An Exquisite Imperial Falangcai Bowl That Shows Qing Emperors’ Love for Lotus

Inside the Imperial Summer Palace in Jehol, an imperial garden in the Qing dynasty, beautiful lotuses were planted in lotus ponds. Thousands of multi-petal lotuses blooming in the ponds and were referred as ‘thousand-petal lotus’. They were highly admired by the Kangxi Emperor, who loved them so much that he composed several poems on the subject of lotuses and instructed painters to put lotus on paintings and porcelains. The fondness for lotuses continued in the reign of Qianlong Emperor, Kangxi’s grandson.

What’s so special about this flower that fascinated two great Qing emperors so much? Unfortunately, we don’t get to witness the beautiful scene of thousand-petal lotus blossom since the exact type of lotus has gone extinct. Yet, it is a consolation that we can still catch a glimpse through a beautiful ruby-ground bowl from the Kangxi period.

An Imperial Falangcai ‘double lotus’ bowl, Kangxi, is expected to fetch in excess of HK$100m

Depicted on the bowl is thousand-petal lotus

The base is enamelled in blue with a Kangxi yuzhi mark

This type of lotus was imported from an area in Mongolia that was part of the Aohan Banner and so the lotuses are known as Aohan lotus, and were appreciated not only for their beauty, but also because they were less susceptible to cold weather.

Lotuses were especially associated with relief from the heat of summer. Since the Kangxi Emperor loved lotuses so much, when he ordered the construction of a summer palace in Jehol, he ensured that he could enjoy lotuses within his palaces. The construction was begun in 1703. When the main palace complex was completed in 1711, the Kangxi Emperor bestowed upon it the name Bishu Shanzhuang (Mountain Villa for Avoiding the Heat). It is recorded that the emperor required lotus ponds to be incorporated into the design of the palace, and lotus are planted in profusion throughout the Bishu Shanzhuang.

The Kangxi Emperor even composed several poems on the subject of lotuses. Of the four surviving poems written by the Kangxi Emperor on the subject of lotuses, three refer to the ‘thousand-petal lotus’. The following poem captures the tranquil pleasure experienced by the Kangxi Emperor as he sat at dusk in the imperial garden, enjoying the beauty and fragrance of the lotuses and watching the palace ladies in their boats viewing the blossoms, while favoured ministers try to capture the likeness of the lotuses in paintings.

Thousand-Petal Lotus
‘Early autumn in the Forbidden garden, the Jade Palace is cool;
Green lotuses in rushing stream, deliver clear music.
Thousands bloom above water, layered bright colours;
Countless rounds of wind blow, every stem fragrant.
Palace ladies row their boats, shaking the blue-green leaves;
Trusted ministers move their brushes, praising the red beauties.
Calming my mind, I sit quietly opposite the Western mountain;
Not disturbed by the scenery glowing in the setting sun.’

The present day Bishu Shanzhuang

Double lotuses are depicted in the present bowl

Double lotuses are depicted in the present bowl

Kangxi also instructed painters and craftsmen to apply lotuses on imperial artworks from paintings to porcelains. The present falangcai bowl is one of the precious examples. Falangcai (珐琅彩), which can be translated as ‘foreign colours’, refers to porcelains painted in the imperial workshops of the Forbidden City in Beijing with enamels partly introduced from the West. The production of Falangcai started in the 35th year of the Kangxi reign, corresponding to 1696. Made exclusively for the imperial court and royal family, falangcai was in limited production due to its high cost. Falangcai porcelains are among the rarest and most dazzling ceramic wares of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). They are still highly coveted among collectors and connoisseurs in today market. Some finest examples could fetch up to HK$100m or HK$200m (about US$13m or 25m) at auctions.

During the Qing dynasty, most of the imperial ware were fired in kilns in Jingdezhen, an important centre in Jiangxi province. But that’s not the case for falangcai porcelain. The production process was more complicated. The design of Falangcai porcelain was done by court painters whereas the white pottery was picked out from those top-quality ones produced in Jingdezhen. The pottery was then transported to the imperial workshop of the Forbidden City in Beijing. The painting, decoration, colouring and firing were all done in the court by using falangcai enamels imported from the West. The semi-opaque vitreous characteristic of falangcai further enriches the design with different shades of colours, manifesting the multiple layers of paints on falangcai porcelains.

Therefore, each falangcai piece was made in accordance with imperial orders by the Qing emperors, exemplifying the unique taste of each emperor.

