How the Love for Porcelain Killed the First Prime Minister of the Republic of China?

Tang Shaoyi, a prominent political figure and diplomat, was widely known for his role as the first Prime Minister of the Republic of China. Besides his political achievements, Tang was also remembered for being an avid collector of Chinese porcelain. Perhaps, he had never imagined that he would die because of his love for porcelain. Asaph Hyman, Global Head of Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, Bonhams tells us more about the story of Tang Shaoyi with a underglaze-blue and copper-red vase that owned by Tang. 

Prime Minister of the Republic of China|Tang Shaoyi

Asaph Hyman|Global Head of Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, Bonhams

President Yuan Shikai

Tang Shaoyi's cabinet

Tang Shaoyi was a famous graduate of Columbia University

A Qianlong Underglaze-blue and Copper-Red Vase from Collection of Tang Shaoyi

Asaph Hyman: We are delighted that we sold the underglaze-blue and copper-red vase, Qianlong seal mark and period, for HK$23.5m. It belonged originally to Tang Shaoyi. He was one of the greatest statesmen of the late Qing to the early 20th century and became the first Prime Minister of the Republic of China in 1912. He was in that particular position for only three months because of disagreement with the President Yuan Shikai, who wished to be all powerful.

They first came to know each other when they both served in Korea. At that time Yuan Shikai was a general. Tang Shaoyi was a junior diplomat. Yuan Shikai was impressed with Tang’s services and decided to promote him. As Yuan’s career went up, so did Tang’s. Tang Shaoyi became very much associated with Yuan Shikai.

British expedition to Tibet

"Lord Kitchener Wants You" is an iconic recruitment poster

Tang Shaoyi and his wife

Porcelain’s Role in Tang’s Diplomatic Relation with the English

Asaph Hyman: In China, he was a diplomat when the English invaded Tibet in the Younghusband expedition. He was sent in charge of the diplomatic delegation to India to speak to the head of the army at that time, Lord Kitchener. Tang Shaoyi loved porcelain and had a great collection of porcelain. Porcelain also played a role in a diplomatic way. Perhaps we can say, negotiations, in exchange for gift of porcelain because Lord Kitchener was famous for his love of Chinese porcelain. 

It wasn’t surprising that the English, particularly influenced by Kitchener, supported the Chinese (Qing Dynasty) position. That’s one of the great achievements by Tang Shaoyi.

Tang Shaoyi and Sun Yat-sen (Former President of the Republic of China)

Second Sino-Japanese War

Tang Shaoyi was killed by an axe

Tang Shaoyi Died Because of His Love for Porcelain

Asaph Hyman: In Tang’s later life, he retired to Shanghai and continued to be a very influential person. When the Japanese were in China, it was said that he was talking to the Japanese, who was trying to form a public government. He himself denied that. It’s not entirely known till this day exactly what happened or who sent the people to assassinate him.

But what was interesting was the way assassinators got into the house was through two people who knew the households. An additional group of people masquerading as antique dealers came in with porcelains and other objects. They used the opportunity to regretfully assassinate him.

Asaph Hyman

Tang’s Qianlong Underglaze-blue and Copper-Red Vase Returns to China

Asaph Hyman: The family has since immigrated to America. The vase comes directly from the family to Hong Kong. I believe it will now join a great collection in China or Greater China. It’s a complete circle that it’s coming back to its home.

The vase is absolutely unique. There isn’t another vase in this particular shape, size and decoration. The decoration was inspired by early Ming porcelain. It’s remarkable that the copper red has fired to such an exceptional, almost perfect condition. It’s one of the most difficult pigments to fire. It gets blurred or discoloured easily. But in this case, it’s extremely vibrant.