Ruo Shen ( 若深珍臟 ) and the guan gu yao (官古窯) wares
Sometime during the Kangxi reign, a new class of studio-marked Jingdezhen porcelains emerged which later Chinese connoisseurs would call guan gu yao (“official old wares”), a large group which includes porcelains bearing the four-character Ruo Shen zhen cang 若深珍臟 mark. While the word guan 官technically refers to ceramics produced at official kilns by imperial order, or to the crackled celadons of the Song dynasty and later copies of them, such as the closely related guan and ge wares, the term guan gu yao 官古窯 was an informal term used to designate non-imperial wares of a very high quality, many of them unrelated to these generally conservative and historically inspired guan wares. Liu Liang-yu states that the guan gu yao wares were originally commissioned by aristocrats as a means of enjoying high-quality porcelain without violating edicts that restricted the ownership of marked imperial wares:
A last word should be added at this point about so-called kuan-ku yao 官古窯 or ‘official old ware’. Under the Ch’ing dynasty it was stipulated that official ware bearing the dynastic reign mark could not be possessed by private persons unless by specific gift of the emperor (lists were kept of all such gifts for inspection purposes). In these circumstances, imperial princes and members of the aristocracy commissioned porcelain to be made bearing their own study name or studio name, either for their own domestic use or to distribute as gifts to their relatives and acquaintances. Once the vogue was initiated, all kinds of people eagerly sought to commission ware at high prices. Freedom from palace regulations meant that a very wide variety of such ware could be produced, all of it vying in quality with official ware. Collectors of antiquities call this type of porcelain, similar to official ware and made for the aristocracy, ‘official old ware’. ” (p. 278) 
Liu Liang-yu names the various ‘official old ware’ marks for each reign, assigning the “Joh sen chen-ts’ang” (Ruo Shen zhen cang) mark to the Kangxi period when these types of wares first appeared. The subject of imperial reign marks on Kangxi porcelain is rather complex, but it is certain that imperial edicts of the period were intended to regulate the manufacture, distribution and use of imperial wares and, in particular, the use of the Kangxi reign-mark. While these regulations were often ignored, they were certainly adhered to by some segment of the population. Thus, the guan gu yao wares satisfied a consumer demand for marked porcelain that was generally acclaimed for its high quality (perhaps in this sense guan) although it was technically non-official or non-imperial ware.
The term guan gu yao 官古窯 seems to have first been used by Chinese connoisseurs during the early 19th century as a means of distinguishing these earlier Ching wares, but except for Liu Liang-yu’s reference, the major surveys of Chinese ceramics published in the west in the 20th and 21st century do not use this term. Neither R. L. Hobson’s early classic nor the recent surveys by LiZhiyan and He Li, mention guan gu yao wares, and although all of these references describe the emergence of hall-marked and studio-marked porcelains, the various marks are not singled out, and the Ruo Shen wares are therefore not distinguished with any particularity among this group.
Ruo Shen zhen cang / Ruo Shen zhen zang
The Ruo Shen marks have been catalogued, however. See, for instance, The New & Revised Handbook of Marks on Chinese Ceramics by Gerald Davison where Ruo Shen zhen cang appears in a section of “General Four-Character Marks,” which includes both standard and commissioned kiln marks, ‘hall marks,’ studio marks, and auspicious phrases. Mark no. 1796 (p. 138) is the standard Ruo Shen zhen cang although it is rather oddly translated as “Precious collection of the seemingly old.” Davison also gives two six-character variations of the Ruo Shen mark: mark no. 2495 (p. 176), translated as “Precious collection of the seemingly old for the Stream of Blessings”; and mark no. 2624 (p. 182) translated as “Precious collection of the seemingly old for the cascading stream.” Davison’s translations, perhaps coincidentally, seem to echo Liu Liang-yu’s classification of Ruo Shen wares as “official old [“seemingly old”] wares,” but the more usual translations of the Ruo Shen zhen cang mark are closer to “precious treasure from the collection of Ruo Shen” or simply, “from the collection of Ruo Shen,” where Ruo Shen is considered a name followed by zhen (珍precious thing; treasure) and cang (臟to collect) or the compound zhen-cang (collection; valuables). Note: Davison’s translation has been reiterated in many blogs, but most sources and Chinese tea tradition, especially, treat ‘Ruo Shen’ as a name.
Ruo Shen wares associated with tea connoisseurship
Interestingly, it is within the context of Chinese tea lore and tea connoisseurship that reference to Ruo Shen wares is most often found, especially within the context of Chinese gongfu tea ceremony which extols the perfection of Ruo Shen teacups and teapots. (Please see Trocadero item 1276834 in this catalog for a rare Ruo Shen-marked, underglaze blue and white teapot). As with most of the guan gu yao wares, the exact origins of the Ruo Shen studio or kiln are completely unknown, but in the case of the Ruo Shen wares various ideas are in circulation: that Ruo Shen was the name of a collector who originally commissioned these wares; that the name Ruo Shen was soon after adopted as a sort of trade mark; that Ruo Shen was or later became simply the name for a kiln, or was a mark adopted by several kilns; and finally that Ruo Shen was the actual studio name of the artist who originally created these wares, an idea most often heard in the context of the gongfu tea tradition.