Lotus of a Thousand Petals (1722) by Jiang Tingxi. Collection of National Palace Museum

Comparison between Lotus of a Thousand Petals and the present falangcai bowl

In the 61st year of Kangxi’s reign (1722), which was also the last year of his reign, the Kangxi Emperor commanded the court artist and Grand Secretary to the Imperial Court Jiang Tingxi (1669-1732) to create the painting Lotus of a Thousand Petals. The Kangxi Emperor was so delighted with the painting that he instructed seven of the ministers who were in attendance to compose poems and inscribe them on the painting. According to Christie’s specialist, it is possible to see a clear similarity between the lotuses in the painting, which include a pink double lotus, and those on the current bowl. It seems quite possible that the painting served as inspiration for the ceramic artist who painted the bowl and thus the bowl should be dated to 1722.

Depicted in the painting of Lotus of a Thousand Petals is a double lotus – one which has two blooms on a single stem. Double lotuses – bingdilian or bingtoulian - are highly prized, being regarded as particularly auspicious and in the current context also suggesting the reign of a wise and virtuous ruler, and successful future endeavours. Such flowers are also a literary reference to a loving couple who enjoy eternal harmony. Such double lotuses are especially valued because they cannot be induced artificially nor specially bred. Their appearance is rare and entirely natural, and their two flowers will in turn produce two seed pods.

Comparison between Lotus of a Thousand Petals and the present falangcai bowl

Interestingly, the 1722 paintings of Lotus of a Thousand Petals was also greatly admired by the Kangxi Emperor’s grandson the Qianlong Emperor, and in the 50th year of the Qianlong reign (1785), 63 years after it was painted, the emperor visited the Summer Palace and had the painting brought out so that he could view it. The Qianlong Emperor was so impressed by the accuracy with which it represented the lotus flowers, that he instructed his son and five of the ministers in attendance to add their own poems to the painting.

Unfortunately, nowadays, we can appreciate the beauty of thousand-petal lotus through surviving artworks and literature. At the end of the Qing dynasty and the early Republic of China, Bishu Shanzhuang was badly damaged by wars and unpolitical unrest. When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, thousand-petal lotuses could no longer be found in the dilapidated Imperial palaces, or in Aohan Banner, Mongolia, where it was first imported from.

Alfred Trapnell (1838-1917)

This imperial ruby red-ground Falangcai ‘double lotus’ bowl has a diameter of 11 cm and a blue-enamelled four-character mark within a double square and of the period, circa 1722. It is painted on the exterior with enamels of rich, vibrant tones depicting a continuous lotus pond, featuring large lotus blooms in yellow, pink, blue and greenish white, including three double-headed blossoms. The record of its earliest ownership dated back to Alfred Trapnell (1838-1917), a Bristol-born collector and formerly a sea captain who traded with the East.

Legendary collector Robert Chang acquired the bowl in 1983

After being kept in several private collections, the bowl was acquired by legendary collector Robert Chang at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 1983. The final price was reported to be HK$500,000 at the time. In 1999, the bowl went up for auction at Christie’s Hong Kong and was bought by Dr Alice Cheng, Robert Chang’s younger sister, for HK$12.1m.

The bowl reappeared in the market in 2013 and was sold at Sotheby’s for about HK$74m, setting an auction record for Kangxi ceramics at the time. The buyer was a client represented by William Chak, a renowned antique dealer and the owner of Chak’s. After six years in the same private collection, the bowl will be offered at Christie’s upcoming auction this fall and is expected to fetch in excess of HK$100m.

A Fine and Extraordinary Imperial Ruby Red-Ground Falangcai ‘Double Lotus’ Bowl
Kangxi Blue-Enamelled Four-Character Mark Within a Double Square and of the Period, Circa 1722


Lot no.: 2988
Diameter: 11cm
Provenance (sorted by The Value)

  • Alfred Trapnell (1838-1917)
  • Mrs Mary Jane Trapnell
  • Sold at Christie’s London, 16 February 1955, lot 88
  • Sydney L. Moss, London
  • R.F.A. Riesco (1877-1964) Collection, no. 388e
  • Bluett & Son, London
  • Sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 15 November 1983, lot 277 (reported to be sold for HK$500,000)
  • The Robert Chang Collection, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 2 November 1999, lot 509 (sold for about HK$12,100,000)
  • The Dr Alice Cheng Collection, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 8 April, 2013, lot 101 (sold for HK$74,040,000)

Estimate: expected to fetch in excess of HK$100m

Auction details

Auction house: Christie's Hong Kong
Venue: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
Sale: A Dream Realised: Kangxi's Ultimate Falangcai Bowl
Lots offered: 1
22-23 November 2019 | 10am - 7pm
24-26 November 2019 | 10am - 6pm
Sale: 27 November 2019 | 2:50pm