Final Project Reflection

So far in my life, museum visits have been fun, but objects never interested me beyond their aesthetics. Contemporary art interest me more. I like to find out why artists make their art and the hidden reasons behind them. However, a lot of times I’m not too interested in artefacts. I take them at face value. This project has for me shed a new light on museum artefacts. I learned what interesting stories objects tell if you take the time to read up about them. Every object tells so much about when they were made. They tell us the culture, the people who made them or received them, and even the political environment of the time.

Point is, they tell us so much about the human past, and play a really big part in helping people understand about humanity, how the world has changed, and are actual physical records of history! Most objects outlive humans and they carry on the legacy of their times…

This got me thinking, far in the future, commonplace objects we see today will become artefacts too! A modern sofa would be ancient, and laptops could be considered ancestors! It is a weird thought, but the culture of today will probably be studied by students in the future, and that just gets me thinking. It is fascinating. How everything evolves. What will it be like in the future and how much would society have progressed (or regressed hmm) before my time in this world ends? Internet culture is already so bizarre, it humours me how papers would be written about them.

Overall, I have learnt to appreciate museums and their artefacts more. I think every surviving object from the past is valuable, and I feel lucky to be able to learn more about them.

While the project is far from perfect, we altered out target audience and we did not achieve our ideal goals at the end, I think that I learnt a lot by trying to put myself in the shoes of children. I think we can all learn from children and be more outwardly curious, there is so much of the world to learn about!


Further Contextual Analysis – Incense Burner as an Elephant with a Rider

Previously, I have made some visual analysis and a little contextual analysis on the Incense Burner as an Elephant with a Rider. This time, I will be finding out more about the artefact’s background, form, and function, which I have not covered in the previous post.

Incense Burner as an Elephant with a Rider. China, Jingdezhen, around 1620-1644 (Late Ming dynasty). Porcelain

J I N G D E Z H E N    P O R C E L A I N

Jingdezhen is known as the porcelain capital of China. Previously called Changnan because it was situated on the south bank of the Chang River, Jingdezhen was once a humble market town that produced fine ware for official use from as early as the 6th century.

Other than for imperial uses, Jingdezhen also produced porcelain for the global market. Generally, the export of Chinese ceramics date back to the Song dynasty (960-1279). Supported by the government as an important source of revenue, the ceramics trade established in the Song dynasty continued to flourish through time. Chinese porcelain influenced the ceramics produced in other countries, and was in turn influenced by other countries. For example, importers had certain demands in their commissions, and many were also developed specifically for foreign markets.



Jingdezhen functioned with ungainly efficiency: with predictable impoverishment of potters, with rivalry among kilns and entrepreneurs, with considerable waste and worker dissatisfaction, without direct contact with its most important customers, without central direction over several thousand furnaces – yet with effective and flexible division of labor as a whole. It achieved domination of the global market in ceramics not only by virtue of the superiority of its product but also by the scale and organisation of its production. It represented the climax of handicraft industry, the grandest achievement of wholesale, concentrated manufacture before the age of steam-driven machines.

– The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History by Robert Finlay, Chapter 1: The Porcelain City: Jingdezhen in the Eighteenth Century, pp. 26

One of the reasons Jingdezhen was an ideal site as a centre for porcelain production is its geographical location. The city is abundant with minerals for porcelain manufacturing (kaolin – China clay, and petuntse – China stone), wood fuel for firing (kiln wood) and was near a river, allowing for a water system to be developed to transport raw materials around for porcelain production, and at the same time to ship ceramic products out of Jingdezhen.

Jingdezhen’s operations were optimal. Manufacturers specialised in different items such as storage jars or wine cups. Kilns developed to specialise in different aspects. Some produced imitations of pieces from different periods, some concentrated on large “dragon jars”, toad ware, and one specialised in dishes for Japan.

Workers were also highly specialised. Painters specialised in sketching specific motifs/designs or filling in colors, and were forbidden to develop other skills, in order for them to reach a level of perfection that would contribute to the uniformity and excellence of the painted wares.

From shovelling clay, to skimming of the creamy surface residue, beating the clay with wooden spatulas, making clay molds for “pressed ware”, to actually crafting the wares, Jingdezhen porcelain passes through many hands. Twenty artisans would work one after the other on a single piece of porcelain before it gets sent to the kiln. Workers blew glaze onto vessels as many as seventeen times. At least seventy craftsmen polish, decorate, and glaze the fired porcelain, before returning it to the kiln for a second firing.

