the white stone with yellow and green undertones and russet veins, carved on both sides around the central apertature with the grain pattern of small spiral bosses, encircled by a rope-twist band and an outer register of archaistic animal masks composed of gui dragons, abstract geometric shapes and 'S' and 'C' scrolls, inscribed along the rim with a 46-character inscription, with a Qianlong period jiayin year date corresponding to 1794, and two small seals bide and langrun, original zitan and boxwood stand
Private collection, Florida.
A White Jade Archaistic Bi, with a Qianlong Inscription
Incised around the rim of the present bi is the poem by the Qianlong emperor titled Yong Hetian gubi ('In praise of the millet-seed bi from Hetian'). The poem may be translated as follows:
With raised decoration the circumference is in accordance
with (that made in the ) Zhou (dynasty),
now, as then, it is still characterised by the ratio of three.
The outer band displays auspicious patterns,
the inner void provides the right proportion.
The making of a new vessel depends on the quality of the stone,
and request the master to follow the ancient style.
As Zhuan Zhu is the street of carvers,
there is no need to ask if the work will be good.
Inscribed by the Qianlong emperor in the jiayin year (corresponding to 1794)
Two seals read: Bide and Langrun
The poem is recorded in the Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji (Anthology of Imperial Qianlong Poems), 5 ji, 90 juan, 4 ye.
Qianlong's jade collection surpassed that of any of his predecessors in quality and quantity. Among the vast number of imperial jade treasures, bi embodied the emperor's reverence for the 'glorious' past. The Zhou dynasty text Zhou li (Rites of Zhou) lists bi as a suitable offering to Heaven. The narrative history Zuo zhuan (The Chronicle if Zuo) describes the use of bi in rites and sacrifices suggesting that it was offered as a gift at ritual ceremonies. Qianlong's fervour in observing rituals, his wish to embrace and uphold antiquity and his love for jade as a noble material made bi especially distinctive amongst all his jade artefacts.
The emperor's unfathomable fascination with bi led him to order the carving of bi after the archaic prototypes in his collection. The design of the present disc is inspired by Eastern Zhou dynasty bi; for example see a rubbing of a disc unearthed from Qufu in Shandong, similarly decorated with a band of 'millet-seed' pattern around the circular central aperture, and the outer band carved with animal mask heads, illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, fig. 4, together with another Zhou bi, pl. 15.4, in the British Museum from the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung. The type was developed in the Eastern Zhou period, although large quantities of bi with the two band design were excavated from the tomb of the King of Nanyue of the Han dynasty. A particularly close example to the present disc, with a similar band of rope-twist separating the inner and outer band was included in the exhibition Jades from the Tomb of the King of Nanyue, The Museum of the Western Han Tomb of the Nanyue King, Guangzhou, cat. no. 32.
An imperial record dated to the 35th year of Qianlong's reign (corresponding to 1770) notes that the emperor saw a rare treasure, a large jade bi, and was deeply attracted to it. He wrote a poem titled In Praise of the Long Life Han Jade Bi and ordered the court carvers to incise his poem on the actual bi and to have the jade piece inserted into a zitan stand with the same poem engraved on the back. Two mounted Han dynasty bi inscribed with Qianlong's poem are included in the Illustrated Catalogue of Ancient Jade Artefacts in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1982, cat. nos. 188 and 189.
While a number of archaic bi carved with Qianlong's poem can be found amongst the emperor's jade collection, those made by the master carvers in the Palace Workshop are rare, although a closely related example of an archaistic bi, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in Cultural Relics World, vol. 7, Beijing, 2006, p. 71, pl. 181. The Palace Museum bi is inscribed on the rim with a 46-character poem and bearing the two small seals Bide and Langrun, dated to the renzi year of Qianlong's reign, corresponding to 1792.
The present bi, with its fine carving and use of an impressively large white jade piece from Hetian is characteristic of the Palace Workshop where the master carvers from Suzhou were recruited. Historically the finest quality jade came from Hetian, located in northwest China, today's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. In his poem, Qianlong refers to the carvers from Zhuan Zhu street in the city of Suzhou where, since the Ming dynasty, the most skilled jade carvers could be found. The poem also reveals that the bi was made on the emperor's strict instructions to the master carver to follow the ancient style. Qianlong's connoisseurship of jade design is well known from his many poems. He frequently examined and graded pieces personally and would write a poem to express his feelings or to praise the workmanship. He wrote over forty-thousand poems, among which more than 800 are on the subject of jade including his praise of this fine 'millet-seed bi from Hetian'.
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