A Han Dynasty bi mounted in an Imperial zitan stand Palace Workshops Yuti mark and period of Qianlong, dated to the jiawu year corresponding the year 1774
the finely carved millet coloured jade bi disc dating to the Han Dynasty, left plain save for the long inscription on the rim inscribed in the year 1774 written in zhuanshu ('seal script') composed by the Qianlong emperor and carved to his order, marked with his seal guxiang ('Ancient Fragrance'), the smooth polished stone with russet skin; mounted within an exquisitely carved zitan table screen, the front with a central carved wooden boss with the trigram qian flanked by a pair of dragons (long) to form the well-known rebus on the Emperor's name, locking into the back panel to secure the jade, the reverse with an almost identical inscription written in lishu (clerical script) picked-out in gold followed by two other seals, huxin buyuan ('Not far from mutual understanding') and deliang lintong ('Virue brings brightness to the uninitiated'), the dragons repeated on the front and back of the frame in overall archaistic style and supported on the sides by four dragons carved in the round and pierced, (fitted box)
Kwong Fat, Hong Kong, 1985.
The imperial poem titled The First Poem in Six Rhymes. An Ancient Jade Plain Bi, inscribed on the stand, is recorded in the Yuzhi shiji (Poetry Collection by His Majesty), Siji (Fourth Collection), 29:27a. The poem is translated in Hugh Moss and Gerard Tsang, Arts from the Scholar's Studio, Hong Kong, 1986, p. 202, as follows:
Though its decoration is plain and simple,
this jade disc is more valuable than those decorated with designs of rushes and grains.
It has an archaic and circular form,
surpassing the works of the Xia and Shang jade carvers.
The long-tailed kui dragon is placed between the string-plucked instruments of qin and se,
while Gongyu places himself among the sumptuous jades.
The jade assumes a solemn and reverent style,
embodying the breath-resonance,
its light is as brilliant and gleaming as a gem,
its body translucent.
The gentleness of the void is balanced by the strength of the body.
Whether the jade is buried or unearthed, hidden or exposed,
its qualities will eventually be revealed.
If what I have said can be interpreted better than I have managed,
then the way of the Ancient King (Wen Huang) will be understood.
Composed by the emperor in mid-Spring of the jiawu year of the Qianlong reign (equivalent to 1775).
Seal of Guxiang (Ancient Fragrance).
Qianlong in this poem mentions the Han dynasty scholar, Gongyu, suggesting that he attributed the disc to the Han period (206 BC – 220 AD). Plain jade huan and bi were made from the Neolithic to the Han periods and the Han attribution of the present disc is made on the strength of the emperor's reference to Gongyu as well as on a number of closely related examples, from the Imperial collection, included in the Illustrated Catalogue of Ancient Jade Artefacts in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1988, cat.nos. 184, 197, 206 and 207.
Jade discs mounted on table screens served as beautiful objects for the enjoyment of the emperor. They were aesthetically pleasing but more importantly, they were designed to serve as a keepsake of the glorious past.
A number of closely related zitan screens holding ancient jade discs were made for the Qianlong Emperor and inscribed with his poem, most of them today preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Two screens with plain jade discs, engraved with poems and seals of the emperor, are illustrated in Teng Shu-p'ing, Neolithic Jades in the Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1992, pl. 100 (fig. 1), the stands incised with poems dated to 1772 and 1784, respectively. Four further examples with grain-patterned bi are included in the Illustrated Catalogue of Ancient Jade Artefacts in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1982, pls. 63, 68, 188 and 189, with two of them, pls. 68 and 188, dated to 1773, a year earlier than the present piece, and the other two dated to 1770 and 1778, respectively.
Guo Fuxiang, from the Palace Museum, Beijing, in his article titled 'Qianlong's Appreciation of the Zitan Mounted "Dragon and Phoenix" Bi', Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2007, p. 49, on the table screen first sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 10th October 1990, lot 1901, and again in these rooms, 8th April 2007, lot 603 (fig. 2), notes that imperial records dated to the 35th year of Qianlong's reign (equivalent to 1770) mention that in the Spring the emperor saw a rare treasure, a large bi, and was deeply attracted to it. The emperor noted that this 'treasure' was over one thousand and five hundred years old. He named the disc 'Long Life Han Bi' and wrote a poem in praise of it. He also ordered Palace jade carvers to incise his poem and have the jade bi inserted into a zitan stand with the poem engraved on the back.
Compare also a screen inscribed with Qianlong's poem dated to 1778, included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935, cat. no. 2776; one sold in these rooms, 15th November 1989, lot 503; and a third example with an inscribed poem dated to 1764, also sold in these rooms, 4th November 1997, lot 1201.
The meaning of jade discs remains an enigma, however, by the early Han dynasty it became customary to include discs in the jade suits worn by Imperial princes when buried. Han ritual texts and commentaries describe bi as the symbol of Heaven, and confirm its role in ritual ceremonies at the time. Under the Qianlong emperor jade discs continued to be associated with Heaven and were seen as the symbol of power. By commissioning the mounting of jade discs in elaborate stands for display meant that they were appreciated for their reference to antiquity, as well as to the central power they represented for the Emperor.