A wonderful blue-and-white peony scroll jar, the
very essence of artistry and high culture, is a survivor of a time when China was ruled by the Mongols, a people noted for their barbarity.
Object and context seem to inhabit different universes. But they don't. The one made the other. To resolve the paradox, look at the two founders of China's Yuan dynasty, Genghis Khan and his grandson, Kublai. In the worlds of Islam, Europe and China Genghis, or Chingis in Mongolian, has always been regarded as a mass-murderering savage. But there's another way of seeing him: as one of history's most extraordinary personalities, one of its greatest leaders, and a man with a vision. He started from almost nothing – a down-and-out, his father murdered, his mother an outcast – living almost nowhere, late-12th-century Mongols being beyond any Chinese pale and unknown to others. Yet, after many life-threatening adventures, he rose to become leader of his clan, of many clans, of the nation he founded, and of the world's largest land empire. When he died in 1227 that empire stretched from north China to today's Iran, and still had a long way to go.
There were many reasons for his success. The main one, I believe, was his unique vision. His heirs claimed that he survived a violent youth because the Mongol deity, the Blue Sky, ordained the Mongols should rule the world – that it was, in fact, already theirs. His task, and his heirs', was to make the world aware of this fact. This vision had an interesting implication. Mongol world rule was supposedly both universal and eternal. You cannot guarantee eternal rule with unhappy subjects, because unhappiness breeds revolt. This realisation made him – of all surprising qualities – tolerant of other faiths and cultures. Conquest was a temporary means to an enduring end: lasting peace with contented subjects.
In pursuit of that same vision, Genghis's grandson, Kublai – he of Coleridge's 'sacred pleasure dome' – undertook the greatest military adventure yet: the invasion of southern China. This was no pushover. Southern China was the independent empire of Song, the richest nation on earth, with dozens of major cities, armies of 100,000-plus and thousands of ships. It took 20 years, but in 1279, the Song dynasty fell and Kublai became the most powerful man who ever lived (at least until the emergence of modern superpowers). Genghis's empire doubled in size. By 1290, this vast estate was one-fifth of the world's inhabited lands, stretching from the Pacific to the Red Sea. The core was Kublai's China – today's China minus Mongolia.
True to his grandfather's vision, Kublai turned from conqueror to administrator. He had inherited astonishing managerial skills: a superb judge of character, entirely without personal prejudice, he had the knack of hiring people who were smarter than he was. His advisers formed an international team: Arabs, Persians, Turks, Chinese. He could spot new organisational problems and devise solutions that worked.
Realising China was the key to imperial rule, he needed it to be stable and prosperous, for that would be his foundation for world rule as ordained by Heaven. From this astonishing ambition came something just as remarkable: not a grim dictatorship, but a revival of much that had vanished from Chinese society during the previous century's turmoil. For a brief moment – about two decades – the whole of China underwent something of a renaissance.
It is often claimed that Mongol rule was nothing but a catalogue of abuses. Did not the Mongols lord it over the population as the new landowners, the new elite, the new aristocracy? Well, yes, but that's not the whole truth. Over 30 years, Kublai created a form of government that was uniquely complex, cosmopolitan and international. He knew that stability, peace, even contentment, were vital to stop unrest spreading from below. The foundation for stability was the mass of peasant farmers, on whom all depended for food. To look after their interests, Kublai set up a new Office for the Stimulation of Agriculture, with experts who organised aid, built 58 granaries that could store almost 9,000 tonnes of grain, arranged tax remissions and banned Mongols from grazing their wandering herds on farmland. Forced labour, which remained vital for large-scale public projects such as canals and the postal system, was rather less forced than previously.
Under Kublai, a Central Secretariat controlled six ministries: Personnel, Revenues, Rites, War, Punishments and Works, each of which had dozens of departments. Checking up on all ministries and their departments was a Censorate, a sort of National Audit Office. Entirely separate from the civil administration was the Bureau of Military Affairs: hard-core Mongol territory, top secret and staffed exclusively by Mongols, to prevent Chinese knowing anything of military matters.
Then there was the court, a universe of servants, managers, historians, translators, interpreters, astronomers, doctors, librarians, shrine-keepers, musicians, and architects. Other institutions included three academies devoted to Mongol studies and a Muslim Bureau of Astronomy that gave Muslims their own research facilities. The Commission for Tibetan and Buddhist Affairs acted as a Tibetan government-at-a-distance, supervising ever-growing Buddhist interests across China: temples, monasteries, properties.
The provinces were another of Kublai's creations, 11 of them, with their own mini versions of the Central Secretariat and branches of all the other departments. They formed the essence of the provincial system set up in succession by the Qing and then by the Communists in 1949.
Mongolia, with Kublai in charge, was transformed by commerce. Craftsmen were favoured with rations of food, clothing and salt, and were exempt from forced labour. Merchants who had been seen as parasites were now encouraged. Trade, mainly with Muslim lands, boomed. Chinese textiles, ceramics and lacquerware flowed out through the ports; medicines, incense, spices and carpets flowed in.
In some ways, Kublai was the ideal patron. He had no pretensions to being an expert in art, but he knew it was tremendously important, and he encouraged artists without distinction of race or creed. Drama, of which he understood nothing, thrived. He was, by default, a force for change and, like his empire, thoroughly internationalist.
Take ceramics, for which China had been famous, with 10 main kilns in the north, 14 in the south. Decades of war had largely destroyed ceramic production in the north, but in 1278, as the Song dynasty fell, Kublai set up a Porcelain Bureau, mainly for export. Southern kilns again filled waggons rolling into the port of Quanzhou, the place Marco Polo calls Zayton, its Arabic name. It was, he says, "frequented by all the ships of India [i.e., Asia], which bring thither spicery and all other kinds of costly wares. It is the port also that is frequented by all the merchants of Manzi [southern China], for hither is imported the most astonishing quantity of goods and of precious stones and pearls, and from this they are distributed all over Manzi. And I assure you that for one shipload of pepper that goes to Alexandria or elsewhere, destined for Christendom, there come a hundred such, aye, and more too."
