Published Aug 8 2016, by

Legends, Miracles, Morality, and Wisdom

Vase with motif of the Life of Confucius (detail).
China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), 18th-19th century
Cinnabar lacquer over molded base
40 x 20 inches
Crow Collection of Asian Art, 1960.29

Vase with motif of the Life of Confucius (detail). China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911), 18th-19th century Cinnabar lacquer over molded base 40 x 20 inches Crow Collection of Asian Art, 1960.29

The Crow Collection’s lacquer vase is a precious work of art, depicting the legends, miracles, morality, and wisdom of Confucius (551-479 BCE), the most prestigious philosopher and educator in Chinese history.

The Chinese first used the sap of the lacquer tree as a protective and decorative coating material, no later than the Eastern Zhou dynasty (770-221 BCE). Large size lacquerwares like this piece were produced by the imperial workshop in Beijing during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) and often favored by the royal court.

The scene exhibits that Confucius understood the connection between disasters and immoral behaviors, in correspondence to one of his philosophies – that there is an interaction between heaven and mankind.

In the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a taste for dense, narrative compositions with architectural and landscape settings developed, influenced by printed popular literature such as novels, plays, legends, and gazetteers. The Manchu Qing dynasty followed this tradition after the decline of the Ming dynasty, and the narrative motifs represented in various mediums such as print, porcelain, and lacquer increased. Depicting the life of Confucius on this vase is one such example.

Standing at 40 inches tall, the Crow Collection’s lacquer vase features six elaborate scenes, two on the neck and four on the body of the vase, illustrating the life and legends of Confucius. On the upper section of each scene there is a four-character inscription carved in ancient seal script, representing the title of the scene. One of the most significant scenes featured on this vase portrays Confucius prophesizing the burning of the royal family shrine of the Lu Kingdom because of the lack of merits and virtues of the descendants of the royal family. The scene exhibits that Confucius understood the connection between disasters and immoral behaviors, in correspondence to one of his philosophies – that there is an interaction between heaven and mankind. In the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), a taste for dense, narrative compositions with architectural and landscape settings developed, influenced by printed popular literature such as novels, plays, legends, and gazetteers. The Manchu Qing dynasty followed this tradition after the decline of the Ming dynasty, and the narrative motifs represented in various mediums such as print, porcelain, and lacquer increased. Depicting the life of Confucius on this vase is one such example.

The portrayal of scenes from the life of Confucius, such as the one described above, are rarely found on lacquerwares, making this vase unique and truly remarkable in the Chinese lacquer producing tradition. Visit the lacquer vase, which is on view at the Crow Collection through August 14, 2016, and marvel at the elaborate imagery in all six scenes.

-Dr. Qing Chang