The 34-character inscription carved around the rim of this brushpot records the Qianlong emperor's admiration for the 'Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove'. He likens them to precious jade that is hidden amongst gems and admires the two sages who choose to remain recluse from the world while the other five are engaged in composing poetry. The imperial inscription is dated to the bingshen year of the Qianlong reign (equivalent to 1776 AD).
The Qianlong emperor's imperial jade 'collection' surpassed that of any of his predecessors in quantity and quality. The present jade brushpot is a superb example of Qianlong's fine taste, his contribution to the improvement of jade crafting techniques and his superior connoisseurship of jades. It is known that the Qianlong emperor insisted on examining every piece of jade presented to him and categorized them by shape, colour, quality and style. On many occasions, such as that seen on this brushpot, he wrote his opinion of the piece in the form of a poem which was then inscribed on the vessel.
The emperor's commissioning of this brushpot also reveals his enthusiasm for the art of calligraphy, as it was possibly used for holding his brushes for his favourite pursuit of writing. The design of the 'Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (zhulin qixian)' especially appealed to the emperor's wish to depict himself as an upright ruler and his want to be seen as a man of letters. The 'Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove' were a group of scholars of the Wei dynasty (220-265) who had renounced their official status and career in protest against corruption. They advocated freedom of individual beliefs which were inspired by Daoist philosophy. The seven sages, depicted gathered under a bamboo grove drinking, composing poetry and enjoying each others company, came to represent scholars disenchanted with official policies and are symbols of an incorruptible scholar.
A number of impressive jade brushpots are known from important museums and private collections; see a dated brushpot similarly carved with the design of the 'Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove' and inscribed around the rim with Qianlong's poem, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the exhibition The Refined Taste of the Emperor: Special Exhibition of Archaic and Pictorial Jades of the Ch'ing Court, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1997, cat.no. 56; another dark green jade brushpot carved with a hunting scene is illustrated in the Masterworks of Chinese Jade in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1969, pl. 36; one carved with sages in caverns in a mountainous landscape, also in the Palace Museum, Taipei, is included in Geoffrey Wills, Jade of the East, New York, 1972, pl. 120-121, together with a brushpot in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, decorated with sages, ibid., pl. 126. A larger brushpot of similar dark green jade, depicting figures in landscape, is published in Pierre-F. Schneeberger, The Baur Collection. Geneva, Geneva, 1976, pl. B98; and a vessel from the Duca da Padoua, Piedmonte, and the T.B. Kitson collections, was sold in our London rooms, 10th October 1960, lot 154, and again, 8th June 1982, lot 310, with the design of figures, including children, in a landscape.
Compare also a brushpot of very similar dimensions and deep carving, included in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition Chinese Jade throughout the Ages, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1975, cat.no. 415; and another formerly in the Minnesota Museum of Art, St. Paul, and later in the collection of Alan and Simone Hartman, illustrated in Robert Kleiner, Chinese Jades, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 113. See another brushpot dated to 1795 with a Qianlong poem inscribed around the rim of the vessel in the same collection, ibid., pl. 114.
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