All these allow for an effective mass-production system, which was beneficial to the ceramics trade.


K O – S O M E T S U K E

Ko means old and Sometsuke means blue and white wares. During the final decades of the Ming Dynasty, Chinese Imperial patronage slowed down and hence as a response, the Jingdezhen potters sought new markets for their wares. After all, the ideal system that was in place shouldn’t go to waste.

One such market was Japan, where tea ceremony was becoming increasingly popular. The tea ceremony requires different utensils, and this allowed Jingdezhen porcelain to rise up to the demand.



Woodblock print by Toyohara Chikanobu depicting a tea ceremony during the reign of Japan’s Emperor Meiji.

The tea ceremony is considered an art. From making the tea, consuming the tea as a guest, to the decorations, location and setting of the space, everything is perfectly organised. A host’s artistic eye in selecting the wares, decorating the space and setting the mood are important skills as hosts are responsible for conducting unique tea gatherings for the guests. Hence, other than the tea cups themselves and small dishes for sweets, flower vases and incense burners are also some of the wares that are produced for the Japanese market.

The ceramics used in tea ceremonies are not only valued for their practicality, but also for their aesthetic qualities. A key element in the practice is said to be the host’s connoisseurship skills; the host curates a selection of objects to use in a particular gathering.

I would imagine that the incense burner plays a part in setting the mood. In order to set a certain tranquil mood, incense would be burnt to fill the room with calming aromas.

Moreover, the stylistic representation of the elephant and rider, rather than just a normal, indistinguishable form, would reflect the host’s artistic style or interests, maybe in the whimsical.

This incense burner could also be a conversation piece for the tea ceremony participants, seeing that it was so thoughtfully selected. It is considered very polite for a guest to ask about something in the room that they do not understand, as the guests’ interest is appreciated by the host.



This type of incense burner was apparently particularly designed for the tea ceremony setting. It was inelegant to have smoke in the ceremony, so instead of burning incense sticks, fine glowing charcoal would be used. Small pastilles of blended incense (usually perfumed wood or ground mixtures) mixed with glue are laid on top of a thin sheet of mica, itself balanced on top of a charcoal stick glowing inside the censer.

The elephant holds the charcoal and the portly man acts as a cover. The holes in his ears and mouth is where the scent would flow through to gracefully permeate the room.



“Jingdezhen.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed October 27, 2018.

“Chinese Pottery – The Ming Dynasty.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Accessed October 27, 2018.

“Chinese Porcelain: Production and Export.” Khan Academy. Accessed October 27, 2018.

“Ming Dynasty | Chinese Ceramics.” China Online Museum. Accessed October 27, 2018.

Li, Songjie, Shujing Wang, and Xinghua Li. The Development of Jingdezhen in the View of Cultural Innovation. Studies in Sociology of Science. 3rd vol. No. 4. Pp. 45-49. Canadian Research & Development Center of Sciences and Cultures, 2012. Accessed October 26, 2018.

Finlay, Robert. “The Porcelain City: Jingdezhen in the Eighteenth Century.” In The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History, 17-46. University of California Press, 2010.

Little, Stephen. “Economic Change in Seventeenth-Century China and Innovations at the Jingdezhen Kilns.” Ars Orientalis 26 (1996): 47-54.

“Ko-sometsuke: Chinese Porcelain for the Japanese Market.” Jorge Welsh. Accessed October 28, 2018.

“64. Rare Kosometsuke Elephant-Form Incense Burner 青花(古染付)象形瓷香爐.” Japanese Haniwa Female Figure日本埴輪陶女像 | Kaikodo Asian Art. Accessed November 1, 2018.

“Tea Ceremony Etiquette.” July 27, 2016. Accessed November 2, 2018.

Willmann, Anna. “The Japanese Tea Ceremony.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. April 2011. Accessed November 02, 2018.



Incense Burner as an Elephant with a Rider. Digital image. Asian Civilisations Museum. Accessed October 27, 2018.

Woodblock Print by Toyohara Chikanobu. Digital image. National Public Radio. Accessed November 2, 2018.

