The Wrong End of the Dragon

I f we never published anything lest the information become outdated, nothing would ever be published, but it is a bit embarrassing to have to write an erratum as the book is rolling from the presses. We have this situation with the sixth volume of the series of books cataloguing the Bloch Collection. 1 In dealing with Jingdezhen porcelain snuff bottles I raised the possibility that a group of cylindrical, blue-and-white bottles decorated with dragons and resembling pillars wrapped with carpets might first have been made as early as the Qianlong period and continued in production into the first decades of the nineteenth century. The subject of this group came up in a recent discussion with James Lally, whose eye for ceramics is extraordinary, and he has convinced me that I was wrong and that the group was made a little later, during the nineteenth century. Nudging my eyes back to the days when Qing ceramics were among my main interests, he reminded me that the evolution of the dragon on Chinese ceramics is quite distinctive and that the beasts on this series of bottles are typical of the mid-nineteenth century rather than of the Qianlong period. How I managed to ignore so salient a fact through several years of research and writing remains a mystery. Other aspects of the porcelain bottle group remain unchanged. The inspiration for the design was almost certainly the habit on special occasions of wrapping columns of a palace with dragon-design rugs which, when joined around the cylinder of the column, made the design continuous (the flat carpet is discontinuous since the dragon’s body is cut into segments—see figure 1 ). The majority of surviving bottles are decorated with five-claw imperial dragons, suggesting that the whole series is imperial, in which case they were produced at the Imperial Kilns, Jingdezhen. These bottles can be linked stylistically to a series of other porcelain bottles of the second half of the Qing dynasty, and they have some of the more powerful dragon designs in the snuff- bottle world. This group of dragon bottles appears to have been mentioned by Zhou Jixu in his commentary ( preface dated 1893) on Zhao Zhiqian’s late-nineteenth-century book on snuff and snuff bottles, the Yonglu Xianjie . 2 Zhou wrote: “ old porcelain snuff bottles are all round in the shape of a pillar. The decoration on them might be either a dragon embracing a pillar, or a lone figure fishing in a snowy river, or twelve lotus blossoms, all of which are superior objects. ” He is typically sweeping in his claim that all old porcelain snuff bottles are of this shape, but he may have been largely unaware of earlier imperial groups. He includes a wider range of cylindrical snuff bottles in his “ early ” group, but his “ dragon embracing a pillar ” seems to refer to the present group. This suggests that by the late nineteenth century, such bottles were considered old. The other types he mentions provide a clue: blue-and-white bottles with a lone fisherman and blue-and-white bottles with twelve lotus blossoms are both known and certainly were produced during the first half of the nineteenth century. By lumping them all together, Zhou suggests that they were all made at about the same time and long before his day. There is a Jiaqing reign-marked porcelain example close in form to the typical dragon- pillar bottles but with an imitation guanyao glaze. It remains in the Imperial Collection in Beijing and may be a formal antecedent to the dragon-pillar bottles. 3 It now seems safer, however, to assume that even if the formal prototype existed in the Jiaqing reign, the series of blue pillar-carpet snuff bottles with dragon designs were probably The Wrong End of the Dragon Hugh M. Moss Fig. 1. Shuisongshi shanfang Collection. 16