The first time I saw a set of 12 Flowers of the Months Qing dynasty ( 1644-1912) tea cups was when I visited the Flagstaff House Museum of Teawares in Hong Kong. I was in porcelain heaven in Hong Kong, but these little cups captured my fancy and I made notes from a sign posted in the display case as to what each of the flowers depicted in this set are:
1. plum blossom ( January )
2. apricot blossom ( February )
3. peach blossom ( March )
4. tree peony ( April )
5. pomegranate ( May )
6. lotus ( June )
7. rose ( July )
8. osmanthus ( August )
9. chrysanthemum ( September )
10. cymbidium orchid ( October )
11. narcissus ( November )
12. wintersweet ( December )
These cups appealed to my weakness for elegant Chinese porcelains ( tea wares or otherwise). I admire both hand-painted pieces as well as shapely vases simply adorned in rich, monochrome glazes. I find the designs and images on hand-painted pieces to be particularly enticing and have come to know that there is much to learn about the history and evolution of Chinese porcelains during the imperial years. Art historians, museum curators, antique dealers, auction houses and wealthy collectors have written in great detail about the different porcelain styles favored throughout the dynasties, as well as the use of motifs, animal, flower and symbols as representations of harmony, blessings or wealth.
Before porcelain was produced for the average household in China, much of it was made exclusively for imperial use. Monochrome glazes of dfferent colors denoted the rank or ‘value’ of the person for whom the piece was made or given, and the meaning of the colors was well known to those in court. Protocol was also established by the hierarchy of certain colors at state functions: yellow enamel glazes were reserved for the Emperor and his immediate household.
Porcelain was given to visiting dignitaries and reflected the growing prosperity, worldliness, and technical virtuosity of Chinese artisans. The formula for making porcelain was discovered by the Chinese and it was Chinese artisans who elevated porcelain to one of the highest forms of Chinese art. Porcelain allowed many of the arts that the Chinese Emperors held in high esteem – poetry, calligraphy, painting and seal marks- to be incorporated into one art form, thus blending and drawing inspiration from various art forms into one.
Sets of 12 flowers/months tea cups came into favor during the Qing dynasty ( 1644-1912) the last imperial dynasty and are especially attributed to the Emperor Kangxi ( r. 1661-1722). Usually the Emperor too his meals alone in his chambers, and dined from porcelain wares that were especially commissioned for his pleasure. Teacups depicting the flora of the 12 flowers/months of the year were used by the Emperor each one month period to celebrate each of the four seasons and the esteemed flowers associated with those months.
These cups are still made today in the porcelain workshops in Jingdezhen, China. Intact sets of 12 flowers/ months tea cups from the Kangxi period are extremely rare and stratospherically expensive. I purchased my new set of these charming cups in China after much searching. Each cup is made from extremely fine and thin porcelain of the whitest white. The shape of the cups is that which was made during the Kangxi period, and the cups are decorated with overglazed enamel colors.
One side of each cup depicts the flower in a naturalistic setting and the reverse side is inscribed with a poem fragment in praise of the flower. My cups seem to match the listing from the tea cup set in the the Flagstaff Museum with one exception: I have a hibiscus cup instead of an apricot blossom cup.
I asked a Chinese friend to translate what was inscribed on the back side of each of my cups. She said that they seemed to be snippets of poems and that the words made sense as individual words but the abbreviated phrasing made the meaning hard to decipher.
So, this is a rendering of the meaning of the inscription in the photograph below:
counting the many fragrances in the air
At the beginning of each month I will post the next cup and translated poem. I hope everyone enjoys this little story about the Kangxi Emperor’s tea cups and Chinese porcelain history !