Imperial porcelain of the Qianlong period constitutes a major peak in the historical development of Chinese ceramics and porcelain. This vase in particular is an uncommon and exquisite masterpiece, even compared with other Qianlong ceramics. Its style diverges somewhat from the sumptuous standard of Qianlong porcelain, making it an extremely rare piece indeed. The Palace Museum in Beijing has a double-gourd-shaped vase with an underglaze-blue design of the Eight Immortals that is highly similar to this piece (fig. 1), illustrated in the catalogue for a special exhibition held by the museum: The World Rejoices as One: Celebrating Imperial Birthdays in the Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2015, cat. no. 99. It was mentioned several times in the Qing Archives that a double-gourd-shaped ‘Eight Immortals’ vase was produced in the imperial kilns, including an inventory dated to 34th year of the Qianlong reign (1769) recording a commission of “two large blue and white ‘Jia’-kiln double-gourd-shaped ‘Eight Immortals’ vases” for the birthday celebration of the Empress Dowager; suggesting that the vases were made after the style of the Jiajing period. An example of a Jiajing-marked double-gourd-shaped ‘Eight Immortals’ vase is illustrated in Jessica Harrison-Hall, Ming Ceramics in the British Museum, London, 2001, cat. no. 9-36.
It is possible that the current vase was produced for a birthday celebration of the Qianlong Emperor or his Empress. Compared to more frequently seen blue and white ‘Eight Immortals’ designs of the Qing dynasty, the present depiction of the Eight Immortals is evenly spaced across the vessel and executed brightly and boldly. Each of the Eight Immortals is rendered striking a different posture, creating a light-hearted and leisurely scene, vivid and lifelike. The ethereal scene is accentuated with gnarled stems bearing plump, ripe birthday peaches and lingzhi. One immortal is depicted holding a peach in his hand, while another a lingzhi sprig; and Li Tieguai a double-gourd with a few bats rendered soaring in the sky. This symbolism of health, wealth happiness and auspicious makes it is clear that the immortals are offering birthday greetings to the Queen Mother of the West. The Qianlong Emperor was particularly fond of ceramics decorated with benevolent messages of peace, as discussed in Yu Pei-chin, ‘The Emperor Qianlong’s Ideal Imperial Kiln, as Seen in the Illustrated Album of Ceramics Making’, The National Palace 220 Museum Research Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 3, 2013, pp. 185-235. A close look at this vase shows that it is a large and impressive piece decorated with a serene, pleasing shade of cobalt blue. The brushwork exhibits unparalleled skill: the sea waves are grand and powerful, but not violent; the white clouds are rolling and life-like, evoking the calmness of the ocean, the immensity of the sky and the tranquillity of a peaceful era.
The motif of the Eight Immortals is one most commonly found on bowls and dishes, and is rare to be found on large vessels such as a vase. Consider a Qianlong-marked famille-rose ‘lantern’ vase, which depicts the Eight Immortals as well as the mythical Queen Mother of the West riding a colourful bird, illustrated in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong. Qing porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 350, pl. 31. Compare also a Qianlong-marked famille-rose ‘Eight Immortals’ vase, is illustrated in Lu Minghua, Qingdai Yongzheng-Xuantong guanyao ciqi [Qing dynasty official wares from the Yongzheng to the Xuantong reigns], Shanghai, 2014, pl. 3-50.
Other imperial ceramics have used the characterictic attributes of the Eight Immortals to represent them, including a famille-verte ‘anbaxian’ bowl commissioned in the third year of the Qianlong reign, published in Feng Xianming, Annotated Collection of Historical Documents on Ancient Chinese Ceramics, Taipei, 2000, p. 231. Compare a Qianlong-marked yellow-ground famille-rose ‘anbaxian’ sgraffiato vase with dragon handles sold in these rooms, 7th April 2015, lot 3608, and now in the collection of the Long Museum, Shanghai. Compare also a Qianlong-marked cloisonné enamel ‘Eight Immortals’ vase in the Palace Museum, Beijing, with each side of the body decorated with a shou character, against a ground of wan symbols, forming the rebus wanshou (‘Endless longevity’), illustrated in The World Rejoices as One, op.cit., cat. no. 104.
