An Imperial hunting knife with rhinoceros horn scabbard Mark and Period of Qianlong
the variegated brown and cream coloured antelope horn hilt bound at either end with a chased gilt band of florets and leaves inset with turquoise glass cabochon, the base of the hilt further opening to reveal a hidden hinged compartment for holding a pair of chopsticks and a toothpick, the blade of steel and damascene gilding, inscribed on the spine of the knife in inlaid gold wire with a four-character mark Qianlong nianzhi, the rhinoceros horn scabbard of tapered form finely carved with six three-clawed dragons writhing in and out of clouds above turbulent waves crashing on rocks, the ends similarly bound in a chased gilt band of scrolling leaves and florets inset with turquoise-glass cabochons, the top further set with a single turquoise-glass cabochon on each side, with one side linked to a small loose ring for attachment, (fitted box)
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 20th May 1981, lot 908.
Collection of Shuisongshi Shanfang.
Collection of Dr. Ip Yee, Hong Kong.
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 19th November 1984, lot 63.
Thomas Fok, Connoisseurship of Rhinoceros Horn Carving in China, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 180.
Knife hilts made of antelope horn are rare, although a closely comparable knife with an antelope horn hilt and a rhinoceros horn sheath, carved with the design of dragons among clouds and inlaid with precious stones, from the Qing Court collection, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carving, vol. 44, Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 211 (fig. 1). Another knife with a similarly carved horn hilt and with a Qianlong reign mark incised on the blade was included in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition The Chinese Scholar's Desk, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1979, cat. no. 98. The exceptional workmanship and highly decorative quality of these knives suggest that they are products of the Palace Workshop where military and hunting weapons were made for the emperor and his family.
Knives of this type appear to have been originally hunting knives which were designed for use in the wilderness. Its function was altered to a degree, although it continued being used on hunts, when it became part of the Manchu ceremonial attire as well as being used at meals, an indication of the bearer's Manchu identity. Manchu men were supposed to cut their meat themselves so as not to fall into the decadent Han habit of eating their meat pre-cut. A tablet stressing the importance of carrying a knife and its symbolic importance in preserving the Manchu tradition was placed in front of the Jianting Military Training Hall located in the Forbidden City, on Qianlong's orders. Qianlong is also recorded saying, "Now I can see that Manchu traditions have been much relaxed. For instance, Prince Yi did not carry his knife. What is the reason for that? I read records of Taizong (Hongtaiji, son of Nurgaci and second ruler in the dynasty) who said 'Imperial clan males who cannot cut their meat themselves and do not carry arrow quivers are not observing Manchu customs. What will become of their descendants?' These are the lessons taught by Taizong to his sons. He already worried about his children and grandchildren giving up on tradition." See the exhibition catalogue Splendours of China's Forbidden City, the Field Museum, Chicago, 2004, p. 30.
Compare a gold knife with a sheath inlaid with turquoise, coral and lazurite, the handle carved of jade, inscribed with a Qianlong reign mark and of the period, included in the exhibition ibid., p. 201, cat. no. 248 (fig. 2), where it is noted that when eating sacrificial pork, women were also expected to cut up their own meat. Knives with other eating utensils formed part of the dowries of princesses and even maidservants. The same knife appears as part of a table setting in situ, which is a reconstruction of an imperial banquet table, ibid., pl. 230.
See also a dagger with a jade hilt inlaid with precious stones, from the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in the exhibition China: The Three Emperors, the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2006, cat. no. 72, together with a sword, cat. no. 70, and three examples of sabres, cat. nos. 71, 73 and 74. In the cataloguing of the steel sabre cat. no. 74, it is mentioned that all weaponry for the imperial court, from pieces used in the imperial army to bijoux daggers made for the enjoyment of the Emperor, were made in the Forbidden City in the Palace Workshops (Zaobanchu) of the Imperial Household Department (Neiwu Fu). Furthermore, they were often given as gifts or used as items in ceremonies.
Further examples of Imperial daggers from the Qing Court collection are illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Armaments and Military Provisions, Hong Kong, 2008, pls. 177-191. The ceremonial sabre, worn by Imperial attendants on auspicious festivals, decorated in a related manner with precious stone cabochons, ibid., pl. 137, is especially noteworthy.
The Qianlong emperor is depicted wearing a knife of this type on his belt while hunting in the painting titled Taking a Stag with a Mighty Arrow, included in the Field Museum exhibition, op.cit., cat. no. 117. Another hanging scroll titled Emperor Qianlong Accompanied by His Officials in Rounding Up and Hunting, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Paintings by the Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, cat. no. 43, shows the emperor with a hunting knife under his belt. Knives of this type were part of the standard Manchu ceremonial attire and can be found depicted, partly hidden by pouches but clearly visible, on official portraits, such as those published in Life in the Forbidden City, Hong Kong, 1985, pl. 66, portrait of the Kangxi emperor, and pl. 73, portrait of the Yongzheng emperor. A portrait of the Qianlong emperor, attributed to around 1735, included in the exhibition The Qianlong Emperor. Treasures from the Forbidden City, The Royal Museum, Edinburgh, 2002, p. 36, cat. no. 5, shows the emperor wearing a closely related knife to the present piece.