In exchange for these imports, ceramics were sent to India, Southeast Asia, and the world of Islam, half of which was ruled by Mongols, who quickly adopted their subjects' refined tastes. Indeed, Quanzhou, from which most goods were exported, was under the thumb of Persian merchants. As Kublai stood back, the southern kilns could focus on exports, experimenting to give customers what they wanted, namely quality, which improved dramatically in the early 14th century. As a result, as one expert, Margaret Medley, puts it: "The Yuan marks the beginning of the change-over from stone wares, that is wares fired at high temperatures with bodies varying in colour, to the fine white porcelains, hard, vitrified and translucent, that we now automatically associate with the name of China."
There was more to the revolution. In the Middle East cobalt, an extremely rare metallic element, had long been used to give a blue tinge to statuettes and beads. It was brought to Chinese porcelain makers to see what they could do with it. They made it work. Cobalt blue ceramics became famous, exports boomed, and taxes rolled into Kublai's coffers. It's ironic that Kublai's artistic indifference led to the creation of products – the white wares of Fujian, the grey-green celadons of Zhejiang, underglaze blue, the jar from Jingdezhen – that strengthened his economy and for which modern collectors pay handsomely.
So the paradox is resolved. Kublai brought no culture of his own to China but, by creating unity and peace, released a wave of creativity and economic advance. He supervised an economy of which a modern finance minister would be proud, plus national unity, internal stability, high confidence, good growth – all underpinned by paper money.
In the end, Kublai's universalist ambitions drove the empire towards bankruptcy. The vision of world conquest turned out to be insane, once the true nature of the world was revealed. It took several defeats to stop Kublai: Japan (twice), Vietnam, Java. The invasion of Japan ended in catastrophe in 1281 when a fleet of 5,000 ships – the size of the 1944 Allied invasion of Europe – was destroyed by a typhoon, the original kamikaze, the 'divine wind' after which Japan's Second World War suicide pilots were named.
Kublai died in 1295, a bloated old man, out of touch with his huge creation. None of his successors matched his abilities, let alone his grandfather's skills. The Mongols – a hated regime for another 80-odd years, mired in corruption and economic collapse – were driven out of China by the Ming in 1368.
What survived the Mongols was China itself, as a geographical entity and as a society, creating, importing and exporting as never before. This was the context that allowed the glorious jar offered at Bonhams in November to be made. All this happened thanks to Genghis and Kublai, to brutal conquest and the peace that followed.
John Man is the author of Kublai Khan: The Mongol King Who Remade China
A miraculous survivor
In shape, design and painting style, this jar is an archetypal example of Yuan dynasty blue-and-white porcelain. Its rounded body with swelling shoulder and upright neck is typical of the period, and can also be seen among Longquan celadon wares. The jar is decorated with five concentric bands containing foaming waves, lotus scroll, peony scroll with carved detail, classic-scroll border, and lotus petals. Both the containment of the designs within concentric bands, and the five design elements themselves, are characteristic of top-quality decoration on mid-14th-century blue-and-white.
The size of the guan jar, and its thick walls and weighted base, suggest that it was made as a storage vessel. Large jars of this type were often made to contain alcohol, or water for making tea. Such vessels were produced at several ceramic centres, including Longquan
and the Cizhou kilns of north China. Big lidded jars are seen in paintings and frescoes of the period, and from these records it can
be deduced that liquids in the jars were decanted into smaller pouring vessels, which could be carried to the table.
The manufacture of very large underglaze blue-decorated vessels like this jar only became possible at Jingdezhen in the 14th century. The production of such impressive and massive pieces depended on three factors: imperial patronage, the expansion of the export trade, and improvements in technology at the kilns.
In 1278, at the very beginning of the Yuan dynasty, the Porcelain Bureau was set up at Jingdezhen, on imperial orders. The Yuan dynasty rulers were Mongol invaders from the north, who might be presumed to have had little interest in the official production of porcelain. However, the Bureau seems originally not to have been a regular factory, but rather a kind of depot at which porcelain was assembled from private kilns and dispatched northwards when the Palace requested vessels and utensils.
The Yuan saw an explosion of new styles and decorations in imperial porcelain, many of them highly innovative. They included underglaze blue-decorated wares with five-clawed dragon designs, gilded wares and turquoise-glazed ware. Such designs were possibly developed by court painters in the palace in the Painting Academy (Huayuan), which was under the jurisdiction of the Imperial Manufactories Commission. Sumptuary regulations were enacted regarding the decoration of porcelain, prohibiting (among other things) the use of five-clawed dragon designs and gold for gilding, except on imperial wares.
Although important items of blue-and-white porcelain were produced specifically for imperial use, it is also clear that virtually from the start of manufacture in the 1320s, fine pieces were exported. Stimulus and inspiration in design and technology came back to China from the Middle East. China's Mongol rulers appreciated the benefits of overseas trade, and developed policies to augment state commercial activity as part of their 'Greater Mongol Empire'.
Export was conducted both overland, via the Silk Route, and by sea.
"This jar is a miraculous survivor," says Colin Sheaf, Chairman of Bonhams Asia. "The Mongols have had a bad press because of their destructive wars of the 13th century, but these led to the Pax Mongolica, which, for more than 100 years, allowed traders unprecedented opportunities for trade from Syria to Shanghai. This jar reflects the transfer of ideas, technology and trade from this extraordinary lost Asian Empire."