The complicated history behind Chairman Mao’s china

By Zhang Yuchen Source:Global Times Published: 2016/9/6 19:53:39

The complicated history behind Mao Zedong ceramics


A Liling porcelain bowl Photo: Courtesy of Yin Yiping

Luo Yuqi, China's "Red Collector," shows off his collection of Chairman Mao memorabilia. Photo: IC


This year marks the 40th anniversary of the death of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong. As the nation's thoughts turn to the former leader, porcelain collectors tend to pay more attention to the rare chinaware that was once personally owned and used by Mao himself.

Known as Mao ceramics, the former leader's collection of fine china marked the peak of Chinese porcelain making in 20th century. With the high degree of skill involved in their making, the limited amount of surviving pieces and red political background, these pieces have long been a favorite of collectors.

Broadly speaking, Mao ceramics refers to the everyday porcelain wares that the Chairman used after the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. In more limited terms, it refers to two batches of porcelains - one produced in Liling, Hunan Province in 1974 and another made in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province in 1975.

The Liling porcelain pieces are adorned with patterns of red China roses, hibiscus flowers, chrysanthemums and wintersweet blossoms to represent the four seasons, while the Jingdezhen batch features plum and peach blossoms.

Five-color wares

In 1974, Mao visited his hometown in Hunan Province for the last time. This was the longest trip to his hometown that he had ever made as the country's leader. Taking into consideration that Mao's advanced age would mean he would have problems lifting heavy dishes, the local government decided to fire some new ceramics to celebrate his 81st birthday. 

According to a news report on chinanews.com, local government departments required that the new made ceramics should be Wucai (five color) wares, as this type of porcelain is light weight yet sturdy and durable, doesn't contain any lead or cadmium and features attractive designs that don't fade over time.

The task was turned over to the porcelain makers at Liling, a city whose famous porcelain is often given to foreign leaders as gifts, which has earned it the nickname of "red official wares."

At that time, Wucai wares, which features colors both underglaze and overglaze colors, were the Liling kiln's ace in the hole in China's porcelain industry, Xiao Genru, the then director of the Hunan Provincial Reception Committee, told chinanews.com, adding that he was the one who had suggested they choose Wucai for their gift.

The pieces were completed in November of that year. On December 26, 1974, when former premiere Zhou Enlai arrived in Changsha, Hunan Province for Mao's birthday, they enjoyed their meals using these Wucai wares.

The Liling porcelain pieces are considered the most valuable part of the Mao ceramic collection. Two hundred of the 400 Liling Mao ceramics can be found in museums such as the Comrade Mao Zedong Memorial in Shaoshan, while the rest are in the hands of private collectors.

A Liling porcelain bowl with flower designs that fetched 1.84 million yuan ($275,500) at the 2015 autumn auction in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Yin Yiping


 

A Liling porcelain bowl with flower designs that fetched 1.84 million yuan ($275,500) at the 2015 autumn auction in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Yin Yiping

Project 75-01

Although the pieces from the Jingdezhen kiln were originally specially designed as gifts for Mao, the complicated history behind their production makes it difficult to determine which of these wares once belonged to Mao.

These pieces were created in 1975 under the orders of the General Office of the CPC Central Committee as a secret project code-named "75-01," which has led to them earning the nickname "7501 ceramics."

According to a report by the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily, thousands of these pieces were made during production. Of these, the best of the best were divided into three sets, each set consisting of 98 porcelain pieces with peach blossom designs and 47 wares decorated with plum blossoms. These sets were sent to Beijing for Mao, while the remaining pieces were ordered to be destroyed.

However, the kiln was loathe to destroy the pieces they had worked so hard to create and instead divided them up among the kiln's workers.

Over the years, the pieces from the three initial sets and the remaining pieces have gotten mixed up, leading to a difficult quandary for collectors.

As of 2009, nearly 3,000 pieces of authentic 7501 ceramics have been accounted for, with 300 stored in the Communist Party headquarters in Zhongnanhai in Beijing, while the other pieces remain scattered among collectors.

A Liling porcelain bowl with flower designs that fetched 1.84 million yuan ($275,500) at the 2015 autumn auction in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Yin Yiping


 

A Liling porcelain bowl that fetched 1.84 million yuan ($275,500) at the 2016 spring auction in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of Yin Yiping


Rising prices

At first, Mao ceramics didn't really attract the attention of collectors. From mid-1990s, collectors in Singapore began chasing down 7501 ceramics, which in turn drove collectors in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and Southeast Asia to follow suit, thus raising the value of these pieces.

At a Hong Kong auction in 2013, a set of five Wucai bowls fetched up to nearly 8 million yuan ($1.19 million), while a single Liling piece went for 1.86 million yuan at the Beijing Poly Auction this year.

"For collectors, the main value of Chairman Mao's ceramics mainly lies in three points: their rarity, the "red" backgrounds of the kilns and the level of craftsmanship," Yin Yiping, a porcelain expert working for the Beijing Poly Auction told the Global Times.


Newspaper headline: Chairman Mao’s china


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