Not a crock: Shipwreck yielded porcelain treasures

Probably everyone at one time or another believed or hoped that their grandparents’ old geisha-and-bony-tree-branch vase was really a Ming treasure, and that they’d strike it rich as soon as they took it to the Antiques Roadshow. 
Of course, they never turn out to be Mings, which is always disappointing since, in the popular imagination at least, a Ming is a vase without peer. Well, as all of you Chinese dynastic trivia buffs have probably already guessed, the Shunzhi in the title of UVA Art Museum’s current exhibit, “Treasures from an Unknown Realm: Shunzhi Porcelain,” was no Ming emperor. That is, they don’t have any Mings either. But what they do have is much more fascinating.
Not so very long ago, a ship was found only 100 feet below the surface of the South China Sea, loaded with nearly 23,000 pieces of porcelain from the reign of Shunzhi, the first child emperor of the Qing Dynasty. Dating between 1650-1660 A.D., these vases and plates missed out on being Ming by only a few years. The ship preserved the vases extremely well– some have only minor sand and water abrasion, others have their original shine still intact– giving modern scholars a completely different notion of China at the time. 
In 1644, the Manchurians swept down from north of the Great Wall, gradually overrunning China and replacing a crumbling Ming Dynasty. By placing one of their own, Shunzhi (who was only five or six years old at the time) on the throne, they began a new dynasty that would stretch through the beginning of the 20th century. During the reign of Shunzhi, exports were reduced and Imperial porcelain was not produced– so little scholarly attention had been paid to the porcelain of this time. The salvaged shipwreck changed all that.
Of course, the museum has not snagged 23,000 pieces of porcelain, nor could they accommodate such a motherlode. But they have packed the upper gallery with a very healthy sampling of Shunzhi Porcelain, and it’s in remarkable shape.
Decorated with a cloudy, blue glaze and often filled out with dense reds and greens, the vases come covered with Taoist and Buddhist symbols (the kingfisher for abundance, the lotus for purity, the crane for longevity) or they depict stories from history, myth, or plays. 
This is an impressive catch for the museum, and they have planned an entire symposium around it, scheduled for this March. Non-scholars should find plenty of interest in the Shunzhi haul as well. After all, the exhibit has mystery, shipwrecks, and vases. What more could you ask for?

The University of Virginia Art Museum presents “Treasures from an Unknown Realm: Shunzhi Porcelain,” through March 22. Rugby Road. 924-3592.

Read more on: UVA Art Museum