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Qing dynasty vase at Harvard museums crackling with history

Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

By Globe Staff 

The true color of this Chinese, Qing dynasty vase, on display at Harvard Art Museums, doesn’t seem to come out in reproduction. It is a kind of pale but glossy sky blue with hints of gray and turquoise. It is simultaneously cool and sensuous. An invitation to dream.

But the color is just one of many things that makes this flower vase stand out.

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The glaze, which derives from imperial Southern Song dynasty (12th-13th century) “guan” ware, is covered in a beautiful, two-tone crackling. The bolder crackle lines are dark gray. The more delicate lines rust-brown.

Crackling suggests age and fragility, and it extends to the imagination a different kind of invitation. In this case, I think, it asks us to contemplate how a simple, handmade object of restrained but throat-catching beauty can also function as a dense palimpsest of history, culture, and political power.

For just as the vase’s glaze is based on Southern Song dynasty ceramics, its shape is based on archaic jade implements known as “cong.” Cong were ritual implements dating back to Neolithic times, used to pay homage to the spirits of the earth. They were rectilinear on the outside, with hollow tubes running through them, open at both ends.

These implements inspired flower vases for the first time in the Southern Song period. But this vase, which has a thin, circular footring and a matching circular neck to evoke the cong’s tubular center, is considerably larger than those Song vases. It was made in the 18th century during the reign of the immensely powerful Qianlong emperor.

Notice, beneath the crackling, the horizontal crenellations, or relief markings that punctuate the vase’s flat sides. Neolithic jades had similar markings, which were essentially abstract, or stylized (as were the horizontal markings on the Southern Song vases inspired by them).

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These markings are different. Rather than being abstract, they are based on the trigrams of the I Ching, or Book of Changes. Trigrams are combinations of long (yang) and short, broken (yin) lines, arranged in rows of three. Following Taoist philosophy, each combination signifies a different structure, image, motivation, and essence.

Ming (1368-1644) rulers did not like the simple, monochrome glazes of Southern Song ceramics. They preferred blue-and-white or polychrome porcelains. But the more austere literati class during the Ming Dynasty continued to favor them.

In order to appear both scholarly and authoritative, which was the Confucian ideal, the subsequent 18th-century Qing dynasty rulers combined the powerful trappings of Ming rule with symbols of the literati class. So the glaze came back into fashion.

Of course, you don’t need to know any of this to appreciate this vase’s incredible beauty. (I didn’t, before I read a very informative museum text.)

What you do need to decide is what flowers you’d put in the vase. My vote? Light pink peonies. Maybe yellow ranunculus. Or perhaps just some of those glossy green magnolia leaves with brown undersides. . .

Dream on, art critic. Dream on.

Vase in the Shape of an Archaic Jade Cong Ritual Implement

At Harvard Art Museums. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org


Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @SebastianSmee.