The compressed globular body is surmounted by a short, narrow neck supporting the cup-shaped mouth, the cup with low straight sides and thick rolled rim, the piece supported on a flat base, the exterior carved to form a slightly raised foot. The off-white, warm-toned glaze was applied overall stopping above the foot, leaving both the foot and base unglazed. The glaze is relatively thin, densely crazed throughout, with fritting or flaking around the lower body and around the mouth rim. A thin layer of glaze coats the interior. The white stoneware body is compact and smooth and appears relatively pure. A small hole is present near the center of the base but does not extend through to the interior of the vessel.
A good number of examples of this very distinctive form are known, the great majority with bodies that have a low-slung profile, as if the body sags from steeply sloping shoulders (fig. 1). The present vessel, however, has a somewhat more uplifted globular body, precisely like a vessel from Bangka Island, now in the Museum Pusat, Jakarta, in Java (fig. 2). Bangka forms an Indonesian administrative unit along with its neighbor, Beilitung Island. Beilitung is known for the extraordinary shipwreck that was discovered in nearby waters, among its cargo some extremely high-class and high-quality ceramics and gold and silverwares. While the present vessel and the example from Bangka are earlier than the 9th-century date attributed to the shipwreck finds, it is clear that very high-quality wares were being exported from at least the early Tang, as demonstrated by the vessel from Bangka and the present counterpart whereas examples excavated in China range in date from the Sui to the Tang dynasty.1
The function of these vessels, some with covers that fit into the mouths like stoppers, is not entirely clear. They are usually referred to in Chinese as tuoyu 唾餘 or tuohu 唾壺 and in English as spittoons or cuspidors, as it was assumed such receptacles were intended for the disposal of tea leaf dregs or food debris during dining and drinking. However, the small size of the cup-shaped mouths and openings into the vessels’ interiors in the present and related examples are quite small, which argues against this function. There are, on the other hand, similar vessels but with much larger, wide, dish-shaped mouths that would receive refuse more easily (fig. 3).
In various contexts the vessels are merely referred to as vases (ping 瓶) or jars (hu 壺), as we have elected to do here. However, whatever the name or function, the ceramic stands as a handsome example of the high level of accomplishment in the production of whiteware during the 7th-8th century in northern China, at kilns, especially in Henan and Hebei provinces.
1. See, for example, material from the tomb of Li Jingxun, d. 608, Xi’an, Shaanxi province, two from a tomb dated 610 in the Historical Museum in Beijing, and another from early Tang dynasty tomb of Zhang Shigui, in Shaanxi.
Fig. 1: White stoneware vessel, Tang dynasty, 7th-8th century, after The Art of Chinese Ceramics from Han to Tang: Selected Treasures from the Dr. T.T. Tsui Donations, Hong Kong, 1998, p. 89.
Fig. 2: White stoneware vessel, Tang dynasty, 7th-8th century, after The World’s Great Collections: Oriental Ceramics, vol. 3: Museum Pusat, Jakarta, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, 1977, black and white fig. 23.
Fig. 3. White stoneware spittoon, excavated from a Tang-dynasty tomb in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, after Zhonguo qutu cizi quanji, vol. 15: Shaanxi, Beijing, 2008, pl. 50, p. 50.