Culture

A beautiful cup, its Chinese imperial owner, and chickens

The best piece at a new exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum is one of the smallest, and most beautiful

chicken-storyChinese porcelain is so varied that everyone can find a style to admire. The Royal Ontario Museum’s current exhibition, “The Forbidden City: Inside the court of China’s emperors” has them all. There is the refined, plain appeal of Ru porcelain, the giddily ornate plates created for Emperor Tongzhi’s wedding, or the blue-and-white vase decorated with 10,000 variants of the character for longevity.

In the middle of the exhibit is sheer perfection, a tiny treasure not to be missed in a rush to see all the “big” pieces. Called the “chicken cup,” this piece is decorated with scenes of a rooster, hen and two chicks in a garden, and was created at the imperial kilns exclusively for the court of Emperor Chenghua (Ming dynasty, reign of 1465-1487). What sets it apart from all the other selections of imperial porcelain is its vivid, beautifully painted scenes—blink and the free-form chickens appear to be moving around the cup. All this on a cup that would fit comfortably in the palm of a woman’s hand. The colours are applied both over and under the glaze, which as the exhibition catalogue notes, “required firing the cup twice at different temperatures.” No wonder that fewer than a dozen survive worldwide.

The cup’s small size leaves it almost lost in its display case. So you might have to hunt a bit to gaze upon six-centuries-old chickens. But trust me, it will be well worth it.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.