Blue-and-white moon flask
Ming dynasty, Yongle period (AD 1403-1424)
This porcelain bianhu moon or pilgrim flask is painted in underglaze blue with fruiting and flowering lychee branches on both sides.
White-crested waves, unrestrained by a border are painted around the lower section of the flask; the collar has ruyi heads and a band of lotus lappets around the neck; the rim and handles are also ornamented. Archaeologists have excavated similar high-quality flasks from the Yongle stata at Dongmentou, Zhushan, Jingdezhen.
The form is an adaptation of a much earlier foreign vessel. Leather bags or 'pilgrim bottles' inspired ceramic replicas in the Han and Tang periods. Such forms were also fashioned in glass in the Near East and the shape was additionally made in low-fired ceramic in Syria.
Lychee fruit trees are widely cultivated in south China but do not grow in the north because of the climate. The trees are evergreen and in spring bear tiny flowers which are visible here, shortly followed by the lumpy red-skinned fruits.
Wine made from lychee fruit was drunk in southern China in the Ming period. This fact is mentioned in a speech by the attendant to the imperial commissioner, Miao Shunbin, in the popular romantic Ming play the Peony Pavilion, written in 1598.
As this flask was made to present and to contain wine, it is possible that it held lychee wine. Lychee fruits are also an auspicious symbol, representing good wishes for the birth of a son.