A Nyonya Lamp - The Peony and the Phoenix
A boldly coloured Chinese baluster shaped lamp. The lamp enamelled with a pale, pea green ground colour and decorated with branches of shaded, rose pink Peony flowers, buds and foliage. The ground with two yellow framed ogival shaped reserves enamelled with a distinctive, bright, rose pink ground. The reserved ground enamelled in bright colours with a Phoenix in flight, hovering above branches of shaded Peony flowers. Chinese art is highly symbolic and what could simply be seen as decorative, is rarely so.
The Peony and the Phoenix are two such artistic symbols. The Peony flower is one of the four flower emblems, signifying summer, love and affection. It also indicates a hope for greater advancement and is a synonym for nobility and gracefulness.
The Phoenix is an ancient emblem, signifying goodness and benevolence. It was used to symbolise imperial power, specifically the female aspect, not only signifying the Empress of China, but on her wedding day, the bride.
The Phoenix is also a symbol of high achievement, as this bird can fly the closest to heaven, therefore making it a divine and auspicious symbol. The neck of the lamp with applied Buddhist lion handles. The shoulder of the lamp with moulded and applied pairs of hornless dragons in pink and green enamels.
Nyonya, Peranakan and Straits Chinese are all names used for the descendants of early Chinese traders, mostly from the Fukien province of China, who can trace their migration to the 14th century. Southern Malaya, Malacca, Penang and Singapore Peranakan, all translate from Malay as descendant, Babas referring to male descendants and Nyonya to female descendants.
Historically, the Malay Peninsula was divided into small kingdoms, or Sultanates and it is to the kingdom of Malacca that we must look to find the origin of the Nyonya Chinese communities. Retracing our steps to the 15th century, we find ourselves in the Imperial court of the Ming dynasty’s Yongle Emperor who appointed Zheng He to lead a vast navel fleet of 317 ships with a crew of 28,000!
Zheng was a monumental explorer, mariner, diplomat and admiral of the Chinese fleet and is still revered in modern China. From official Chinese records, we know that in the year 1411, Parameswara, the King of Malacca and a retinue of 540 officials travelled to the Chinese Imperial court to pay homage to the Yongle Emperor.
Malacca became a protectorate of the Emperor which saw the rapid development of the Malaccan kingdom, its geographical position ensuring its development into a major trade crossroad between China and India, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Malacca became an important trade port and soon evolved into a very rich state.
With the enormous volume of trade and traffic between China and the Malacca Straits, shifts in population became inevitable and many from the south of China became permanent citizens of Southern Malaya.
These conservative Chinese communities, now remote from China, were to evolve into a unique society over the ensuing centuries. Known in Malay as Peranakan, meaning, descendants, they held fast to their ethnic and religious traditions, which was ancestor worship, but adopted the language and much of the culture of the Malays.
Historically, these Malay Straits kingdoms, so important to trade, were effectively occupied and colonised over a period of 400 years, first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally, the British, who established the modern state of Singapore in 1819.
Throughout the period of British colonisation, the Nyonya communities did well, being favoured by the British administration for their administrative skills and their loyalty to the British crown.
This new wealth provided communities to add to their unique customs and traditions with some very specific tastes and styles. Already established with a unique cuisine, costume, architecture, language, song and dance, paramount among these is the famous Nyonya porcelain, the earliest, being produced in the first years of the 19th century.
Nyonya ware is the term used to describe the distinctive, brightly coloured porcelains commissioned for the exclusive use of the Straits Chinese communities.
Nyonya porcelain is entirely different, with no reference to any other class of Chinese porcelain produced. It is distinguished by a relatively small range of robust colours and a preference for a predominant decoration, the phoenix and the peony.
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