All that can be said with certainty is that the 18th century Ruo Shen-marked porcelains were non-imperial wares of a high quality, manufactured at Jingdezhen, and were especially popular during the Kangxi and Yongzheng reigns. The name was revived in the very late Ching dynasty through the early Republic period, but these later wares typically show a watery blue decoration and a characteristic ‘hollow line’ decoration and mark, often hastily written, typical characteristics of many late underglaze blue and white wares. In fact, the late 19th century and the Republic period are well known for the proliferation and revival of earlier marks, but the existence of these obviously late Ruo Shen wares should not be interpreted to mean that any Ruo shen studio or kiln was in continuous operation since the Kangxi period.
The early Ruo Shen wares can be conclusively dated to the early 18th century
The traditional dating of the Ruo Shen wares to the early 18th century of the Kangxi reign is supported by the fairly recent excavation of the “Cau Mau shipwreck” off the coast of Vietnam. The ship had a vast hold of approximately 130,000 Chinese ceramic wares destined for the Netherlands, some decorated specifically for the European market. The cargo was dated to about 1725 of the short Yongzheng reign (1723-1735) by various archaeological evidence, including some bronze coins from the previous Kangxi period (1669-1722), a large number of unmarked wares of a type known to have been produced during the Kangxi period, and by a small but important group of three wine cups, described by Sotheby’s as:
Three blue and white porcelain wine cups painted with river landscapes, bearing either the four character mark of the Emperor Yongzheng (1723-1736) or with the mark Ruo shen zhen cang, meaning, “In the collection of Ruoshen”, a mark usually associated with the Kangxi period, Circa 1723 
The discovery of three more or less identical bowls together, with at least one bearing the Ruo Shen mark and another the Yongzheng four-character reign mark, is important not only for dating the shipwreck and its cargo, but is noteworthy in other respects. The Kangxi reign mark was known to be the most severely regulated, and it seems, at least in this instance, that the Ruo Shen mark functioned merely as a substitute for a reign mark, and that the Yongzheng imperial mark was preferred as it appears on otherwise identical wares almost immediately after the Kangxi reign. This strongly supports Liu Lang-yu’s explanation for the emergence of the guan gu yao wares and their classification as such, as well as his inclusion of the Ruo Shen wares in this group. It is perhaps too small a sample to be conclusive, but the evolution of the marks on these three cups can be interpreted as evidence consistent with Liu’s narrow dating of the Ruo Shen wares specifically to the Kangxi reign.
Ruo Shen wares were manufactured for Chinese domestic use, not export
Of the 76,000 export wares from the Cau Mau wreck that were sold in multiple lots at Sotheby’s (Amsterdam) in January 2007, only 26 pieces were identified as Ruo Shen wares, and these 26 “wine cups” belonged to only four sets of matching cups. (It should be noted that Chinese “tea cups” and “wine cups” are often interchangeable, although auction houses seem to prefer the later term.) The extremely small number of Ruo Shen wares in such a huge and varied inventory seems evidence of their relative scarcity and supports the idea that they were made for domestic Chinese use—and not typically manufactured for export, which is again consistent with Liu Liang-yu’s classification of them as commissioned wares. The almost legendary status of Ruo Shen wares among Chinese tea connoisseurs also indicates their status as domestic wares. The presence of a few Ruo Shen wares in the vast cargo of the Cau Mau wreck, while helpful for dating both the shipwreck and Ruo Shen wares in general, should not be taken as evidence of their typical use or domestic status. Marked wares of all sorts were occasionally exported, and this occurred from time to time even with slightly imperfect imperial wares (what might today be called “seconds) which were occasionally exported from Jingdezhen rather than destroyed according to imperial directives.
In fact, few if any Ruo Shen wares are identified as such in western collections of Chinese domestic or export porcelain. The most comprehensive, up-to-date publication on export ware is possibly Treasures of Chinese Export Ceramics from the Peabody Essex Museum, which surveys export wares made for both western and Asian consumers. Not surprisingly, William Sargent makes no mention of the guan gu yao wares, and no examples in the Peabody collection are identified as bearing the Ruo Shen mark.
