From the Exhibition:
Design by the Book: Chinese Ritual Objects and the Sanli tu

This vessel, with its vibrant blue glaze and mountain design, is one of the few known so-called mountain jars. Mountain jars of different types are recorded in the ancient Confucian ritual classics as having been used in royal ancestral sacrifices as well as in sacrifices to Earth. By the Ming era (1368–1644), mountain jars were also employed in the grand imperial Sacrifice to Heaven. Both the blue glaze and the design of the present vessel indicate that it was likely used at the new Altar of Heaven in Beijing, built by the Jiajing emperor (r. 1521–1567) after 1530, according to instructions detailed in the Collected Statutes of the Ming (1587). The jar bears a raised decoration left unglazed that may originally have been gilded. Its main design of three mountain peaks, framed between two horizontal bands, appears on the front and back. Images of mountains have been the identifying design feature of this type of ritual vessel since at least the Tang dynasty (618–907). The early examples are decorated with a naturalistic mountain scene in the landscape mode, with superimposed rock formations vanishing in the distance as depicted in the Sanli tu (fig. 1), whereas the mountains on the Jiajing jar are more stylized and nearly symmetrical. This simplified linear mode of representation harks back to a particular pictorial tradition that evokes the pictographic dimension of Chinese writing. A bronze mirror dating to the Tang dynasty (618–907) shows a design of the Five Sacred Peaks, four arranged around the rim, and a fifth represented by the central knob (fig. 2). The Five Sacred Peaks are real mountains in China that correspond to the four cardinal directions and their center, forming a sacred cosmography. On the mirror, each of the mountains is represented with two minor peaks flanking a main central peak, much like the graphic form of the character for mountain, shan 山. In this schematic depiction, no attempt is made to distinguish the topographical specificities of each mountain.

During the Ming period, mountain representations were disseminated in printed books such as the Hainei qiguan (1609), an illustrated travelogue written by Yang Erzeng (active first half of the seventeenth century), drawing from a number of preexisting works (fig. 3).1 The raised decoration on the mountain jar is closely related to the depiction of the vertical, craggy peaks of Mount Huang in the Hainei qiguan but is simplified, using fewer lines. Increasingly abstract mountain designs are also manifest in the decorative arts of the period, for instance, in objects made for scholars. The back of a porcelain brush rest from the Percival David Foundation shows a design of five overlapping mountain peaks, possibly alluding to the Five Sacred Peaks, with a cobalt-blue and copper-red underglaze (fig. 4). The three-dimensionality of the mountains is conveyed by their arrangement along the curved surface of the object, as well as by the layering of thinly cut porcelain sheets to give a sense of depth. But these layers, far from lending an impression of naturalism to the mountain peaks, instead highlight the linearity and regularity of the design.

This more triangular mode of representing mountain peaks is also seen on large sculpted marble rocks at the Altar of Heaven complex in Beijing. Located in the northeast of the compound are eight stones sculpted to resemble stylized mountain peaks (fig. 5). A plaque at the site notes that seven of them date to the Jiajing period, while an eighth was added during the Qianlong reign (1736–1796), but the information is difficult to verify. The original seven sculptures are known today as the Seven Star Stones (qi xing shi 七星石), an appellation that refers to the seven stars of the Northern Dipper, an important constellation in both Chinese visual culture as well as Daoist practice.2 It is possible that this connection was known in the Ming era as well: both the Hainei qiguan and a Jiajing period gazetteer explain that local mountain peaks were called “Seven Star Stones” because of their resemblance to the Northern Dipper.3 The Jiajing emperor was known to have inclinations toward popular Daoism and inner alchemy, but without further research it is impossible to ascertain whether the marble stones were even laid at the Altar of Heaven under his rule, or what purpose they served. This mode of representing mountains and peaks is all the more striking when compared with garden or scholar’s rocks, which embody a more naturalistic attitude toward geological formations. Always asymmetrical, they speak more to the wonder of the natural world than to human intervention, whereas the peaks depicted on the jar and in prints tend to depict mountains that are well ordered and more symmetrically structured.

The design on the mountain jar is therefore likely derived from contemporary woodblock prints but also draws on archaistic representations of mountains. Other abstract mountain forms of the period, such as those of the brush rest or the marble mountains, seem related to this alternative system of representation that departs from naturalism to favor more simplified and iconic depictions of mountain formations.

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Fig. 1. Shanzun (left) and dalei (right), mountain vessels for offering wine, illustrated in Sanli tu. The Mountain zun vessel (shanzun 山尊) on the left was a wine-offering vessel used in a pair to offer cloudy wine and water, respectively. To the right, the Great lei (dalei 大罍), was a ceramic wine-offering vessel with a lid used in sacrifices to Earth. See François Louis, Design by the Book: Chinese Ritual Objects and the Sanli tu (New York: Bard Graduate Center, 2017), 149, 155.
Fig. 2. Cosmic mirror, 618-907. Bronze. Seattle Art Museum, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 51.32. ​
Fig. 3. Page from Hainei qiguan illustrating the peaks of Mount Huang, 1609.
Fig. 4. Brush rest, porcelain with cobalt and copper underglaze, Jingdezhen, 16th century. Percival David Foundation, British Museum, PDF.B.642
Fig. 5. Marble mountains at the Altar of Heaven compound, Beijing. Photo: François Louis.

1.Lin Li-Chiang, “A Study of the Xinjuan Hainei Qiguan, a Ming Dynasty Book of Famous Sites,” in Bridges to Heaven: Essays on East Asian Art in Honor of Professor Wen C. Fong, ed. Jerome Silbergeld, Dora C. Y. Ching, Judith G. Smith, and Alfreda Murck (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2011), 2:779–812.

2.Shih-shan Susan Huang, Picturing the True Form: Daoist Visual Culture in Traditional China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012), 38–52.

3.One refers to the Seven Star Stones near Shuangqing village, Hunan Province; the other, to a namesake located in Chaoyang Prefecture, Guangdong Province. Yang Erzeng, Hainei Qiguan 海内奇觀, Ming Wanli yibai tang keben 明萬曆夷白堂刻本 , juan 4, p. 46; Chaozhou fuzhi 潮州府志 (1547), juan 1, p. 13.