A male mandarin duck (drake) stares at it's own reflection.

A Pair of Male Ducks: Traces of Queerness in Jin Dynasty China

by Shan Huang


This article is chiefly an examination of an ivory-white porcelain from Ding kiln in Quyang produced for mass domestic use during the Jin dynasty (1115-1234 CE).[1] This porcelain shows a pair of male Mandarin ducks which, this article contends, could be read as a trace of queer aesthetics. The term ‘Ding ware’ relates to the objects collected from this kiln. There are many discussions to be around the material culture reified by Chinese ceramics. This article will outline each of the supporting elements of construction, materials, and culture which support this hypothesis, starting with an brief description of the object itself.

The object under investigation, Fig. 1, is currently held in the collection of Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) donated by Mr. and Mrs. Nathan V. Hammer. This is a moulded white porcelain plate featuring a pair of Mandarin ducks produced during the Jin Dynasty. This white plate with its hard, white glaze shares the typical characteristics of Ding ware, which shall be described further in a moment.[2] It stands 1.27 cm proud, with a diameter is 13.97 cm. The glaze is transparent showcasing the fine white body and the pattern. which features natural subjects such as the birds, and a dragonfly in a lotus pond. On the interior there is a band of dragon clouds. Based solely on its appearance, it is assumed that the outer rim is probably copper or silver. It should be noted that only one image was available for this object at the time of writing, making it impossible to examine the exterior and bottom of the object. The region of production was Quyang Hebei Province, China; this object is typical and consistent with other objects in this kiln site.

Fig. 1 Ding ware plate (Pan) with moulded decoration of a pair of Mandarin ducks in a lotus pond. Image: Museum Associates/LACMA (54.37.4).

Site and Raw Materials

Ding kiln is not the only site in Hebei known to have produced white ceramics. There are Lincheng and Neiqiu (Xing aware), Cizhou (Cizhou ware), Gongxian (Gongxian ware), though the latter is located between Hebei and Henan province. Xing and Ding kilns were within 160 miles of each other (Fig. 2). The styles, method of production and designs are similar between the kilns. This, and the complex political circumstance of the Jin dynasty, Song period and Jin-Song wars make context of the geography difficult to pin down. It is assumed that the kilns were first created under governance of the Song rulers. When the Khitan tribes pushed the Song to southern part of China between 907 CE to 1124 CE , the Khitan-ruled Liao dynasty established control in the region of Hebei and Henan where these kilns were located. These kilns then continued ceramic production under the Liao dynasty creating objects that were widely used in Khitan court and in overseas trade.[3]

Fig. 2 Map of Kiln sites in Song period. Image: Vainker, S.J. 1995, Chinese Pottery and Porcelain, 5th edn, British Museum Press, London., p92.

Ding ware is frequently mentioned in historical literature from tenth century, though the site of Ding Kiln remained a mystery until the mid-twentieth century. As the court used white wares from Xing Kiln, located around 160km from Ding kiln in Hebei, from an earlier period, it is assumed that the early Ding ware was seen as imitation of Xing products.[4] However, Ding ware soon became an influential aspect of material culture in Northern China, known for its particular shade of white, though various colored glazed ceramics have been found at the site. A kiln site is a highly complex space with histories spanning decades or even centuries, often encompassing dozens if not hundreds of main kilns, with smaller production sites nearby. The archeology site of Ding kiln in Quyang measures 1,400 by 1,000, meters suggesting that production from this area was extensive [5]

The quality of raw materials is critical to produce a procellaneous piece with transparent glaze, typical of Ding ware. The grain must be very fine and as free from impurities as possible. In some regions of the north China, the mineral Kaolin (kaolinite) is the most readily available material for such use.[6] This Kaolin clay was acquired locally by potters near the foothill of the Taihang mountain region in Hebei and Henan, close to many Song (and Liao) kilns. The layers of loess there were shallow allowing potters to acquire the white-firing clay to create their kaolinitic white ware more easily. Many kilns thus arose in the region producing fine and pure white porcelain, of which the Gongxian, Xing and Ding wares are among the most famous. The clay obtained from Quyang was called ‘purple ball clay’ (zimujie clay), and as ideal for use at high firing temperatures.[7] From this material was the Ding Mandarin duck dish in Fig 1 made.