The Qianlong Emperor was fond of auspicious symbols like lingzhi fungus, and such symbols often appeared in court art during his reign. This is demonstrated in Picking Spirit Fungus, a painting in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, which was inscribed with a poem by the Qianlong Emperor himself, published in the exhibition catalogue of The All Complete Qianlong: a Special Exhibition on the Aesthetic Tastes of the Qing Emperor Gaozong, Taipei, 2013, pl. I-2014. Another example is a famille-rose lingzhi vase presented to the Emperor in the 16th year of his reign; see Tie Yuanbian, Qing gong ciqi dang'an quanji [The complete collection of Qing dynasty imperial palace records for porcelain], Beijing, 2007, vol. 3, p. 311. See also another Qianlong-marked lingzhi vase sold in these rooms, 7th October 2015, lot 3609. The National Palace Museum in Taipei has in its collection a Qianlong-marked Beijing enamel perfumier with its exterior and base decorateddecorated peaches and lingzhi, published in Enamel Ware in the Ming and Ching Dynasties, Taipei, 1999, cat. no. 132.
The shape of this vase is derived from early bronzes and already appeared during the Yongzheng reign, but was even more frequently found in the Qianlong period. Prized by the Qianlong Emperor, the form can be found in blue and white, famille-rose and even monochrome vessels, including those with Ru-type and guan-type glazes. The particular shape of the vase is sometimes called a ‘deer’s head zun’ or ‘ox’s head zun’. Indeed, famille-rose vessels often featured landscapes with ten or one hundred deer, and these were called ‘hundred-deer jars’, lu being a homophone of both deer and good fortune. In the third year of his reign, the Qianlong Emperor ordered Tang Ying, the supervisor of the imperial kilns, to produce samples of various types of vessels: one such prototype was listed as “a version with no handles of the famille-rose ‘hundred-deer double-handled vase”. However, the Qianlong Emperor must have later come to believe that such vessels appeared more dignified with handles on them, as evidenced by the handles seen on most extant vases of this type. A related example was published in the exhibition catalogue Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch'ien-lung Reign, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2008, cat. no. 51; another similar example was sold in our New York rooms, 16th March 2016, lot 321. There appears to be only one recorded example ‘hundred deer’ vase without handles currently in the collection of Seikadō Bunko Art Museum in Tokyo, illustrated in Seikadō zō Shinchō tōji. Keitokuchin kanyō no bi [Qing dynasty porcelain collected in the Seikado. Beauty of Jingdezhen imperial kilns], Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, 2006, p. 69, cat. no. 59. Qianlong-marked blue and white ‘chilong’-handled vases, decorated with large lotus blooms borne on curling scrolls extending across on the body with wan and shou symbols on the neck, flanked by less elaborate chilong handles, are called ‘qinglian’ vessels, homophonous for ‘cleanliness and purity’. Though perhaps rather consistent sample of production, there are not many recorded examples. See one published in the exhibition catalogue, Selected Ceramics from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Hu, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 1989, pl. 62. Another example was sold in our New York rooms, 19th September 2002, lot 148, and later in these rooms, 2nd May 2005, lot 654 (fig. 2). There are also examples of such Qianlong-marked ‘lotus scroll’ vessels, further decorated with dragons. These examples with similar chilong handles as the present piece are even rarer, with only four known examples, including one exhibited by the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford University in 1905 and sold in our London rooms, 9th November 2005, lot 327, and again at Christie’s Hong Kong, 3rd June 2015, lot 3128.
Large-petal lotus patterned vases with chilong handles date back to the Yongzheng reign. There are examples decorated in underglaze blue and red, but they are extremely rare, see a Yongzheng-marked example published in The Complete Collection of the Treasures of the Palace Museum, Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red (III), Shanghai, 2000, pl. 91. The current ‘Eight Immortals’ vase has comparably more intricately and finely fashioned handles, similar to those of the Yongzheng reign, and was perhaps made in the early Qianlong period, and the inscription of the seal mark supports this view. Compare a Yongzheng-marked blue and white bowl with the interior decorated with a deer, Shoulao and bats, and the exterior with the Eight Immortals, illustrated in Qian Zhenzong, Qing dai ciqi shangjian [Appreciation of Qing dynasty porcelain], Hong Kong, 1994, pl. 119, the Eight Immortals decoration on the present piece is comparatively brighter and more vivid.
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