Waterdroppers were one of the staples of the writer’s craft, produced in a wide range of media. Numerous inventive forms were created, along with seemingly endless variations on basic themes, especially in the world of ceramics. Jingdezhen, whose potters thrived on challenges, produced these small necessities in what might be thought of as miniaturized ewer forms as well as numerous others invented for the purpose of supplying drops of water to the inkstone surface to facilitate grinding the ink stick to form the liquid ink. During the Song and Yuan periods these wares were not only available on the Chinese domestic market but for export as well.
The boy-on-a-buffalo theme was popular in paintings especially during the Song-Yuan period and a fashionable waterdropper design at the same time. It was produced predominantly at kilns producing yingqing, “shadow-blue,” or bluish-white glazed white-bodied wares, but at the Longquan celadon-producing kilns in Zhejiang province as well.
Here the ox with a boy seated on its back, with the head of the beast thrown back and its open mouth serving as the spout, is casually covered, aside from its base, with a yingqing glaze and then spotted with iron-brown, a decorative technique not uncommon in yingqing-glazed wares and celadons of the Yuan period during the late 13th and 14th century, although in use earlier as well. Similar oxen-shaped waterdroppers were among the Sinan shipwreck cargo of the early 14th century, a cargo on its way to Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia, where such vessels would have been put to use in a variety of ways. The bucolic images, however, would have appealed particularly to a Chinese scholar who wished to surround himself with reminders of the outdoors beyond the walls of his study.