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China, Jiangxi Province
Yuan period, mid 14th century
Porcelain painted with underglaze cobalt blue (Jingdezhen ware) Diam. 18 3/8 in.

Blue-and-white porcelain has been one of the most popular and influential types of ceramics both in and outside China. The first blue-and-white wares were probably produced in China as early as the 9th century, during the Tang dynasty. However, the full development of the technology and its widespread exportation dates to the mid-14th century, when China was ruled by the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). The Yuan dynasty was established by nomadic peoples from the north called the Mongols. They conquered the Song dynasty and brought new influences into China from the lands under their dominion. Chinese potters produced blue-and white wares to satisfy the Mongol taste. The Mongol trade networks were widespread. During this time, many Islamic merchants settled in China and great quantities of Chinese ceramics were exported to the Islamic world.

Fantastic animals ranging from the completely mythical to composite creatures have appeared in Chinese art since the Warring States period (5th-3rd centuries B.C.E.). Both powerful and protective, these animals were thought to inhabit equally the world of the living and the spirit realms of the dead. They could appear to humans as either auspicious of inauspicious omens.

The unicorn (qilin, pronunciation "chee-lin"), was a composite animal with the body of a deer, a bushy ox tail, cloven hooves, scales, and a single horn. It was perceived as the noblest of creatures and as a symbol of perfect goodness. The appearance of a qilin was thought to portend the advent of good government or the birth of a virtuous ruler.

How to look at this work
In the center of this large platter is a qilin, which seems to be leaping into space among melons and morning glories, which are symbols of good luck. Although there is no defined ground, there seems to be a landscape scene made up of rocks, bamboo, and large plantain leaves. The inner rim contains a scrolling lotus vine, while the outermost rim has a repeated geometric pattern.

This platter would have served a large group of people, which is not in keeping with the Chinese custom in which food is offered in numerous smaller dishes to individuals sharing a meal. Large dishes like this one were thus produced for export to the Islamic world.

On the underside of this platter is an inscription with the name of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (reigned 1627-58)-famous for building the Taj Mahal--and the date 1063 (in the Arabic calendar that corresponds to 1646). The date indicates when the platter was owned by the emperor, not the date of manufacture.

How this object was made
Porcelain is the product of a combination of two special clays--kaolin and petuntse--which, when fired at temperatures above 1300 C, becomes nonporous, vitrified (glasslike), and usually translucent. Unlike earthenware and stoneware, which may be found in a range of body colors, porcelain is generally white. The decoration of this piece was produced by painting on the unbaked object using cobalt oxide, covering the dish with a colorless glaze and then firing the piece.

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