For a Manchu emperor a musket would have been an object of the utmost importance and pride. Brilliantly designed and exquisitely crafted in the imperial workshops, using luxurious materials, this impressive imperial gun was created for the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799, r. 1736-1795) of the Manchu Qing dynasty, and bears not only the imperial reign mark, but in addition the exceptional grading te deng di yi, ‘Supreme Grade, Number One’, which is not recorded from any other known extant gun from the imperial workshops. This musket seems to be the first Chinese firearm with an imperial reign mark to be offered at auction.
Imperial muskets were created in only very small numbers by the Manufacture Department of the Imperial Household for the Qianlong Emperor, who gave meticulous instructions on how they should be created, repaired or modified, for instance the sort of wood or form of reign mark used. Besides the ranking, which is incised in Chinese and only visible when the gun is taken apart, the barrel of the present musket is also inscribed with a Manchu word that is difficult to interpret with certainty. It may be transliterated as ‘g’ū’, corresponding to Chinese characters pronounced gu, and may represent the surname of the artisan who made this piece and would have been held responsible for his work, as musket barrels could explode if poorly made (Fig. 1).
The Qianlong Emperor, one of the most powerful Sons of Heaven and the longest-lived and de-facto longest-reigning emperor in Chinese history, deeply admired his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722), and like him, was proud of his Manchu ancestry and at the same time keenly interested in Western technology. Both were intent on keeping in touch with a Manchu life style, organized large-scale training hunts at Rehe (Jehol), Chengde, northeast of Beijing, with soldiers from the Eight Banners, to keep their troops well trained for military campaigns, and prided themselves on their own hunting, riding and shooting skills. Organized hunting trips were also a way of building closer relations with Mongolian princes who usually participated in these hunts. While traditionally, hunting would have been done with bow and arrow, or with spears, the advent of Western firearm technology sparked off the production of muskets also in the imperial workshops.
Numerous writings by the Emperor on muskets are preserved, spanning much of his lifetime. One example is a poem written at the age of 88, one year before his death, about his shooting of a deer with perfect precision. In his Account of the Tiger Divine Gun, describing a tiger hunt in the 17th year of his reign (1752), he declares his “Tiger Divine Gun” worthy of a place in the national or ancestral shrine for protecting the dynasty, together with a halberd and bow of the Zhou dynasty, made 3000 years earlier. He had this account engraved in Chinese, Manchurian, Mongolian and Tibetan on a large stele at the imperial hunting preserve at Rehe (Yan Xun, ‘The Stele with Account of the Tiger Divine Gun’, Forbidden City, 1985, no. 2, p. 48), and equally inscribed on a court painting depicting this event (The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 72). Two paintings depict the Qianlong Emperor hunting with muskets similar to the present piece, and one of these was by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), the Jesuit missionary artist favoured by the Emperor (Figs. 2-3). While the Emperor is unlikely ever to have held a gun in battle, he would regularly have been hunting with a musket such as the present piece.
Muskets proved to be particularly advantageous in such hunts. In Account of the Tiger Divine Gun, the Qianlong Emperor writes: “the ‘Tiger Divine Gun’ is a marvellous appliance for military accomplishment inherited from my grandfather and is used for killing fierce beasts … the Mongolian tribes of the Forty-nine Banners and Khalkha [participating in the imperial hunts] all excel in archery and stress martial art. If I have nothing to show them, I am hardly a worthy heir to my ancestors. Whenever I learn of tigers in the hunting preserve, I go hunting with no exception. Where bows and arrows cannot reach, I always use this gun, and unfailingly get the target … an Emperor must rely on divine appliances to hone martial skills and demonstrate masculine magnanimity, and the musket is wonderfully efficient and pleasing…”. This acclaim of a musket for hunting tigers forms an interesting comparison with a painting depicting the Emperor confronting a tiger with a spear (Fig. 4). A “Tiger Hunting Spear” from the Qianlong court also bears a reign mark similar to that of the current musket, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - Armaments and Military Provisions, Hong Kong, 2008, pl. 45.
The present gun is closely related to six celebrated named imperial Qianlong muskets in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in ibid., pls. 217-222 (see Fig. 1 of the following essay). All except two (ibid., pls. 218, 221) are inscribed with the imperial reign mark, and all have a jade plaque embedded into their butts which is engraved with an inscription mentioning their name, length, weight, as well as weights of gun powder and lead bullets. While the publication is not mentioning any grading, this may well be hidden at the breech, like with the current musket.
