essentially in accord with the taste of Furuta Oribe (1544-1615), tea master to Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616) and given a more refined slant under his successor Kobori Enshu (1579-1647). In contrast to hardcore kosometsuke that was a response to a Japanese adulation for the natural, unstudied, and imperfect, Furuto Oribe’s taste for the bold and robust, dashing and intense, not only informed the Japanese ceramics named after him that came into vogue after death but strongly impacted Chinese export wares as well. The angular shapes of Oribe and related Japanese wares, ranging from perfect squares to triangles to inventive geometric shapes along with the often dramatic décor are reflected in the Chinese export wares made for Japan at the very end of the Ming and especially during the Chongzhen reign era (1627-1644).



Fig. 1: Shonzui cylindrical napkin holder, dated to 1635, late Ming dynasty, Tekisui Museum, Hyogo, Japan, after Transitional Wares and Their Forerunners, Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong exhibition, Hong Kong, 1981, p. 132.


Fig. 2: Shonzui inkstone, dated to 1632, late Ming dynasty, Private Collection, Japan, after Sheila Riddell, Dated Chinese Antiquities 600-1650, London, 1979, no. 95, p. 110.


Fig. 3: Kosometsuke bottle, Ming dynasty, 17th century, after Kawahara Masahiko, Kosometsuke, vol. II, monochrome section, Kyoto, 1977, p. 409, po. 108.


Fig. 4: A jade cong, Liangzhu culture, Neolithic period, Nanjing Provincial Museum, after Chugoku no Bijitsukan, vol. 4: Nanjing Provincial Museum, 1982, pl. 16.


Fig. 5: Longquan celadon vase in cong form, Southern Song period, 12th century, Meiyintang collection, after Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meyintang Collection, vol. 3 (II), no. 1568, p. 579.


Fig. 6: Guan-ware vase in cong form, Southern Song period, late 12th-early 13th century, National Palace Museum, Taipei, after Song ci mingpin tulu: Nansong guanyao, Tokyo, 1974, pl. 14.


Fig. 7: Cong-shaped kosometsuke vessel, late Ming dynasty, 17th century, after Chinese Ceramics that Adorn the Tearoom, Nakanoshima Kosetsu Museum of Art, Osaka, 2019, pl. 29, p. 36.


Fig. 8: Longquan celadon incense burner with trigram decor, Southern Song or early Yuan dynasty, 13th-early 14th century, from the Sinan shipwreck, after Relics Salvaged from the Seabed off Sinan, Seoul, 1981, pl. 52, p. 49.


Fig. 9: Kosometsuke dish with trigram décor, late Ming dynasty, 17th century, the Butler Family Collection, after Julia Curtis, et. al., Trade Taste & Transformation: Jingdezhen Porcelain for Japan: 1620-1645, no. 94, p. 113.


Fig. 10: Set of five ko-akae dishes with trigram décor, late Ming dynasty, 17th century, after Special Exhibition Chinese Ceramics: The Most Popular Works Among Japanese, Kyoto National Museum, Kyoto, 1991, pl. 182.


Fig. 11: Longquan celadon cong-shaped vase with trigram décor, early to mid-Ming dynasty, 15th-16th century, Tokyo National Museum, after Illustrated Catalogue of the Tokyo National Museum: Chinese Ceramics II, Tokyo, 1990, no. 490, p. 126.

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