Have you ever wondered how Antiques experts can sometimes identify whether or not a piece of porcelain is the “right” one at first glance? This is especially the case when it comes to Chinese porcelain, where items are worth further examination only if they pass the first-glance test.
The trick here is the shape. There are many reference points to be considered when identifying porcelain items, but shape is always the first one to be used.
Although shapes may have variations among different dynasties and reigns, adherence to tradition, as well as limited free expression under imperial guidelines, resulted in a relatively small quantity of identifiable shapes. By tracing those shapes, it’s not difficult to find out when a certain shape was first produced, and whether or not that shape was popular during a certain period, thus making shape one of the key factors in dating the porcelain.
Compared to utilitarian pieces, the shape of Decorative Art objects is more subject to change, albeit within an array of prototypes. This article includes a summary of the different vase shapes for Chinese porcelain vases to help turn the novice Antiques collector into an expert!
- Song Dynasty (960–1271 AD)
Meiping; ‘Plum’ Vase
Meiping, literally meaning “plum vase,” was so-called because it was considered to be the perfect shape to hold a plum branch. It is characterized by a narrow mouth, a small neck resting on high, broad shoulders, and a tall body tapering off to a shallow ring foot.
Yuhuchunping; ‘Pear-Shaped’ Vase
Yuhuchun first appeared in the temples of the Tang dynasty (608–917 AD) as a holy water vase. The shape was then popularized during the Song dynasty, and was mainly used as a wine vessel. Later, the refined shape became a classical vase style, and continues to be copied as a model. It is characterized by a slightly flared rim, a straight neck that broadens at the ends, a bottom-heavy body, and a short foot ring.
Cong Vase; ‘Cong-Shaped’ Vase
The Cong shape is modeled after a Neolithic jade item. The original shape—a square section rising from a short, circular foot and surmounted by a similarly short, circular neck—has been preserved over thousands of years.
Huluping; ‘Double-Gourd’ Vase
Huluping derives its form from a double gourd, a shape that was made possible by the invention of the Longquan Kiln during the Southern Song dynasty. As a symbol of fertility, the double gourd is considered to be good luck. It is also a Daoist emblem of immortality.
- Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 AD)
Gu Vase; ‘Beaker’ Vase; ‘Flaring’ Vase
The Gu form derives from the early Bronze Age. It became the vase prototype of the Yuan dynasty, and is characterized by a flaring mouth, a slender, stem-like body, and a splayed foot.
Suantouping; ‘Garlic-Mouth’ Vase; ‘Garlic-Head-Shaped’ Vase
Suantouping is characterized by its “garlic head.” The body of the vase is typically pear-shaped, with a slender neck rising to a garlic bulb-shaped mouth.
- Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD)
Baoyueping; Bianhu; ‘Moonflask’; ‘Pilgrim Flask’
Baoyueping’s shape was borrowed from gold and silver wares used in the Middle East. Baoyue literally means “embracing the moon,” and is characterized by a circular body, representing the moon, a flat base, a narrow cylindrical neck, and two arched side handles, which create an “embrace” between the neck and the body.
Tianqiuping; ‘Globular’ Vase
Tianqiuping was created during the Ming dynasty. It is characterized by a small mouth, straight neck, globular body, and slightly concave base.
Xiangtuiping; Tongping; ‘Sleeve’ Vase; ‘Rolwagen’ Vase
Xiangtuiping was created between the late Ming dynasty and the early Qing dynasty, an era which is commonly defined as a transitional period in porcelain production. Xiangtuiping, meaning “Elephant-Foot” Vase, is also known as Tongping, or “Sleeve Vase,” and “Rolwagen,” a Dutch name coined when the vase was imported to Holland. The vase is characterized by a short, waisted neck and tall, straight sides.
- Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 AD)
The repertoire of vase shapes was greatly expanded during the Qing dynasty due to the increasing wealth of the Empire, as well as the refinement of craftsmanship.
Liuyeping; ‘Willow Leaf’ Vase
The name, Liuyeping, is derived from the vase’s slender profile, which resembles a willow leaf. The shape originated in the Kangxi Reign (1662–1722 AD) during the Qing dynasty, and is often found in a peach-bloom glaze. It is characterized by a flaring mouth, a waisted neck, slanting shoulders, and a tapering body, usually supported by a matching, concave base since it is too delicate to stand alone.
Bangchuiping; ‘Rouleau’ Vase
Bangchuiping literally means “wooden club,” named for its cylindrical body, flat shoulders, and high neck, which imitate the form of a club with a handle. French scholars termed this vase “Rouleau,” which places emphasis on its tall, roll-form body.
Fengweizun; ‘Phoenix-Tail’ Vase; ‘Yen-Yen’ Vase
Fengweizun’s shape was inspired by the Gu Vase. However, it has a more widely flaring, trumpet neck, resembling a phoenix tail, and a heavier body at the bottom.
Yaolingzun; ‘Mallet-Shaped’ Vase
Yaolingzun resembles a hand bell or mallet. It is characterized by a subtly flared mouth, a slender neck with a narrow fillet collaring its base, rounded shoulders, and a slightly splayed foot.
- Yongzheng (1723–1735 AD)
Haitangzun; ‘Lobed’ Vase; ‘Begonia-Shaped’ Vase
Haitangzun is named after the Begonia flower, a traditional floral pattern consistently used across different categories of Chinese Decorative Art. It is made up of lobed sections with a concave neck and an everted floral rim standing on a low flaring foot.
Shiliuzun; ‘Pomegranate’ Vase
Shiliuzun originated in the Yongzheng period during the Qing dynasty. Taken from the form of a pomegranate, the vase inherited the fruit’s auspicious meaning as a symbol of happiness and fertility. The vase is characterized by a globular body sweeping up to a short neck, which flares at the mouth.
- Qianlong (1736–1795 AD)
Shuanglianping; ‘Double’ Vase; ‘Conjoined’ Vase
The Conjoined Vase is a generic term referring to an entire group of vases that have more than one mouth and neck while still sharing a body. These vases can have anywhere from two to nine mouths.
Bailuzun; Niutouzun; ‘Hundred Deer’ Vase
Bailuzun was exclusively made for imperial use. It is also known as Niutouzun, which means “ox-head.” However, it is most-commonly referred to as Bailuzun, or the “Hundred Deer” Vase, which references the image typically painted on its body. Since the Chinese word for “deer,” lu, is a homophone for “reward,” the “hundred deer” motif represents the wish for a successful career in imperial court service.
Zhuanxinping; ‘Rotating’ Vase
The Rotating Vase flourished during the Qianlong period. It was typically characterized by an inner vase attached to an outer one. Through reticulated medallions on the outer vase, viewers could see the images painted on the inner piece moving when it was rotated.
- 1. Feng Xianming, Chinese Ceramics (Shanghai: Shanghai Ancient Books Publishing House, 2012).
- 2. The Chinese Ceramic Society, The History of Chinese Pottery and Porcelain (Beijing: Cultural Relics Publishing House, 2011).
- 3. Collection online of the British Museum, www.britishmuseum.org/research.
- 4. Collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.metmuseum.org/collections.
Helen Bu is an editor for the artnet Price Database Decorative Art.
Illustrations by Jennifer Cortés, senior production editor for the artnet Price Database.