Hand-painted Soldier cups: Taiwan Suppression

One reason people collect sake cups is the element of surprise; that is, surprise at finding a unique item or a previously unknown design. Today I’d like to introduce to you to one of these surprises. It is a beautiful hand-painted sake cup set dated 1900. Here it is:

Soldier set dated 1900

Soldier set dated 1900

As you can see, there are three cups with the same basic design. They are different sizes to allow nesting. The design, though, is most striking: A Japanese soldier is planting a battle flag into ground that is marked ‘Japanese Territory.’ To the left are stylized clouds, often used as an auspicious symbol in both China and Japan. Above these clouds is an upside-down Chinese soldier. Suspended from his belt is a gun. His position indicates defeat.

The inscription: ‘Suppression of Taiwan, Great Victory of the Army, Aomori Infantry, 5th Regiment, 9th Company, Superior Private Kanehiro.’

Cups like these are extremely rare, and a closer look at the cups shows that they are all hand-painted with wonderful detail. Here is the Japanese soldier.

Soldier close-up

Soldier close-up

Each soldier has the same pose, but the man is the center is missing some markings on his sleeve. Each has the same expression, too: Closed eyes (or more likely downward-turning eyes) and slight frown. It appears as though the same artist drew all three, but there is a chance that two or three artists were looking at the same design when painting the cups. I am not sure of the process, and anyway I suspect there was no set process throughout all the kilns in Japan.

Let’s examine the Chinese soldier.

Here the three have such similar lines that we can conclude that one artist painted all three. The quality of this figure, though, seems to be slightly less than the Japanese soldier, and this was probably not done by design; the Chinese soldier is much smaller and therefore harder to render. Take a look at the hands, one of which has an extra finger. The soldier’s right hand is in a fist and looks acceptable, but the left outstretched hand is crudely drawn. The left arm of the figure to the far right seems to be protruding from his neck.

What conclusions can we make by looking so closely at these paintings? First, the artist (and there was probably only one) was not one of the best. He was probably at the higher end of the artists in his kiln, but he was not first-rate. However, given that these are all painted on porcelain with little margin for error, we should be able to excuse any shortcomings. If we judge it too harshly, we ignore the particular difficulties the artist must have encountered when painting on a concave surface with no second chances.

Second, even considering the faults, this is a high-end set that was very expensive to produce. There is no doubt that it is unique, most likely privately commissioned by a wealthy family.

In addition to the impressive design, this set commands historical attention. Suppression of Taiwan? What exactly does that refer to? We can see from the inside box lid that this set is dated Meiji 30 [1900], but that it was given to Mr. Kanehiro on his discharge, also noted on the box lid. Here is a the full inscription, some of which repeats that on the cups:

‘Aomori Infantry, 5th Regiment, 3rd Battalion, 9th Company, 1st Platoon, Kanehiro Kumagoro, Meiji 30, November 30, Term Fulfillment Discharge Commemorative Sake Cups.’

And here is a photo:

box lid (underside)

box lid (underside)

A few more details on his unit numbers are included as is a date. Japanese antique collectors often look at the original box as an essential part of porcelains and pottery. They always aid in identifying age and origin.

But back to the question of Taiwan. Since 1900 is the date of Kanehiro’s discharge, we can disregard that as the date of the suppression. However, it is useful because it tells us this suppression obviously happened before 1900.

Looking at the history of Taiwan, there are two significant dates that interest us: 1874 and 1895. In 1871 a Japanese vessel shipwrecked on the Taiwanese shores and the 54 crewmen were beheaded. After not receiving adequate compensation from the Chinese government, Japan invaded Taiwan in 1874.

At the end of the 1894-5 Sino-Japan War, Taiwan was ceded to Japan. However, there was an uprising in 1895 and Japanese troops entered Tainan and suppressed it.

Since the 1895 event was closer to 1900 and much fresher in the popular imagination, this is most likely what is referred to on the cups. Kanehiro Kumagoro probably took part in this action and was proud of his participation. So he (or his family or friends) decided to commemorate it when he was discharged.

All in all, a wonderful set both artistically and historically. Although sets like this are rare, other hand-painted cups abound. Still, the existence of this kind of set makes sake cup collecting all the more exciting.

Next time I will take a look at the more common stamped soldier designs.

Cheers, Rich

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Published in: on September 16, 2008 at 11:31 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Hi Rich.
    Guess this cup refers to the eradication of opium smoking in Taiwan.
    In 1900 a general census was made and the number of addicts was dropped daramatically. The chinese man in the cups seems to me to
    have an opum pipe in his hands and not a rifle.
    Googling Wikipedia you can find the info I’ve provided hereabove.


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