The vase shown here, recently auctioned by Sotheby’s, is a part of the official ware made for the imperial court of the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279) in Hangzhou. (Click to enlarge.) It has a tooled octagonal profile beginning at the foot, rising through the body, and continuing up its long tapering neck, which is divided into three segments. The rim, however, is circular, flattened to the horizontal, and extends outward to the approximate diameter of the neck’s base. Overall height is 8.5 inches. Judging from the color of the unglazed portion of the foot, the clay appears to be a type of stoneware.
The glaze is an opaque, satiny, blue-green with modest pinholing and relatively dense crazing. Crazing generally develops in the kiln as it cools; however, it can appear, or continue to grow, over extended periods of time. (Craze patterns develop when a glaze shrinks somewhat more than the clay, putting the glass under tension.)
In this case, it appears that a single glaze was applied to the piece, resulting in a monochromatic finish, without visible running, slumping, or overlaps.
A Sotheby’s expert describes the octagonal shape as “very architectural”, a design harkening back to early Chinese bronzes, adding that the Southern Song dynasty suffered from a shortage of bronze because most of it had been melted down for use in warfare. In the state rituals of the dynasty, after the court fled south, it was important to reinstate the political legitimacy of the ruler. Given the shortage of bronze, ceramics were used to copy bronze shapes.
He further explained that there was a revival of neo-Confucianism in the late Northern and Southern Song dynasties. The values of humility were incredibly important, moving away from the ostentatiousness found in most Tang dynasty arts. This might explain the use of a stoneware clay body over porcelain.
Such a vase is “exceedingly rare”, even in the Palace Museums of Taipei and Beijing, according to Sotheby’s. It had been in a private collection in Japan for the past 40 years. Before that, with a collector in London, where it had likely been brought from China about a century ago.