Generally speaking, the metal, stone, wood, and ceramic bowls made throughout Asia over the last several hundred years are simpler in shape and decoration than vases of the same period. That's because bowls are more purely functional than vases, meant to hold foods such as noodles or soup, designed primarily to be used rather than admired. Which is not to say their forms cannot be beautiful, as anyone who has eaten out of a steep-sided, bullet-shaped bowl or a wide, footed saucer knows.

Ceramic bowls range from porcelain to red clay. Glazing treatments include intricately decorative and pictorial compositions featuring dragons, lions, flowers, fruits, and gourds. Others are virtuoso exercises in color, be it a classic celadon container, a copper-red orb accented by a white lip wrap, or a flambe treatment, in which the glaze seems to be ignited from below.

One pattern that became particularly popular in China and was made exclusively for export in the 1850s is still known as rose medallion. It’s characterized by a gold circle enclosing a bird and flower in the inside-center of the bowl, surrounded by scenic panels set within floral borders. Other versions of this motif include, rose mandarin, rose canton, cabbage, and bird and butterfly.

In Japan, blue-and-white Imari porcelain bowls, some lidded, some not, were produced alongside red, gold, and blue examples. While most of these bowls were meant to hold food, wider examples with half-circle notches carved into their rims were used by barbers, who would rest the bowls against the necks of their customers to catch the hair they were trimming. Satsuma bowls made for export to the West in the 19th century included square bowls with tapering sides, decorated inside and out. And for hundreds of years, hand-formed raku ware has been the ceramic of choice for tea bowls, which are differentiated from tea cups for their lack of handles.

In Tibet, bowls can serve another purpose. Tibetan singing bowls are technically bells thought to bring healing through their tones and vibrations. Used in Buddhist meditation, antique singing bowls are made of a bronze alloy that includes copper, tin, nickel, silver, gold, and zinc. A good singing bowl makes several tones at once, which careful listeners can discern.


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