Numbered Jun Ware: Ceramics of the Forbidden City

A new Harvard Art Museums exhibition displays a unique collection of ceramics with ties to China’s Forbidden City. The collection is on display until August 13, 2017, with gallery talks in English and Chinese throughout July and August.

中文導覽: “珍陶萃美” — 清宫陳設钧瓷賞析 — 2017年7月13日与2017年8月3日

Numbered Jun Ware: This lobed flowerpot with bracketed foliate rim may have served as a flower pot in Beijing’s Forbidden City, standing in a matching basin with three cloud scroll feet. Image: Harvard Art Museums

This summer, the Harvard Art Museums is exhibiting the university’s unique collection of Chinese ceramics with ties to Beijing’s Imperial Palace or “Forbidden City.” The ceramics are known as “numbered Jun ware” owing to their historical origins in the ancient region of Junzhou (now Yuzhou, in Henan Province) and because of the single Chinese numerals inscribed on the bases of the objects. Numbered Jun wares are distinctively shaped flowerpots and basins that were possibly made especially for the Imperial Palace.

“Numbered Jun vessels are extremely rare in most museum collections,” explains Melissa Moy, Alan J. Dworsky Associate Curator of Chinese Art at the Harvard Art Museums and curator of the exhibition. “Beyond Harvard, only the Palace Museum in Beijing and the National Palace Museum in Taipei have significant holdings of this type of ware, lending credence to the theory that these vessels may have been made exclusively for the imperial palace.”

Rectangular Basin with Notched Corners and Four Cloud Scroll Feet

The numbers on the bases of Jun wares act as markers that distinguish these pieces from related “classic Jun wares” that originated in the Song Dynasty and were used as household objects throughout China.

As Melissa Moy explains, “While the significance of the numbers used to be a mystery, it’s been discovered that the numerals, which range from one to ten, in fact refer to the relative size of each object.”

These numbers are useful for matching a flowerpot with a corresponding basin, which allows for drainage when cultivating plants (see first image). A matching set therefore involves a pot and basin with the same coloration, shape, and matching numbers.

Side and underneath views of a blue lobed quatrefoil flowerpot with four cloud scroll feet. The underneath view shows the number 九 (9) to indicate size.

Unlike porcelain, Jun ware was not widely imitated in Korea or Japan until the twentieth century, and even then it was not produced on a large scale. Instead, numbered Jun ware appear to have been produced exclusively for the imperial palace in Beijing. Some of the objects on display even have specific rooms of the Forbidden City — particularly the Hall of Mental Cultivation (养心殿) — incised into their glazed bases, indicating that individual pieces were collected and used for specific areas of the palace.

As Curatorial Assistant for the Collection Yan Yang explains, “We know that by the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735–96), many of these numbered Jun ware vessels were inscribed on their underside, after firing, with specific palace names incised horizontally and room names incised vertically. Jun ware planters as such were allotted for imperial living corners within the Forbidden City.”

Rectangular Flowerpot with Four Small Feet (Ming dynasty): Inscription incised into the glazed base at a later date reads: 養心殿 東暖閣楼下用 (Hall of Mental Cultivation, used in the East Heated Chamber, main floor).

Controversy still surrounds numbered Jun ware’s date of creation, with the works traditionally thought to originate in the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE) — a belief supported by the Qianlong Emperor (1711–1799), who commissioned and inscribed the painted album leaf illustrated here. The age of the numbered Jun ware, however, continues to spark debate.

It is possible that the Qing court’s linking of the Jun ware to the earlier Song — a dynasty often considered a cultural apex in China’s long history — could have been politically motivated as an attempt to associate the Qing with the popular imagination of the Song’s golden age. “Some still believe that numbered Jun date to the Song dynasty, but an increasing number of scholars now argue that they were made a few hundred years later,” explains Melissa Moy. Indeed, sherds of numbered Jun ware found in China have been dated to the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE).

Album leaf from “Precious Ceramics of Assembled Beauty” 珍陶萃美(冊) 宋鈞窯花式盤, National Palace Museum, Taipei. The scroll is by the Qianlong Emperor and declares that Jun vessel originates from the Song Dynasty.

These wares are particularly personal to Melissa Moy, who wrote her master’s thesis on numbered jun ware as a student in Harvard’s Regional Studies East Asia program under the guidance of the Art Museum’s former curator Robert D. Mowry. Numbered Jun ware still remains an understudied field in art history. Moy contends, “These ceramics are very rare and thus little understood, leading to misinterpretations that have endured for centuries.”

The exhibition displays approximately half of Harvard’s collection of sixty numbered Jun ware, the largest collection outside of greater China. Donated in 1942 by Helen and Ernest Dane (class of 1892), the collection has a particular significance for the Harvard Art Museums as it is a very early example of a major gift from an alumnus. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Danes’ gift, and is the first time that the numbered Jun ware from the collection have been fully displayed as a group.

Glaze on “Rectangular Flowerpot with Four Small Feet” magnified 16x

Numbered Jun ware are distinct owing to their colorful glaze, which scientists at the Harvard Art Museums attribute to suspended glass bubbles within the glaze which scatters light and reflects a blue color. The purple coloration is achieved by adding copper to the glaze.

The Harvard Art Museums’ Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies have also carried out extensive restoration work on some of the pieces exhibited. Susan Costello, Associate Conservator of Objects and Sculpture at the Straus Center, fixed cracks and exactly matched the color of some damaged pieces to restore them to their original appearance.

The Harvard Art Museums “Numbered Jun Ware” exhibition is on display until August 13, 2017, with gallery talks in English and Chinese throughout July and August. Read more about Harvard’s numbered jun ware collection in Harvard Magazine and the Harvard Art Museums website.

This blog post was authored by James Evans, Melissa Moy, and Yan Yang.