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A MONUMENTAL AND EXTREMELY RARE BLUE AND WHITE 'WANSHOU' VASE\nKANGXI PERIOD (1662-1722)\nThe vase is robustly potted with high shoulders rising to a waisted neck below a galleried rim, the sides tapering gently towards a rounded foot rim. The exterior of the vase including the rims are inscribed overall with ten thousand characters in cobalt blue in ninety seven rows, comprising one Wan character and nine thousand nine hundred and ninety nine Shou characters rendered in various forms of seal script, conveying the message Wanshou Wujiang, 'Countless years of long life without limit'. The base is unglazed.\n30 1/8 in. (76.7 cm) high






This extremely rare vase is of monumental size, being 76.7 cm high, and is decorated in brilliant underglaze cobalt blue with nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine shou (longevity) characters and one wan (ten thousand) character. There are 77 characters in two concentric bands around the top of the mouth (154 characters), 48 characters on the vertical bands around the mouth and foot (96 characters), and 75 rows of 130 characters running vertically down the sides of the vase (9750 characters) - 10,000 characters in all. The shou characters are in a wide variety of styles - some recognisably archaic, some eccentric. In a paper presented at the Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong on 2nd February 2013, Professor Peter Lam demonstrated that there are sets of 975 different characters and that this set is repeated 10 times on the sides of the vessel.

Shou longevity characters appear on underglaze blue decorated porcelain as early as the Yuan dynasty. A Yuan dynasty blue and white stem bowl with flying phoenix on the exterior and a shou character on the interior, excavated in 1972 in Hebei province, was included in the Beijing Capital Museum exhibition Blue and White of the Yuan, Beijing, 2009, p. 109-111. There are several other examples of Yuan dynasty blue and white porcelain with shou characters on the interior, but, in the published examples, only a single character appears, usually on the interior of the vessel.

Multiple shou characters were used to decorate blue and white porcelain in the middle Ming period. A blue and white Jiajing mark and period (1522-66) jar and cover with a design of shou characters in roundels each supported by a lingzhi fungus on a scrolling vine in the Palace Museum, Beijing illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 35 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (II), Hong Kong, 2000, p. 115, no. 105. Indeed, all manner of iconography related to longevity was applied to porcelain during the Jiajing period, as in the latter part of his reign the Jiajing Emperor became obsessed with the notion of immortality. Similar blue and white jars, albeit with shou characters which are larger and completely fill the roundels, were also made in the Wanli reign (1573-1619). A Wanli jar and cover of this type was excavated in 1971 from the Dongcheng district in Beijing (illustrated in Wenwu, 1972, no. 6, inside cover, fig. 3). However, in the Kangxi reign of the Qing dynasty the use of shou characters appears to have become even more popular on imperial wares and large wanshou vases like the current example were made.

Wanshou wujiang, literally 'countless years of long life without limit' comes from the Shijing g (Book of Odes or Classic of Poetry), comprising poems and songs dating from the 11th to the 7th century BC, and traditionally believed to have been one of the 'Five Classics' compiled by Confucius (551-479 BC). The phrase wanshou wujiang was preserved for the imperial birthdays to the end of the dynastic period, since, from as early as the Song dynasty, the birthday of the emperor was known as the Wanshou jie (Festival of Ten Thousand Longevities), and in the Ming and Qing dynasties it was one of the major annual festivals of the Beijing court, occasioning grand celebrations. As Peter Lam has noted in his article 'Myriad Longevity without Boundaries - Some Qing Imperial Birthday Ceramics from Hong Kong Collections', Arts of Asia vol. 40, no. 5, September-October 2010, pp. 106-7, The festivities were on an even larger scale when either the reigning emperor or his mother, the Empress Dowager, celebrated their sixtieth, seventieth or eightieth birthdays. However, few survived to that age.

In his 2010 article Professor Peter Lam suggested that these wanshou vases were possibly made for the 60th birthday of the Kangxi Emperor in 1713, the 52nd year of his reign. Professor Lam noted that, unlike some other emperors, the Kangxi Emperor generally eschewed lavish celebrations for his birthday. However on the occasion of his 60th birthday his subjects initiated nationwide celebrations as a particular mark of respect. It is generally believed by scholars that the so-called 'birthday' plates decorated in fine overglaze famille verte enamels, which have the characters wanshou wujiang included in their characteristic iron-red brocade-style border decoration were also made for the emperor's 60th birthday, possibly to be given to especially favoured guests on the occasion of the 'grey beards' banquets. An example of one of these 'birthday' plates is illustrated by Rosemary Scott in Imperial Taste - Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Los Angeles, 1989, p. 79, no.48, where the four characters can be seen at the four cardinal points around the border.