Production and New Technologies

After the raw materials were treated to form the clay, the potters used wheel-throwing techniques to shape the dish. Once the shape of a plate was formed, the potter would reverse the body’s spin to trim the outer layer till the desired thinness was reached. Ding ware is significantly lighter than other ceramics due to extent of this trimming for thinness. After decorations were moulded, potters usually applied the glaze in full. Before firing, the rim of the dish which in contact with the saggar were wiped clean removing the glaze. The rim was boned with metal by separate workshops. The bonding in Fig. 1 is indistinguishable as silver or copper due to hard to tell the oxidation of the metal, and both types were used. Such rims might slightly chipped the object when metal was bonded to the rim; however, this does was not consider to affect the decorative purpose of the bonding.

The color of the plate in Fig. 1 was an even cream or ivory white. An excavation report from 2010 suggested that most such ivory-coloured dishes identified were created during the Jin Dynasty (1125-1234 CE), the successors to the Liao dynasty in Northern China.[8] Vainker asserts that the reason for the ivory tone was due to the neutral colour of the clay, or the oxidation of the atmosphere bleaching the kaolin.[9] Chemical analysis conducted on shards of Ding ware over various periods shows a 0.2% titanium in Jin dynasty in shards with ivory tone is distinctively higher than shards with bright white color during earlier period.[10] The chemical differences in ceramics helps locating and dating the object’s creation, and aids the cultural analysis of such objects.

By the eleventh century the quality of the Ding ware reached its peak.[11] Producing fine porcelain was time consuming and labour intensive. Highly skilled potters were required to incise decorations on the body. Innovations in production introduced after the Khitan invasion included the use of moulds rather than hand-carved decorations. Artisans carved patterns and ornaments onto stoneware moulds instead and when each clay blank had partially dried to a tactility generally compared to leather, it was pressed against a mould with desired designs.[12] This saved both costs and time, and initiated an era of mass production. Kerr even suggests that the shaping of plates may even have eventually used moulds as well.[13] As such, the deisgn of a plate would have been fixed and repeated frequenty, with the process of stone-carving the mould allowing little error on the motifs that would be pressed into the clay.

Mass production was possible due to innovation and, during the Jin dynasty, the replacement of wood fuel to the far more efficient coal. The change from woods to coal resulted the oxygen was not eliminated entirely from the kiln during the firing process. The circulation of air and oxygen resulted slightly oxidation firing atmosphere which generates warmer colour, creating the ivory tone on the glaze. This suggests that the dish in question was certainly a mass produced item. During the Northern Song period, kiln-workers had used saggars to increase space and reduce breakages inside kilns during firing (Figs. 3 and 4). Ding dishes were stacked on top of each other and fired inside a saggar, to achieve maximum capacity. When the dishes were stacked upside down, the weight of the dishes were thus spread evenly to the rim, preventing distortion of the fragile ceramic during the firing process. The method is called fu shao (覆烧) and the new technologies were widely used on objects including bowls and plates which are easily stacked up by means of stepped saggars.

Fig. 3 The excavation of Mantou Kiln Y1 in Quyang, Hebei province. Image: Li et al, 2021 p32.
Fig. 4  Kiln of the Mantou-type kiln at Pengcheng, Hebei. Old saggars in the wall provide good isolation. Image: Eva Stroeber 2015 ‘Quiet Elegance: The Ru Yao Brush Washer in the collection of the Princessehop Museum, Leeuwarden Volume 45: issue 1. p7.

Before firing, the rim of each dish which in contact with the saggar was wiped clean, as with the hand-cut plates, removing the glaze. The resulting roughness of the rim, called mang kou (芒口), could be uncomfortable when pressed to the lips, so to solve the problem, and to add a further decorative feature, the rim was boned with metal in a separate workshop. The use of metal was not a new technology in Song ceramics, yet it solved the problems created by saggar use. In combination, the mass-production techniques used suggest that objects such as the plate in Fig. 1 were increasingly common during this period. Hence their decoration and its association may have either increasingly in demand, or simply a standard aesthetic for consumers at this time.

