Skilfully modelled in the round, this charming piece is notable for its sense of naturalism and liveliness which has been captured in the soft round forms of the animals and their playful poses. Two similar carvings of three rams were sold in these rooms, the first, 21st May 1987, lot 654, and the second, 27th October 1993, lot 488; another was sold in our London rooms, 5th December 1995, lot 104; and a third was sold at Christie’s New York, 28th March 1996. See also a larger carving of three rams, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo yuqi quanji [The complete collection of Chinese jades], vol. 6, Shijiazhuang, 1993, pl. 307; and another in the Tianjin Museum, Tianjin, included in the Museum’s exhibition Tianjin shi yishu bowuguan cang. Yu [Tianjin City Art Museum. Jade], Tianjin, 1990, cat. no. 216.
The ram has a long history in China, first appearing on Shang ritual bronzes and in the form of bronze lamps and ceramic tomb figures during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Small jade carvings of three reclining rams were popular from the Song dynasty onwards, as the theme of three rams, san yang, was considered particularly auspicious, evoking the expression sanyang kaitai (‘the awakening of nature in spring) which signified good luck and happiness. For an early depiction of this motif in jade, see one attributed to the Song period, included in the exhibition Chinese Jade Animals, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong, Kong, 1996, cat. no. 90.