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Soya sauce on Mount Fuji?

Mount Fuji

Gallery 203 in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is part of the Asian Art Department, and is devoted to Chinese ceramics. In particular, the porcelains presented here reveal ‘the interchanges between Chinese ceramics and those in other parts of the world’ [1]. One of the selected items is this small dish (25.1 cm wide, and 28.5 cm long).

Dish in the shape of Mount Fuji with a design of horses and deer, Ming dynasty ca. 1620–30. Metropolitan Museum (Purchase, Barbara and William Karatz Gift, Gift of C. T. Loo and Company, by exchange and Rogers Fund, by exchange, 2010 (2010.206)

It is made from porcelain, using the characteristic white clay found near the southern Chinese kiln town of Jingdezhen. It has been decorated with blue designs, brushed onto the clay surface before the object was glazed and then fired at high temperature. During the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), hundreds of thousands of such so-called ‘blue-and-white’ porcelains were produced in Jingdezhen, so that in itself does not explain the choice of the Metropolitan Museum of Art to select it for display in Gallery 203. The shape, however, does explain the choice. The shallow dish (5.3 cm in height) is wide on one side and narrow on the other, with rounded edges on either side of the design in the middle. Instead of laying the dish flat, one could stand it up on its wider side, with the narrow shape at the top, to reveal a shape not unlike that of the famous Mount Fuji in Japan.

The design drawn in blue in the centre of the dish reveals deer and horses moving through a hilly landscape with trees and plants. The undulating hills of the design are mimicked in the wavy design of the edges of the dish, so that the whole dish creates an impression of fluid movement. Near the top of the ‘mountain’, some clouds waft through the sky, three birds fly past and eight Chinese characters read ‘Living among trees and rocks, roaming with deer and horses’ (木石與居, 鹿马與游). These four characters refer to a passage in the Mencius. In D.C. Lau’s translation, the passage reads ‘When Shun lived in the depth of the mountains, he lived amongst trees and stones, and had as friends deer and pigs. The difference between him and the uncultivated man of the mountains then was slight. But when he heard a single good word or witnessed a single good deed, it was like water causing a breach in the dykes of the Yangtse or Yellow River. Nothing could withstand it.’ 舜之居深山之中,與木石居,與鹿豕遊,其所以異於深山之野人者幾希。及其聞一善言,見一善行,若決江河,沛然莫之能禦也. Instead of the deer and pigs from the Mencius passage, the dish shows ‘deer and horses’, but what matters is the deer. The deer stand for the untrammeled life amongst trees and rocks where the ancient sage Shun compared himself to the uncultivated men of the mountains. Of course, implicitly, the user of the dish imagines himself to be just such a moral connoisseur of good words and deeds as Shun was. [3]

It is not likely that the dish was made to stand on its side; the three small feet on the base of the dish show that it was meant to stand flat on a table or other surface.

Such shallow dishes were on the whole intended for serving sauces and for dipping food.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art explains the images as follows: ‘it was commissioned by a Japanese tea practitioner for use in the tea ceremony. It would have probably been used to serve a light meal that preceded the tea, known as the kaiseki’. However, although we have little proof for this, might soya sauce, or a blend of soya sauce with another sauce, also have been served in this Mount Fuji dish?

[1] See the description of the gallery, Gallery 203 – Chinese Ceramics, consulted on 6 november 2014.

The fact that the shape looks like Mount Fuji clearly suggests that the object was made in Jingdezhen for the Japanese market. Presumably the shape of Mount Fuji.

[3] D.C.Lau translation of Mencius, pp. 184-5. Mengzijuan 26.14b.

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