Function and Cultural Significance

Evidences from the Ding Kiln and similar excavations suggests three sources of demand for Ding ware. The first, courts and Buddhist monasteries, which demanded high-end prestige pottery; the second, domestic households, who looked for pieces for general use; and finally, international export demands.[14] This section thus discusses some of the ways Ding plates of a similar shape to Fig. 1 may have been used. Rawson discussed the central Asian influences of silverware on ceramics in China.[15] These effected the shapes, forms, and designs of the ceramics of the time, and the extreme thinness of Ding ware dishes is likely to have been inspired by thin silverware plates.[16] Being the lightest of all ceramics, Ding ware shared characteristics of silver wares as well as glass.[17] The extremely thin and light pieces were thus used to accompany other rarer objects made by metal or glass.[18] One of the reasons that Ding ware was sought after by all classes of people for domestic food use was because it was very thin yet remained strong. The decoration was important, also, to demonstrate the affluence of the individuals acquiring it.

The use of such plates in Fig. 5, which shows a banquet in the Five dynasties period, Han Zizai (second left) a minister of the Emperor, is listening to pipa and on the small table in front of him, several plates containing various colourful finger-foods can be seen. The dishes are in various shapes and sizes, and one plate shares the shape and size of the object in Fig. 1. The scene is coherent with the earlier idea of Rawson that dishes were designed, produced, and used as sets rather than single items.[19] In the seminal fictional work Dream of the Red Chamber (红楼梦) from the Qing dynasty, Ding plates are also mentioned as being used in sets during a game of wine drinking.[20] ‘There are forty white Ding plates. These smallest plates containing many snacks to go with wine, from dried and fresh food, local and imported food, seafood and game.’[21] Ding ware was often designed to be best viewed through the food itself. Fig 6. demonstrates this highlighting of the feature of an incised flower on a Ding dish. When tea is poured into the Ding bowl, currently in the Guanfu Museum Beijing, it enhances the embossment effect. One might infer that the design of the bowl would, therefore, again be of particular importance to the owner of the item, which brings this article to the motif itself.

Fig.5 A panel of ‘The Night Revels of Han Xizai’ Five Dynasties period Hand scroll attributed by Gu Hongzhong. Image: Gu Hongzhong, 韩熙载夜宴图 ‘The Night Revels of Han Xizai’ Beijing. Wen wu chu ban she 2011, cover page.
Fig. 6 Tea in a Ding Bowl from Song dynasty. Image: ‘Mysteries of Ding’ by Ma Weidu, 2019.


The object of Fig.1 has motifs that include Mandarin ducks (yuan yang), a dragonfly, a lotus pond, a band of dragon clouds, all of which are auspicious symbols. Moreover, the intricate foliage with animals and plants is, in many ways an imitation of precious silver court ware.[22]On the interior rim, a band of dragon clouds appears; however from the single blurred image available in Fig.1 it is very hard to define the details. There is similar moulded pattern from the same period shown in Fig. 7. Comparing the two dishes, the band of dragons clouds is more compact and the shape of dragon is less pronounced in Fig. 1. While the main motif of Mandarin ducks in Fig.1 is common theme in folk culture; the main motif of a lion shown in Fig. 7 is an association of Buddhism. Flying dragons in clouds are a common motif in Chinese folk religion, being the vehicle to the unseen world, as demonstrated in the Mawangdui Han tomb.[23] These images thus represent a highly integrated mix of cultures prevalent during Jin dynasty. This further suggests that the motifs are designed to appeal to a broad market.

The most striking feature of this plate in Fig.1, and that which has inspired this article, is the pair of Mandarin ducks facing each other. Mandarin ducks, which partner for mating in pairs, are regarded as the symbol of long lasting love and marriage. Furthermore, the lotus leaves alongside the birds indicate a desire for children (specifically sons).[24] The direction in which the bird were facing differed over different time periods. Pierson observes that during the Song period, a pair of ducks is usually presented as swimming in parallel to each other, as shown in Fig. 8. Compositions of the face-to-face ducks were more usually seen in the Tang and Yuan dynasties.[25] The example shown in Fig.8 of a pair of Mandarin ducks swimming parallel to each other while the drake turned back face to the hen creates a more romantic scene, yet both Fig. 7 and Fig. 8 generate more naturalistic composition compared to that in Fig.1, where the two ducks seem almost to be in different dimensions, with one the ground, the other positioned above the horizon. These are atypical of ducks from spate times, and the imagery becomes more striking still.

