Porcelain phoenix-headed ewer
Probably from southern
9th-11th century AD
This white porcelain ewer, or pouring vessel, is considered to be the among the most remarkable of all Chinese ceramics. No closely comparable pieces have ever been excavated, and there is much debate about exactly where and when it was made. Some features of the decoration can be seen on ceramics produced in northern China: tall vases with lined necks and simple phoenix heads have been found in Liao territory. This ewer had a spout (where there is now a hole), but does not seem to have ever had a handle, so its vase-like shape may point to a northern origin.
On the other hand, the Xicun kilns in Guangdong province in southern China produced sculptural phoenix heads. Sharply incised and combed designs combined with stamped rings, as on the ewer, are typical features of Xicun wares, though generally of poorer quality than this.
This exceptional piece, then, remains something of a mystery. It is known, however, that phoenix-headed ewers were already used during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906), and this one may be from as early as the ninth or tenth century.
S.J. Vainker, Chinese pottery and porcelain, (London, The British Museum Press, 1991)
J. Rawson, Chinese ornament: The lotus an (London, The British Museum Press, 1984)