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Da Ya Zhai (Studio of Greater Odes)

Porcelain mark Da Ya Zhai (Studio of Greater Odes) has been associated with the Dowager Empress Cixi.

Though no such hall has been identified, a wooden framed plaque has been found in the Imperial workshops, bearing the characters Da Ya Zhai and with one of two seals reading Tiandi Yijia Chun: see Guo Xingkuan and Wang Guangyao, Guanyang Yuci: Gugong bowuyuan cang Qingdai zhici guanyang yu Yuyao, Beijing, 2007, pp.145-147.

According to the authors, in the 12th year of Tongzhi (1873) work began on the restoration of the Yuanming Yuan, and by 1874, the interior of the Tiandi Yijia Chun would have been in need of furnishing.

Rosemary Scott in her article 'For Her Majesty's Pleasure - Dayazhai Porcelain', published by Christie's Hong Kong, 3 December 2008, p.23, suggests that the new-style porcelains were not produced until the Guangxu reign, and by the second year of Guangxu, 4,922 porcelains had been produced bearing both Dayazhai and Tiandi Yijia Chun marks. As the restoration work at the Yuanming Yuan had been halted for economic reasons, the vessels would have been delivered to the Forbidden City.

The Dayazhai motif is found on imperial porcelain commissioned by the Qing Empress Dowager Cixi. The characteristic motif consists of scrolling grapevines with blossoms of peonies and magpies perched on a branch. The backgrounds could be yellow, turquoise, aubergine ground and also a pale blue ground, the design being basically the same. These have been copied from the Republic period to the present.

Dayazhai pieces are Imperial wares and always bear three marks: A red hall mark reading Daya Zhai "The Studio of the Greater Odes". Within a small oval panel framed by two dragons we find the motto Tiandi yijia chun "The Whole World celebrating as One Family". On the base, a four character mark, Yongqing changchun "Eternal Prosperity and Enduring Spring".

The designs are believed to have been based on paintings by the Dowager Empress and were produced in both the Tongzhi and Guangxu reigns. There were five floral designs of Dayazhai wares two of which represented Spring, the others Summer, Fall and Winter. The originals were made for the Dowager Empress's personal and private use. The fact that there were two patterns for Spring suggests that an entirely new group may have been considered but only one of the sets representing a season was produced.

The marks were her own, in effect her Imperial reign mark since only the Emperor could have an Imperial nianho. They were dinner sets that comprised 8 different shapes totaling only 100 pieces believed to have been made in pairs.

Cixi most often dined alone without pomp and ceremony and these small services would have been adequate for her personal use. All patterns seems to have been made in the late Tongzhi or early Guangxu period.

The designs were copied in the Guangxu period and sometimes had different ground colors than the originals and bore 6 character Guangxu reign marks in iron red. During the Republic period the characters in the cartouche were written backwards as the pieces were made in "mirror" image pairs which was popular during that time. The designs were in fact also copied at later dates in some form with various colored grounds not as the originals were done and none, including those made in the Guangxu period were of the quality of the originals actually made for the Dowager Empress.

Though the Cixi was reputed to have had artistic abilities in painting and calligraphy it was far more likely that specific court painters that excelled in flower painting and calligraphy actually created and drew the designs based upon her instructions. Therefore the notion that is based on earlier scholar's conjecture that the designs were actually based on her paintings is probably incorrect though she was known for painting floral pictures. She none-the-less took credit for the designs considering herself the creator of porcelains for her personal use.

There are only a handful of the original genuine pieces of each pattern in existence and the bowl in the David Collection is a late Guangxu copy though of the finest quality. The coarser made Dayazhai styled pieces were late Qing (early 20th C) rather than Republic or later and that the original designs elements were interchanged with various colored grounds.

There were two main groups of top quality 'Imperial' Dayazhai wares. First, five dinner services made up of eight shapes with no more than two items of each shape. The five dinner services each represented one season with the wisteria/rose pattern also representing all the seasons. The second group are heavily potted narcissus pots in six different patterns.

The 5 Dinner services were:

  1. Roses and wisteria on a turquoise ground (Spring/all seasons). 7 known pieces of top quality exist: 3 in George Weishaupt Collection, Berlin; 1 at Musee Guimet, Paris; 2 at National Gallery, Melbourne; and 1 at the National Palace Museum, Taipei
  2. Peonies and insects in white and grisaill on a yellow ground (Spring). 3 known top quality pieces exist: 1 at Musee Guimet; 1 in the Weishaupt Collection; 1 at the Metropolitan Museum, New York
  3. Lotus and herons on white ground (Summer) 4 top quality pieces known to exist: 1 at the National Palace Museum; 3 at the British Museum
  4. Chrysanthemum and hibiscus in white and grisaille on a truquoise ground (Autumn). 2 top quality pieces known: 1 in a Private Collection; 1 in the Imperial Palace, Beijing
  5. Poppies and hydrangeas in polychrome enamel on an opaque purple ground (Winter). 4 known top quality pieces: 3 in private collections, 1 at the National Palace Museum.

So, in terms of top quality "original" Dayazhai wares, there was a probable maximum of 100 pieces made, of which 20 pices from the dinner services are known and c.14 narcissus bowls. Each shape within the dinner services is consistent in quality and exact dimensions, suggesting they were all made at the same time. Longsdorf proposes c.1872, near the end of the Tongzhi period as a date. Of course, many derivative patterns and copies were made in the Guangxu and Republic periods (and later) and a huge variation in quality exists.