Fig. 7 Ding porcelain dish with moulded lion and a band of dragon clouds Jin Dynasty. Image: British Museum, PDF 115.
Fig. 8 Carved mould with a pair of Yuanyang with fish in a lotus pond, excavated in 1978 in Quyang Photo by Miao Jihao, Xue Zengfu. Image: Jihao Miao, Zengfu Xue, “Hebei Quyang Moulde excavated from Ding kilns” Archeology Journal 07(1985):p658 (in Chinese).

The adult plumage of Mandarin ducks differs significantly depending on their sex (Fig. 9). As can be seen in Fig 10, a more enhanced imaged of Fig. 1, the dish quite clearly shows two male ducks, both with the characteristic head plumage and patterns of this sex. It is unusual to see removed the sexual dimorphism for a pair of Mandarin ducks, especially when the motif of Mandarin ducks in lotus pond was used so commonly to represent a wish for sons from a married, heterosexual couple. Another argument of the ducks’ similarity may be that the sex of the ducks was not of concern, then suggesting the symbolism of a happy couple regardless. It seems unusual, given the detail of Ding ware works, that such significant natural traits such as the dimorphism of male and female Mandarin ducks should not be taken into account.

Fig. 9 Pair of Mandarin ducks, male on left, female on right. Image: Wikipedia.
Fig. 10 Enhanced detail of pair of ducks from Fig. 1
Fig. 11 Inset image of two ducks, the male with pronounced caruncle on the left, on a dish with copper band. Image: Ding ware, Song dynasty, British Museum, PDF 160.

This is highly unlikely to be simply a careless mistake on the part of the potters, as once a carved mould was put in production, hundreds of identical plates would be produced at once. The making of the mould must have been undertaken by an experienced potter. Furthermore, all excavated pieces have also been found carved with the potter’s name as well as the name of the manufacturing factory, suggesting that the examining and screening process for piece moulds would be extensive and prevent simple errors.[26] Even if the plate was hand-carved rather than moulded, it is still unlikely the piece would have been sent into production were it a mistake. Examining the other examples of such motifs, the drake from Fig. 11 with has been given a caruncle on its beak to distinguish it from the hen. Then, the potter carved one light stroke with tipped bamboo stick to draw a distinctive crest of feathers of the drake. The beak of the drake is also larger than the hen’s. Skilled potters were valued for their years of training and meticulous attention to details. It is an unconvincing argument that potters would make the mistake of carving the mould with two male birds. It raises questions as the commonality of such symbolism, and begs further research into the potential queerness of everyday symbols on material objects from this period. Moreover, Ding ware showing the sexual dimorphism of Mandarin ducks specifically do exist, as seen in Fig. 12 (enhanced imaged in Fig. 13).

Fig. 12 Ding Ware Dish featuring female and male Mandarin ducks: Image: Ding ware, Song dynasty, British Museum, PDF 171.
Fig 13 Female hen (left) with juvenile and male drake (right) enhanced image of Fig. 12.

Impurities and the Case for Forgery

There is of course then the argument that the plate may be a later piece of work with the imagery less symbolic of homoerotic love, or a misinformed forgery. Here the impurities on the pieces affected by the mass production support its veracity. There is a black spot on the plate, suggesting a level of imperfections. This is a commonly seen characteristic of Ding ware caused by the impurities in raw materials or dusts falling on the vessel during the production process. Moreover, under the layer of glaze, several dots of clay are exposed suggesting that the glaze is very thin, which is consistent with the characteristics of Ding ware (Fig. 14). The color of the clay was not as clear and white as the early examples of Ding ware. However, scientific analysis of Ding shard excavations on site have shown that such color condensation is due to impurities which became more common as fine white clay deposits were depleted after the Northern Song period.[28] Assuming the piece is genuine, this suggests that that there was lack of resources leading to cheaper production methods, again supporting the notion that this mould and pattern are typical, cheap and expected in design, especially given their creation at a time of relatively less abundance for clay.

Fig 14. Enlargement of the object in Fig. 1 showing impurities and black spots.

A closer inspection of the physical object itself would be needed to ascertain whether other impurities in the piece are indicative of Ding ware. For example, when ampotter performed full glazing at a high speed, the glaze often ran down creating uneven stripes of glaze called ‘tears’.[29] These ‘tears’ are unlike to be seen on white porcelain with thicker glaze. Similarly, porters used their fingers to grip on the bottom of the dish to dip into the glaze and tipped it out at a high speed, leaving marks of fingers or fingernails on the bottom. Where Ding ware was used in court the marks were less observable on fine pieces; otherwise, they are common on pieces used in domestic households.


