When the European adventurer Marco Polo visited Hangzhou in the 13th century, he described it as the finest and most splendid city in the world.
Hangzhou was then the capital of Jiangzhe, present-day Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, and a busy hub for the import and export of salt, grains and handicrafts, under the reign of the Mongols.
A new exhibition at the Hangzhou Museum offers a rare chance to know about the lives of people back then through 54 pieces of Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) porcelain wares, unearthed in 1987 from a cellar on Zhaohui Road, downtown Hangzhou.
It is the first time the entire excavation of ceramics will open to the public, which includes cups, plates, jars, vases and bowls produced in kilns at Jingdezhen, Longquan and Huoxian.
Both Jingdezhen and Longquan are important southern kiln sites in ancient China, which prospered and began large-scale production in the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Huoxian is in the north, present-day Shanxi Province, mainly known for its production of plain white porcelain.
One of the highlights from the exhibition is a Longquan celadon vase carved with peony scroll. The vase is 68.5 centimeters tall with a caliber of 29 centimeters and is heavily potted. The neck is carved with encircling bands.
“The piece represents the highest level of craftsmanship of Longquan celadon ware in the Yuan Dynasty,” said Du Zhengxian, director of the museum.
There are also several fine pieces from the Jingdezhen kiln, which have rare glazes. A porcelain tripod ritual wine vessel with plum blossom patterns is a fine example of Jingdezhen’s production of blue-glazed ceramics, which needed to be fired at a high temperature. While an underglaze red stem cup was a new method of glazing initiated by artisans in Jingdezhen during that time.
Another category typical of the Jingdezhen kiln was its blue and white porcelain, which probably defines the very first impression most foreigners have of Chinese porcelain.
These renowned pieces are mostly from the Ming and Qing dynasties. But fewer people are aware that the skills were already fully developed in the early 14th century.
Du told Shanghai Daily that there are only 300 sets of blue and white Yuan porcelain worldwide, and a large proportion are owned by oversea collectors and museums.
The piece on show at the Hangzhou Museum is a brush holder in the shape of the mountains carried by a mythical sea turtle Hai’ao. The treasure of the study is further adorned with clouds and ocean waves, and the sun is seen rising from the top of a central peak.
It is hard to tell the ownership of these antiquities. But it looks as if they were buried in haste because of civil unrest, which was frequent in Hangzhou towards the end of the dynasty.
Du believes the pieces are imperial appliances that were to be transported to the capital Beijing through the Grand Canal.
“Many of them are incised with the pattern of a five-claw dragon, which is a symbol exclusively used by the emperor himself,” added Du.
Date: Through May 8
Address: 3F, South Building, Hangzhou Museum, 18 Liangdaoshan