The David Vases, Jingdezhen, dated equivalent to AD 1351. British Musuem

These vases are among the most important examples of blue-and-white porcelain in existence, and are probably the best-known porcelain vases in the world.

They were made for the altar of a Daoist temple and their importance lies in the dated inscriptions on one side of their necks, above the bands of dragons. The long dedication is the earliest known on Chinese blue-and-white wares.

The dedication records that in AD 1351 a man named Zhang Wenjin from Yushan county presented these two vases and an incense  burner (the whereabouts of which is unknown), to a Daoist temple in Xingyuan (modern day Wuyuan county). Yushan county is in northeast Jiangxi, which lies 120 km to the southeast of Jingdezhen, where these vases were made. This inscription demonstrates that blue-and-white porcelain production was already well-established at Jingdezhen by AD 1351. Originally the vases, modelled after bronzes, had porcelain rings attached through the elephant head shaped handles.

Porcelain was first produced in China around AD 600. The skilful transformation of ordinary clay into beautiful objects has captivated the imagination of people throughout history and across the globe. Chinese ceramics, by far the most advanced in the world, were made for the imperial court, the domestic market, or for export.

These vases were owned by Sir Percival David (1892–1964), who built the most important private collection of Chinese ceramics in the world.

Yuan dynasty (AD 1279-1368)

The emperors of the Yuan dynasty were Mongols, descendants of Ghenghis Khan (1162-1227), the 'Universal Leader' as his name translates. Ghenghis had conquered part of northern China in 1215, having already united the various nomadic tribes of the steppe land. He divided his empire into four kingdoms, each ruled and expanded by a son and his wife.

Ghenghis' grandson, Kublai Khan (reigned 1260-94), was ruler of the eastern Great Khanate. He completed the conquest of China by defeating the Southern Song in 1279. He ruled as emperor, giving his dynasty a Chinese name, Yuan, meaning 'origin'. He moved the capital to Dadu (now Beijing), shifting the central focus of the empire away from Central Asia.

Under the Mongols, the élite was formed by military officers, rather than the scholar-officials of previous dynasties. Though the bureaucracy was still necessary for administering the country, many scholar-officials retired, rather than serve a foreign regime. These yi-min, or 'leftover ones', dedicated themselves to painting and other literary pursuits.

Generally, the Mongol emperors and bureaucrats were not great patrons of the traditional Chinese arts, although there are a few exceptions. Craftsmen were free to develop and exploit new influences, many dictated by the demands of trade. This is especially apparent in ceramics production, the most important example of which is blue-and-white porcelain.

Because it was foreign-ruled, the Yuan dynasty was traditionally considered to have been all detrimental, contributing nothing new or good to Chinese culture. In the past few decades, this thinking has undergone a change, resulting in a more objective appreciation of the Mongol period.