This plate showing two adult male ducks in a scene associated with symbols of romantic pairing was mass produced as part of the sets of dishes for serving food that were used commonly in households of the period. This artile of the Ding place in Fig. 1 is an example of how scientific and cultural analysis can interweave the standard interpretation of the object, its creation, and place of discovery, with hints at the potential meaning of the work’s aesthetic elements. The aim of this piece has been to assess the veracity of the age of this object, and then to speculate on how the decorations of the piece hint at notions of queer lives and imagery at during this period.

While this essay has formed several initial arguments to support this conclusion, the few images obtained are insufficient for more extensive work. Further investigation and analysis are thus required when access to the object is available to check for tears and finger markings to prove its Ding kiln origins. More importantly, a study on motifs with two Mandarin ducks as a couple is essential in order to further research into the presence and perhaps ubiquitous nature of queer imagery, and thus queer lives, in the Song and Jin periods.

[1] Han L.S., Qin D.S., Huang, X., Liu W., 2010, The important achievements of the 2009 archaeological excavation from Ding Kiln site, China Cultural Heritage Newspaper, 22 January.
[2] The Mandarin term yao (窑) refers to both to ‘kiln’ and ‘ware’. The word ‘yao’ is avoided. It was replaced with the direct word ‘kiln’ or ‘ware’ in its context. 
[3] Kerr, Rose, 2004, “Song Dynasty Ceramics” V&A publication, London, ISBN 185177 415 p42
[4] Vainker, 1995, p93
[5] Lin Hong, Hebei Quyang Jianci Ding Kiln Excavation and Investigation .  Archaeology . 1965(08) Page:394-412 in Chinese
[6] Vainker 1995, p219
[7] Zhang, F.K., 2000. Science of Chinese Ancient Pottery and Porcelain. Shanghai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House, Shanghai. 67-81 (in Chinese)
[8] Li et al, 2021 “The Excavation of the Dingyao Kiln Site at Beizhen in Quyang, Hebei”, Wen Wu, vol. 1, pp32 in Chinese
[9] Vainker 1995, p94
[10] Cui, et al, 2012, “Chemical analysis of white porcelains from the Ding Kiln site, Hebei Province, China”, Journal of archaeological science, vol. 39, no. 4, pp823
[11] Vainker, 1995, p72
[12] Vainker refereed it as ‘leather-hardness’ in her book (1995, p95)
[13] Kerr, 2004 p49
[14] Li Binghui 1983, “The history of Ding kiln in relation of Xing kiln”, Palace Museum Journal, p72
[15] Rawson, J., 1991, “Central Asian Silver and Its Influence on Chinese Ceramics”, Bulletin of the Asia Institute, vol. 5, pp. 150;
[16] Rawson, 1991, p93; Vainker 1995 p95
[17] Vainker, 2015, p95
[18] Rawson, 1991, p93
[19] Rawson, J., 1993, “Sets or Singletons? Uses of Chinese Ceramics: 10th-14th Centuries” Journal of Song-Yuan studies, , no. 23, pp. 71-94.
[20] Written during the Qing dynasty by Cao Xueqin, with descriptive scenes of luxurious lives of a rich families.
[21] 四十个碟子,皆是一色白粉定窑的,不过只有小茶碟大,里面不过是山南海北,中原外国,或干或鲜,或水或陆,天下所有的酒肴果菜.” Cao, X.;Gao, E. (1958). Dream of the red chamber. Translated by Huang Shan 20/02/202
[22] ibid
[23] Pierson, S., 2001. Designs as signs: decoration and Chinese ceramics. Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art.p86)
[24] Pierson, 2001, p16
[25] ibid
[26] ibid
[27] If the object from Fig 1 is genuine, it can be inferred that there were cult preferences which were order by patrons during the period of production. It will require another essay for discussion.
[28] Cui et al., 2012, p827
[29] Krahl, R., 2003 ‘Famous Brands and Counterfeits: Problems of Terminology and Classification in Song ceramics’ Colloquies on Arts and Archaeology in Asia No 22. Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art London ISBN 0728603659, p65

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