The Ruo Shen marked porcelains are primarily blue & white wares
The majority of Ruo Shen wares are underglaze blue and white decorated wares although there are some exceptions. Of the most reliably dated Ruo Shen wares, the 26 Ruo Shen cups from the Cau Mau wreck mentioned previously, 19 are underglaze blue and white decorated cups, but one set is described as: “seven wine cups with the exterior painted in a white celadon glaze, with similar mark.” However, a few months after the Cau Mau wreck cargo appeared at auction, at Sotheby’s (16 May 2007) London sale “Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art,” Lot 596 was described as: “An iron-red ‘Carp’ Saucer Dish Qing Dynasty, Kangxi Period brightly painted to the interior with a medallion enclosing a large iron-red carp swimming amidst green enameled water weeds, the exterior similarly decorated with four fish, the base with a four-character mark Ruo shen zhen cang.” The description was accompanied by the familiar Catalogue Note: “The mark Ruo shen zhen cang may be translated as ‘In the collection of Ruoshen’ a mark usually associated with the reign period of the Kangxi Emperor.”
Although the guan gu yao wares first appear during the Kangxi reign, these non-imperial wares might be viewed as descendants of the porcelains produced during the late Ming and early Ching ‘transitional’ or ‘interregnum’ period (circa 1620-1683), which begins with the death of the Wanli (Ming) emperor and ends with the reestablishment of the imperial kilns, an event marked by the appointment of Zang Yingxuan as director at Jingdezhen by the Kangxi (Ching) emperor in 1683. The transitional period, which saw civil unrest associated with dynastic change, was defined by the decline and eventual complete cessation of imperial patronage of the Jingdezhen kilns. It was also a time when Jingdezhen potters of necessity sought new clients both at home and abroad. When general stability and unification had been restored to China under the Ching dynasty, the Jingdezhen potters, now accustomed to dealing with a wider consumer base, found a ready market and a greatly expanded consumer class for luxury goods which had already emerged by the late Ming dynasty (the early modern period). But the high standards set by the Kangxi emperor, and his keen interest in porcelain production, had a marked effect on both the imperial and non-imperial kilns of Jingdezhen during this period.
In some instances, the guan gu yao wares assumed an artistic identity of their own. The Ruo Shen wares, at least among tea aficionados, are exalted apart from their classification as guan gu yao or substitute imperial wares and have achieved a legendary status of their own. The Kangxi period is also associated with the emergence of new and diverse styles of tea consumption. The gonfu style of tea, which is said by its historians to have originated during the Kangxi period, emphasized small teapots and teacups. The word “ruoshen” has now evolved as a descriptive word for the type of small teacup used in gongfu tea ceremony.
BIBLIOGRAPHY & FOOTNOTES
 Ch’ing Official and Popular Wares /A Survey of Chinese Ceramics (5) by Liu Lang-yu. 1991, Aries Gemini Publishing Ltd., Taipei, Taiwan, ISBN 957-9259-05-4 (Set) ISBN 957-9259-05-4 (Vol. 5)
 Chinese Pottery and Porcelain/ An Account of the Potter’s Art in China from Primitive Times to the Present Day by R.L. Hobson. Dover Publications, Inc., New York 1976 (reprint) Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York, and Cassell and Company, Limited, London (1915).
 Chinese Ceramics From the Paleolithic Period Through the Qing Dynasty, Edited by Li Zhiyan, Virginia L. Bower, and He Li. Yale University Press, New Haven & London. Foreign Language Press, Beijing. Copyright © by Yale University and Foreign Language Press. ISBN 978-0-300-11278-8.
 Chinese Ceramics[,] A New Comprehensive Survey From the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, by He Li. U.S. by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc. Great Britain by Thames & Hudson Ltd. London. Copyright 1996 by The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. ISBN-10: 0-8478-1973-6; ISBN-13: 978-0-8478-1973-7. Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 96-68511.
 The New & Revised Handbook of Marks on Chinese Ceramics, by Gerald Davison. Published by Gerald Davison Ltd, Somerset, United Kingdom, 2010. ISBN 978-0-9564518-0-4.
 The Hollow Line in Dating Chinese Porcelain, Calvin Chou. Occasional Publications, Chinese Art Appraisers Association, San Francisco, 1978. ISBN 0-930940-03-2.
 Made in Imperial China: Sotheby’s to sell vast cargo of 18th-century Chinese Porcelain recently recovered by the Vietnamese Government after 280 years lost on the sea bed of the South China Seas (Sotheby’s, Press Release, 2006)
 Treasures of Chinese Export Ceramics from the Peabody Essex Museum, William R. Sargent and Rose Kerr. Published by the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem Massachusetts. Distributed by Yale University Press, New Haven and London. Copyright © 2012 Peabody Essex Museum. ISBN: 978-0-300-16975-1.
 My Brew Heaven: The Chinese “Way of Tea” in Today’s Taiwan, by Jackie Chen, translated by Phil Newell, Taiwan Panorama Magazine (online, undated)
Copyright © 2014 by Robert McCaffrey. All Rights Reserved.