These extant imperial muskets are believed to correspond with seven muskets listed in the Qing work Qing huidian tu or Collected Statutes of the Qing Dynasty with Illustrations, juan 98: Armament Eight, although there are various discrepancies between the actual pieces and those recorded. According to this work, these guns bear a reign mark on top of the barrel, like the present piece, and in addition have an inscription engraved at the bottom of the stock (or for one gun, onto a horn plaque embedded in the butt), which mentions their grading, length, weight, as well as weights of gun powder and lead bullets, but does not give a name. The weight of the guns is expressed in a format and wording slightly different from that on the actual guns. The muskets are graded in a similar manner as the present piece, ‘Supreme Grade, Number Two’ and ‘Top Grade, Number 2’ to ‘Top Grade, Number 7’, but all seem to be of lower grade and/or number. The gradings are followed by a Chinese character qiang (gun) according to this work (Fig. 5).
Another musket from the Palace Museum is briefly mentioned as the remaining one of the seven muskets listed in Qing huidian tu, in Mao Xianmin, Qinggong wubei binqi yanjiu [A study of armaments of the Qing dynasty court], Beijing, 2013, p. 244. However, the inscription on the bone plaque of this musket does not mention the gun name, and the length and weight in this inscription differ remarkably from the record in Qing huidian tu.
Immediately preceding the seven muskets, Qing huidian tu also lists other imperial muskets of the Qianlong Emperor, with four different names. They include a “Tiger Divine Gun” that is said to be engraved with the Account of the Tiger Divine Gun on both sides of its stock, and the gun names are respectively engraved as part of an inscription to the stock bottom of these muskets, but no ranking. These muskets do not seem to have been published. Compare also three other guns for the Qianlong Emperor in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, which do not bear an inscription and do not appear to be mentioned in Qing huidian tu, but are tied with labels in leather, ivory or wood that are inscribed with their respective names, Armaments and Military Provisions, ibid., pls. 224-226.
In the Qing dynasty muskets of the same structure and function were made by the Ministry of Works and local troops to equip the army for use in battle, but these are inferior and simpler in materials, decoration and workmanship. See examples in a Paris copper plate engraving by the famous artist Jean-Philippe Le Bas (1707-1783), based on a draft by Giuseppe Castiglione, The Pacification of Xinjiang: The Storming of the Camp at Gadan-Ola, illustrated in the exhibition catalogue Emperor Ch'ien-lung's Grand Cultural Enterprise, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2002, cat. no. IV-19 (see Fig. 2 of the following essay).
The current musket also forms an interesting comparison with another luxuriously decorated flintlock, presented in 1793 to the Qianlong Emperor for his 80th birthday celebration by the British King George III (r. 1760-1801), via his envoy Lord Macartney (1737-1806), who was received by the Emperor in the imperial yurt at Rehe as was often the case with foreign envoys, see Armaments and Military Provisions, ibid., pl. 228.
The reign mark, decorative techniques and motifs of the present imperial musket link it to a variety of imperial objects from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor, arguably the greatest collector and patron of the arts in Chinese history. The plantain leaf and key-fret pattern decorating its nozzle, for example, was used on bronze ritual wares of some 3000 years ago which were both collected and copied by the Qianlong Emperor. This pattern is mentioned for a few muskets listed in Qing huidian tu, and is also commonly seen on Qianlong-marked vessels in various materials. See a bronze gu wine vessel and other antiquarian objects beside the Qianlong Emperor, in a painting included in the exhibition The All Complete Qianlong: The Aesthetic Tastes of the Qing Emperor Gaozong, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2013, cat. no. III-2.2. A similar reign mark and gold and silver decoration can be seen on numerous imperial swords and sabres of the Qianlong Emperor in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (Fig. 6), such as imperial sabres named “Divine Blade” or “War Extinguisher”. The sabre “War Extinguisher” is currently on display in the loan exhibition Son of Heaven in the Glory Age － Exhibition of the Qianlong Emperor in Qing Dynasty, Chengdu Museum, Chengdu, 2016, p. 76.
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