A scene from Romance of the Western Chamber painted on Ming pottery on display at the Sun Museum exhibition. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
Film franchises usually enjoy a captive audience. Whether you are a Marvel fan or a Twilight obsessive, the pull of familiar characters and situations can be quite strong.
Images of fictional heroes painted on fine late Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644) porcelain are a precursor to the larger-than-life characters vested with superpowers we see in the movies today. The painted figures are often taken from tales like Romance of the Western Chamber and Legends of the Sui and Tang Dynasties — the superhero sagas from another time. These tales were so popular in their day that scenes from them were immortalized on porcelain and became highly sought-after collectors’ items.
Specimens of this fine art genre are now on display in Kwun Tong’s Sun Museum. According to associate curator Rachel Leung, the tales these images are based on surpassed the Harry Potter books in terms of popularity. “It’s exactly like the Marvel franchise,” she says.
Recreating scenes from much-loved fictional tales on a porcelain base wasn’t an easy task. The paint did not sit easily on the smooth round surfaces of vases and bowls, and it was hard to accurately predict the tone a pigment would take on at the end of the day.
“That distinctive blue color actually comes through after the porcelain is fired in the kiln. The artists could only imagine what the colors might look like,” explains Leung. “It was actually quite a technical process.”
Because of the intricacy involved in the craftsmanship, such painted pottery was highly expensive. Only the wealthiest could afford to have such exquisite, hand-crafted pieces displayed at home.
“This was expensive porcelain, so it was mainly the merchant class who would buy it, purely for decoration purposes,” says Leung.
Tales from the classics of Chinese literature were favored by the discerning customers with a taste for culture. Those interested in war stories preferred pieces depicting the Three Kingdoms period (220-280), showing warlords fighting each other. Traditional customs aficionados preferred to pick up porcelain objects with auspicious motifs such as characters denoting “double joy” while the romantics swooned over pottery that captured scenes from the Romance of the Western Chamber. An iconic scene from the novel depicts a girl from a respectable family secretly meeting a lover at the dead of the night. The romance between star-crossed lovers meeting in secret had captured the hearts of Ming and Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911) readers, many of whom had begun to resent the rigid social norms of the era.
“This story is basically about a young lady and a scholar who fall in love with each other and try to break the societal strictures,” Leung says. “It’s about courage and perseverance to pursue true love.”
Leung is optimistic about the show resonating with today’s audiences. “It’s inspiring to know that three centuries ago our ancestors imagined a story like that. They proved that they were not rigid or passive and they could be creative enough to make things for themselves,” she says, reiterating the eternal appeal of the pieces on show.
If you go
Legend of Wenwu – Ming and Qing Dynasties
Dates: Until Feb 8
Venue: Sun Museum, 4/F, SML Tower, 165 Hoi Bun Road, Kwun Tong, New Territories
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