The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Height: 46.000 cm (with cover)
Given by Mrs Alfred Clark
Large covered jar with underglaze blue decoration
Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province,
Ming dynasty, Jiajing mark and period, 1522-66
This porcelain covered jar has a domed cover with a knob finial. Its decoration shows 16 boys in a garden, occupied in a range of different games and activities. One is riding a hobby horse, another pulls along a toy cart and a group sit at a table reading a book. Although they appear to be playing freely, many of them are engaged in games that symbolise success in future official life.
Educating sons was hugely important in Ming China. Through successful education young men could pass the national imperial examinations and gain a high office with a good salary, bringing glory and advancement to their families. Girls, however, were rarely depicted on Chinese porcelain because of their inferior social position.
In Confucian philosophy many children, but particularly many sons, were also essential for the fulfilment of family and ancestral duties, rites and ceremonies. Images of babies and boys represent a desire for fertility, wealth, and happiness.
This jar was made for the Jiajing emperor who was born in 1507 and died in 1566. He was a committed Daoist who searched tirelessly for magic potions to prolong his own life but probably hastened his end by ingesting poisonous concoctions. He succeeded to the throne by becoming the adopted son of the previous childless emperor. Perhaps this explains his fervent desire to secure succession for his own family - he had eight sons and five daughters by three wives and many concubines.
J. Harrison-Hall, Ming ceramics (London, The British Museum Press, 2001)