We’ve most likely seen the red, yellow and teal longevity ceramics at our local Chinatown ceramic shops, or at our local Chinese restaurants peeking out under an order of 炒面; chǎomiàn (stir fry noodle). This classic pattern has an interesting history that most people do not know.
The longevity pattern is made up of a floral design mixed with 4 equally spaced circles containing the Chinese characters 萬 “Wàn”, 壽 “Shòu”, 無 “Wú” , 疆 “Jiāng”. The phrase “萬壽無疆” translates to “Boundless Longevity” and is the key component of the classic longevity pattern that originated during the Kāngxī Period of the Qīng Dynasty (1661-1722).
Until the end of the Imperial China the four character phrase “萬壽無疆 (simplified: 万寿无疆); Wàn Shòu Wú Jiāng” was reserved only for the birthdays of the emperors (huángdì) and empresses (huánghòu) of China. The phrase translates as “may you have ten thousand longevities without boundary.” Many similar interpretations seem to exist such as “Ten thousand years of boundless longevity.”
Wànshòu Wújiāng, literally “countless years of long life without limit” comes from the Shījīng (Book of Odes or Classic of Poetry), comprising poems and songs dating from the 11th to the 7th century BC, and traditionally believed to have been one of Wǔjīng the ‘Five Classics’ compiled by Kǒngzǐ (Confucius); 551-479 BC.
From as early as the Sòng dynasty, the birthday of the emperor was known as the 万寿节; Wànshòu jié (Festival of Ten Thousand Longevities), and in the Míng and Qīng dynasties it was one of the major annual festivals of the Beijing court.
Shòu (longevity) characters appear on underglaze blue decorated porcelain as early as the Yuán dynasty. A Yuán dynasty blue and white stem bowl with flying phoenix on the exterior and a shou character on the interior, excavated in 1972 in Héběi province, was included in the Beijing Capital Museum exhibition Blue and White of the Yuán, Beijing. In the published examples, only a single character appears, usually on the interior of the vessel.
Longevity ceramics were famille rose porcelain (a type of porcelain defined by the presence of pink color overglaze enamel) made by official kilns. They were used during special occasions only, such as the Emperor’s birthday. Longevity ceramics as well as the phrase 萬壽無疆; wàn shòu wú jiāng were exclusive to the emperor, commoners were strictly forbidden to use them.
After the fall of the Qīng Dynasty however, the longevity pattern went into the common kilns and became a popular design for ceramic tableware. Between the last dynasty and the founding of PRC (1949), there were no standards regulating the ceramic production, so the quality and design of longevity pattern varied quite a bit.
In a shortened version the same phrase (wànsshòu – ten thousand longevities) can be referred to in decorations by combining the swastika (Wàn) with the shòu character.
When the Cultural Revolution (Wénhuà Dàgémìng); 1966-1976 came to be, the phrase 萬壽無疆 was widely used in praise of Chairman Mao. People of all ages had to practice this chant at the beginning and at the end of their day, dance and sing to it with passion.
Chairman Máo (Máo zhǔxí) is described as the Sun (tàiyáng) that is in the hearts of the people, who were described as sunflowers (Xiàngrìkuí). As a result, the original lotus flower composite (宝相花; bǎo xiāng huā) that was traditionally found on longevity porcelain changed to a sunflower (Xiàngrìkuí) design to represent people’s love towards Chairman Máo.
More than 60 different shapes and 100 different specifications of the famille rose porcelain were produced during the Cultural Revolution in China’s Porcelain Capital, Jiāngdézhèn. Since everything was manually produced, ceramics were categorized into 4 grades based on their quality. Top quality ceramics were mainly exported to Southeast Asia, Italy, and other European countries, leaving the rest to be sold domestically.
Longevity ceramics are still being produced to this day, but their value can not compare to the Qīng dynasty ones or the Cultural Revolution (Wénhuà Dàgémìng) ones. High quality longevity sets produced during the Cultural Revolution (Wénhuà Dàgémìng) era can worth thousands of dollars, depending on the condition.
Oleh: Suhana Lim