Free Writing – Incense Burner as an Elephant with a Rider

The object that I have chosen is the Incense Burner as an Elephant with a Rider.

Incense burner as an elephant with a rider. China, Jingdezhen, around 1620 to 1644. Porcelain.

I found this artefact striking in a whimsical way. It seems to be unconventional in terms of shape, and both the human and animal figures are very stylistic. The man’s pot belly, slanted almond eyes, facial hair and robes somehow remind me of wealthy Chinese men or drunken gods often depicted in movies. Another interpretation could be that the figure is sitting cross-legged in a Buddha-like pose, atop what could be seen as a lotus flower due to the petal-like patterns underneath him.









The elephant did not seem like an elephant to me primarily because of its ears, which are neither fan-shaped or big. Along with the tusk and the short nose/trunk, I thought the animal better resembled a warthog. Moreover, the depiction of short hairs on the animal is more descriptive of a hog’s hairy body compared to an elephant’s wrinkly skin. The relative size of the human to the animal also adds to it making more sense to be a warthog than an elephant to me. Otherwise, it might just look like a very whimsical, stylistic choice to portray the elephant in such a way.

There is a patterned symbol on its side, which might be a depiction of some things, but I am not sure of its significance or meaning. The elephant is also painted in a paler blue compared to the darker blue used for the human figure. This might have been done to direct more attention to the human figure, or it could have also been to signify the higher status of a human compared to an animal.


The form of the artefact confused me at first because it does not look like what I thought an incense burner would look like. After finding out that the portly man was just a cover, and that the elephant’s body would be the incense holder, it made more sense to me.

After a little more research, I found out that the oval symbol/pattern on the sides of the elephant were supposed to be decorative blankets covered in a vajra symbol alongside pearls and florets.


The vajra is an ornamental symbol that appears in Indian, Buddhist and Jainism mythology. Adorned by the elephant, it symbolises the resolve to apply Dharma, which is the teachings of Buddha. Seeing that the incense burner is usually used for religious purposes, the symbol seems to be in place.

This incense burner was supposedly owned by a Japanese client, and the both him/her and the creator might have never seen an elephant before, hence the whimsical image. Despite the anatomical inconsistency, the image of the elephant itself is exotic and hence would have given this artefact a certain value to it.

The white elephant is also the mount associated with the Buddhist saint Samantabhadra, the virtuous protector of the Buddhist Law. The portly figure that I previously likened to wealthy Chinese man or drunken gods could also allude to Maitreya, the Buddhist god of happiness and contentment. However, Maitreya is usually depicted with a sack of his belongings and a bald head.

The blue-haired elephant and figure hence do not exactly fit the possible references, but still has positive connotations through its general symbolism.

As a ko-sometsuke (old blue and white), which is a name for 17th century Chinese blue and white porcelain exported to Japan, this incense burner is one of many examples of the usage of the rider and mount symbol. Other animals include toads. The elephant is also widely used in other wares, and along with other animals, are represented in a comical and/or awkward way, like the pig-shaped dishes (check out Kimberley’s free writing on this). This rider and mount form is also similar to the kendi, a vessel used for communal drinking primarily known in Southeast Asia (check out Dawin’s free writing on a frog-shaped kendi).

When I first saw the artefact, I thought the holes apart from the one on the mouth were signs of damage, but apparently they were intentional, to let the smoke out.

Another cool thing that I found out was that “mounting the elephant”, or “jixiang” in Chinese, is a homophone for “auspicious” and therefore the symbol of the rider and the elephant became a popular theme in the porcelain wares.

Overall, after reading up, I found out many interesting things behind this artefact that tells me about the possible significance behind the usage of the symbols and iconography, and the relationship between the Japanese and Chinese in terms of trade relationships and influence over motifs and designs.


Area360 Inc. Incense Burner as an Elephant with a Rider – Asian Civilisations Museum. Accessed October 20, 2018.

“64. Rare Kosometsuke Elephant-Form Incense Burner 青花(古染付)象形瓷香爐.” Rare Kosometsuke Elephant-Form Incense Burner 青花(古染付)象形瓷香爐 | Kaikodo Asian Art. Accessed October 20, 2018.

Admin. “Vajra Symbol.” Ancient Symbols. Accessed October 21, 2018.