However, in his February 2013 lecture Professor Lam advanced another theory regarding the dating of the large wanshou vases in the light of new information. In 2011 he had secured for the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong a porcelain brush pot which bore a long poem inscribed in underglaze blue entitled Poem on the Ten Thousand Shou Vase. The content of the poem provided the context for the production of the vases. While the brush pot is not dated, on the basis of the style in which the reign mark is written Professor Lam concluded that the brush pot was made in the early part of the Kangxi reign. In addition, the calligraphy on the brush pot is very similar to surviving examples of the calligraphy of Liu Yuan - a Customs Officer for Anhui, who later served in the inner court as chief designer for imperial porcelain during the 1680s. Professor Lam also noted that the majority of the Kangxi inscribed porcelain, which included dates, dated to a period around the 1680s, rather than the 18th century when the Emperor celebrated his 60th birthday. Added to this Professor Lam's research has led him to speculate that the calligraphy on both the brush pot and the vases was probably that of Gong Yuzi, whose name appears on a significant number of Kangxi inscribed pieces, some of which bear dates around the 1680s. This research led Professor Lam to propose a new theory that the wanshou vases may have been made in 1683 for the Kangxi Emperor's 30th birthday, after the imperial kiln complex was re-opened by Yu Chenglong, Governor of Jiangxi province and a close confident of the Emperor, following the end of the disruptive Rebellion of the Three Feudatories. Professor Peter Lam will publish his extensive research into these wanshou vases in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of the Palace Museum, while key points from a paper presented by Lam at an Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon in Hong Kong in March 2013, 'Kangxi and the Taming of Black Tigers: Two Excursions in Chinese Art History Studies' dGNvsk,,are published in ICS Bulletin, 2013, no. 2.

Nevertheless, if the vases can be ascribed to the 1680s, rather than 1713, one other possible theory might be considered. Grand Dowager Empress Xiaozhuang (1613-27 January 1688) was the grandmother of the Kangxi Emperor (1662-1722) and celebrated her 60th birthday in 1673, and her 70th birthday in 1683. The Emperor's closeness to her at that time was demonstrated by the fact that after the final suppression of the Rebellion of the Three Feudatories in 1681 the emperor began making tours of inspection and on his first western tour of 1683 he took the Grand Empress Dowager with him. Known for her wisdom and political acumen she played an important role in the reigns of her son - the Shunzhi Emperor (1644-1661) and more particularly that of her grandson, the Kangxi Emperor, whose own mother Empress Xiaokangzhang died in 1663, when he was still a minor. The Grand Dowager Empress assumed responsibility for the boy emperor's upbringing and remained a trusted adviser until her death in 1688. She played an important role, for example, in helping the Kangxi Emperor deal with the revolt of the Mongol leader Burni in 1675. The Emperor was devoted to his grandmother, and paid her the utmost respect. One of his grandmother's favourite places was the Five Dragon Pavilion on the north banks of the Taiyechi (Great Liquid Pool), so the Kangxi Emperor had some residences built to the north of the pavilion, in order that his grandmother could live there during the hot summer months, and when he was not involved with affairs of state the emperor would take a small boat over to see her in order to wait on her during mealtimes (see Wan Yi, Wang Shuqing & Lu Yanzhen, Daily Life in the Forbidden City, translated by Rosemary Scott & Erica Shipley, Harmondsworth New York, 1985, p. 266). When the Grand Empress Dowager died, the Kangxi Emperor cut off his queue, which was normally done only on the death of an emperor. He also contravened Ming regulations by installing his grandmother's spirit tablet in the Taimiao (see Evelyn S. Rawski, The Last Emperors - A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions, Berkeley/Los Angeles/London, 1998, p. 277). It is thus worth considering that the Emperor might have had the wanshou vases made in honour of his grandmother's 70th birthday in 1683, rather than his own 30th birthday.

Three other similar vases are in public collections. A Kangxi wanshou vase is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 36 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), Hong Kong, 2000, pp. 8-9, no. 5). H: 76.5 cm. Another wanshou vase is in the collection of the Nanjing Museum (illustrated in Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Hong Kong, 1995, no. 12). H: 77 cm. A third Kangxi wanshou vase given in 1999 to the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong by an anonymous donor (illustrated by Peter Lam in 'Myriad Longevity without Boundaries - Some Qing Imperial Birthday Ceramics from Hong Kong Collections', op. cit., p. 107, pl. 2). H: 76.1 cm. In addition to the vase in the current sale, two more similar vases are in private American collections. Thus, six vases are extant in total. In addition a sherd from one of these vases was found in 2009 in Beijing in the western part of the city during the construction of the subway, and another sherd was found in a waste heap near Lugou Bridge in Beijing. It is probable that a total of nine of these large wanshou vases were made, since by tradition birthday gifts to the Emperor should be presented in groups of nine or multiples of nine, and even if the vases were intended for the Grand Empress Dowager, the Kangxi Emperor appears to have been inclined to offer her the respect due to an Emperor.



18th Century, Chinese, All other categories of objects, vases, porcelain, China, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)




30 1/8 in. (76.7 cm) high


An American private collection, acquired circa 1950s

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.