This screen is notable for its depth of carving and detailing which enhances the translucent and luminous tone of the spinach green jade stone. In its style and technique, it exemplifies the imperial style of the 18th century, whereby the Qianlong Emperor advocated that jade mountains and carved panels should carry the spirit of paintings by famous past masters. It is recorded that a number of classical paintings from the Emperor’s own collection were ordered to be reproduced in jade, such as the celebrated painting Travellers in the Mountains
, by the eminent Five Dynasties painter Guan Tong (907-960).
A scene from the life of the philosopher Laozi is depicted on the present screen. During his emigration to the west and upon reaching the western frontier of the Zhou empire, Laozi was intercepted by Yin Xi, Guardian of the Pass (Guanling Yin Xi). Here he was asked to write down his ideas, which resulted in the first manuscript of the Daode jing
(Scripture of the Tao and its Virtue). Yin Xi was also later known as Weishi xiangshen (Master at the Beginning of the Scripture), and elevated to the celestial rank of Wushang zhenren (Highest Perfected), reflecting his mystical stature acquired following his encounter with Laozi (see Livia Kohn, ‘Yin Xi: The Master at the Beginning of the Scripture’, Journal of Chinese Religion
, vol. 25, 1997, issue 1, pp. 83-139).
The skilfully carved scene, together with the fine quality of the stone, suggests that this screen was made after the Western campaigns that subjugated the Dzungars and secured control of the jade-rich territories of Khotan and Yarkand, in present day Xinjiang. Prior to the 24th year of the Qianlong reign (1760), jade arrived at the imperial court in very small amounts. Yang Boda, in ‘The Glorious Age of Chinese Jade, Jade
, London, 1991, p. 146, notes that by the 6th year of the Qianlong reign (1742) only 10 pristine jade objects and 66 jade fragments were in the imperial collection. Following the Western campaigns and subsequent abundant supply of uncarved jade, jade carving flourished throughout the empire. The Ruyi guan (Imperial Department for Production) began recruiting skilled jade craftsmen, while at the same time it continued to send uncarved jade to the eight departments under the imperial court, the most important of which was Suzhou. Production was strictly controlled and each piece was carefully selected before being displayed at court.
A slightly larger spinach-green jade screen, similarly carved with Laozi and Yin Xi, from the collections of Robert C. Bruce, Mrs Ian Beattie and Mr and Mrs Djahanguir Riahi, was sold in our London rooms, 21st November 1961, lot 163, at Christie’s London, 3rd November 1969, lot 157, and most recently in our Paris rooms, 22nd June 2017, lot 6 (fig. 1
); and another sold in these rooms, 10th November 1979, lot 251. A related screen, allegedly from the Yuanmingyuan, Beijing, is published in Geoffrey Wills, Jade of the East
, New York, 1972, pls 55-56. See also a jade boulder carved with this motif, from the Avery Brundage collection in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, illustrated in M.Knight et. al., Chinese Jades: Ming Dynasty to Early Twentieth Century from the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco
, San Francisco, 2007, pl. 360.