The compact ewer is a well-balanced form of slightly compressed ovoid shape surmounted by a short cylindrical neck with wide cup-shaped mouth. A rounded loop handle is applied opposite the little spout in the form of a chicken head with a fine upright comb and lidded eyes, the round beak forming the small pouring spout between two perfectly formed sharp, square lug handles. The thick glaze is a lustrous deep blackish brown falling over the faintly finger-grooved body ending in a thick roll above the shallow, concave unglazed base. Characteristically the grey ware is burnt reddish brown in the firing, visible on the unglazed base.
A triumvirate of glaze colors—green, black, white—dominated the stoneware tradition in China. Green was the first to be discovered or invented around two millennia ago, followed by black and later by white. Each has a stellar history and immense longevity. The black-glazed ewer here represents the beginning of one of these traditions, inaugurated at the same kilns in Yuezhou that had previously developed the wares with green-colored glazes known, long after their origin, as celadons.
By around the middle of the 4th century A.D. black-glazed wares were in production and had already found their way into the hearts of locals and into their tombs as well, as evidenced by archaeological finds including one in Hangzhou datable to A.D. 364 (fig. 1). Hangzhou was a mere 45 miles or so to the south of Deqing which was an important site of black-ware production during this initial period, judging from the material recovered at the kiln site, including a well-published intact ewer along with ceramic debris from misfired or otherwise damaged pieces, a good number of them exhibited and published over the years (figs. 2-3). By the beginning of the 5th century at least, datable finds indicate that the market for the wares had gone a bit further afield as seen in ewers excavated in Nanjing in neighboring Jiangsu province (figs. 4-5).
Nanjing was the capital of the six dynasties that ruled in succession from A.D. 222 until 589 when China was reunified under the Sui dynasty and the capital established in the north. During the Six Dynasties period, however, Nanjing was the center of political, social, and economic life and the heart of the arts and literature. The Yue kilns experienced even greater prosperity and artistic expansion with the increase in population and commercial activity and their proximity to the capital. The Deqing kilns were advantageously located half way between the cities of Hangzhou and Nanjing. The development of a black glaze there, and numerous novel shapes including the chicken-headed ewer at various Yue kilns, were a part of this expansion.
While he majority of published black-glazed ewers of this type are found in China today, excavated predominantly in Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces, museums and private collections abroad also boast examples. These include a fine example shown here in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (fig. 6), and the present ewer—also distinguished by an impressively successful and well-preserved glaze—that graced a private collection in Japan before being acquired by Kaikodo.
Fig. 1: Black-glazed chicken-headed ewer, from a tomb in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province dated to A.D. 364, Zhejiang Provincial Museum, after Zhongguo wenwu jinghua daquan, taoci juan, Hong Kong, 1993, no. 111.
Fig. 2: Black-glazed chicken-headed ewer, excavated at Deqing, Zhejiang province, 4th century A.D., after Kilns Sites of Ancient China, Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, 1982, fig. 41.
Fig. 3: Black-glazed shards; various shapes including chicken-headed ewers, excavated at Deqing, Eastern Jin dynasty, after Kiln Sites of Ancient China, Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo, 1982, nos. 38, 36, 35 in top row and 34 and 39 below.
Fig. 4: Black-glazed chicken-headed ewer, Eastern Jin dynasty, 4th century A.D., from the tomb of Xie Wen (d. A.D. 402), Sijiashan, outside of Nanjing, Jiangsu province, after Wenwu, 1998:5, pl. 2 (inside front cover).
Fig. 5: Black-glazed chicken-headed ewer, Eastern Jin dynasty, 4th-early 5th century A.D., unearthed in the Nanjing area, Jiangsu province, after Xu Huping, ed., Celadon Ware of the Six Dynasties, Gems of Collections in [the] Nanjing Museum, Shanghai, 1999, pl. 9.
Fig. 6: Black-glazed chicken-headed ewer, Eastern Jin dynasty, 4th-5th century A.D., Victoria and Albert Museum, London, after Stacey Pierson, Chinese Ceramics: A Design History, London, 2009, pl. 9, p. 16.