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magnificently carved, the wide seat of generous proportions formed from six planks set in a floating panel, framed by an ornately carved stepped throne-back centred on a high-relief full frontal five-clawed dragon, hovering above turbulent waves crashing against rocks, his sinuous body wrapped around a 'flaming pearl', flanked by a pair of attendant dragons rising out of the water, reserved against a dense ground of ruyi clouds and flying bats, interspersed with the bajixiang ('Eight Buddhist Emblems'), the main panel with the 'endless knot', 'wheel', 'fish' and 'conch shell', the side panels with a single dragon in pursuit of a 'flaming pearl' on a similar ground, one panel with the 'lotus' and 'vase', the other with the 'canopy' and 'umbrella', the decoration all repeated on the back side, the carved panels framed by a fine diaper ground extending along the top of the rails and borders, the borders further decorated with small quatrefoil panels, each enclosing a formal lotus with scrolling leaves, the seat frame carved with a key-fret band running along the outer edge, all above a waisted apron with begonia florets enclosed within a frame alternating with unframed florets, set between horizontal bands of upright and pendant petal lappets, the apron centred on each of the sides with a dragon head reserved on an archaistic 'hooks and volutes' scroll ground, the beast's claws grasping the scrolls, the decoration extending to the solid square-sectioned legs issuing from a dragon's mouth set on each corner terminating in a hoofed foot, further supported on a humpback stretcher, the wood of deep chestnut tone with lighter brown areas
The Emperor's Zitan Dragon Throne
Thrones were symbols of imperial power and those made of the highly prized zitan wood rank amongst the rarest and most prized furnishing made for the emperor. Thrones were the seats of supremacy where only the emperor could sit and from which he presided over a court attended by the highest government officials, celebrated major state occasions, received foreign missionaries and conducted stately affairs. Furthermore, as the throne was the main feature of the palace hall, it was produced according to strict regulations and demanded the utmost standard of skill and expertise in its design and construction. See a painting by Qing Court artist Yao Wenhan titled An Imperial Banquet at Ziguang Hall, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 58, depicting the Qianlong emperor seated on a throne of very similar form in the centre of the Ziguangge (Hall of Purple Splendour), located west of the Forbidden City, where he received envoys from foreign countries and where he gave banquets to celebrate the victories of his ten military campaigns.
The present throne is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is made from the most precious and highly esteemed timber available to the master craftsmen working in the Muzuo (Wood Workshop) belonging to the Zaobanchu (Imperial Palace Workshop). With its jade-like silky texture, extremely fine and dense grain, subtle and deep lustre, zitan was the favoured timber of the Ming and Qing Courts. Its long growth period combined with its limited availability, growing mainly in the southern regions, such as Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, made it especially valuable. By the Qing dynasty, excessive felling of zitan led to the exhaustion of its supply in China and large quantities had to be imported from islands in the South Pacific. During Kangxi's reign demand for zitan was so great that even young trees were cut, resulting in the complete extinction of the species. By Qianlong's reign, special measures were taken by the Court to protect any existing stores of zitan which were kept in the warehouses of the Imperial Workshop. The Archives of the Imperial Workshop at Yangxin Hall (Yangxin dian zaoban chu ge zuocheng huoji qing dang) confirm that the use of zitan was scrupulously monitored and restricted to the Palace Workshops. Furthermore, Qianlong gave special instructions to ensure the most economical and responsible use of the palace's zitan supply to avoid any waste. Tian Jiaqing in 'Zitan and Zitan Furniture', Chinese Furniture. Selected Articles from Orientations 1984-1999, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 194, mentions that the Archives of the Imperial Workshop at Yangxin Hall record that on one occasion Qianlong lost his temper because his wishes had been misunderstood and zitan rather than a less expensive material was used in a project.
This throne is also special for its impressive size (length 140 cm) and appears to be one of the largest examples recorded. The wood required for the construction of the seat, the carved panels and the elegantly curved legs must have presented a challenge to the craftsmen in the Muzuo.
However, it is the elaborate carving of the 'Five Dragon' design that makes this throne stand out. The refined and expertly executed carving of this imperial motif is characteristic of the Palace Workshop. The exceptional high relief carving of the dragon heads as well as the composition of the animals rising above the tumultuous waves against a dense cloud ground is closely comparable with that seen on an Imperial mahogany bed, of the Qianlong period, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (II), Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 7 (Fig. 1). The two pieces were possibly made by the same hand, as even the apron with the archaistic scrolls and the dragons integrated into the scrolls are executed in a very similar fashion.
While the dragon itself is the symbol of the emperor, the number five is most auspicious and represents the 'Five Blessings (wufu)' of old age, wealth, health, virtue and peaceful death. The design of 'Five Dragons' also alludes to the 'Five Dragons of Yanshan (Yanshan wulong)', named after the five sons of Dou Yujun, who lived in Yanshan during the Five dynasties period (907-960), each of whom achieved exceptional success with their father epitomizing the ideal parent.
The inclusion of the Eight Auspicious Buddhist Symbols (bajixiang) amongst the dragons in the design is also unusual and suggest the possibility of the throne being used at Buddhist ceremonies or on special religious occasions. However, it also demonstrates the level of creative freedom exercised by Court artists during Qianlong's reign who were encouraged to produce pieces with one-off designs. See a zitan closet, where the bajixiang is carved amongst dense ruyi-form clouds, from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, included ibid., pl. 206; and a red sandalwood throne also carved with dragons and clouds, where the bajixiang is used as a design element on its own, ibid., pl. 26.
The inspiration for this throne may have come from a slightly earlier, Yongzheng period, imperial throne carved of cinnabar lacquer with the dragon and cloud design, illustrated in Craig Clunas, 'Whose Throne Is It Anyway? The Qianlong Throne in the T.T. Tsui Gallery', Chinese Furniture. Selected Articles from Orientations 1984-1999, op.cit., fig. 4.
For further examples of Qing dynasty zitan imperial thrones see one decorated with Western and Chinese plant motifs, a Qianlong period innovation of the blending of Western and Chinese styles conceived by artists working in the court in collaboration, sold in these rooms, 11th April 2008, lot 2825; and a throne attributed to the Kangxi period included in the exhibition Splendor of Style: Classical Furniture from the Ming and Qing Dynasties, National Museum of History, Taipei, 1999, p. 96.
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