This monumental and unique jade carving of a water buffalo is an extraordinary legacy of the Song dynasty. It was originally created as a display object of presence and power, yet endued with the spirit of nature, enabling a wealthy patron to transport his mind away from the cares of the city to the tranquillity of nature. Treasured through the ages, it was later in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor, who had it inscribed in 1746 with imperial seals and a poem, the essence of which strongly points to its use in an important annual agricultural ritual.
Water buffaloes were revered from early on in Chinese history and depicted in a variety of media including bronze and jade. Some of the earliest surviving jade examples include a small figure depicting a reclining and forward-facing animal, attributed to the late Shang dynasty (13th-11th centuries BC), in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession. no. 1976.297.2, a jade water buffalo carved in flat relief in the Mrs Edward Sonnenschein collection, Chicago, illustrated by A. Salmony, Carved Jade of Ancient China, 1938, pl. XXIII (8) and an example in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, illustrated by Jessica Rawson, 'Animal Motifs in Early Western Zhou Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections', Chinese Bronzes: Selected articles from Orientations, 1983-2000, Hong Kong, 2001, p. 20, fig. 12. Jade carvings of animals excavated from Shang tombs during the Song dynasty no doubt had an influence on contemporaneous works.
Water buffaloes were revered in Song poetry and painting. A poem by the statesman and literati Su Shi (1037-1101), epitomises this:
Long ago I lived in the country,
And knew only sheep and buffalo.
Down smooth riverbeds [riding] on the buffalo's back,
Steady as a hundredweight barge,
A boat that needs no steering, while banks slipped by,
I stretched out and read a book: she didn't care.
Buffaloes were a popular subject matter in Song dynasty paintings. There is a number of famous examples in museum collections, such as Yan Ciping, Buffalo and Boy in Autumnal Landscape, included in the exhibition Eight Dynasties of Chinese Painting, Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, 1981, cat. no. 3. Anonymous paintings include an album leaf of water buffaloes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession no. 51.150.1, and another sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th November 2017, lot 935.
Bo Liu argues in ‘The Multivalent Imagery of the Ox in Song Painting’, Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, University of Berkeley, vol. 44, 2014, that paintings of buffaloes thrived in the Song dynasty for a numbers of reasons: firstly, because such paintings gave scholar officials temporary relief from their daily working lives in the city, providing them with a temporary sense of withdrawal while viewing the painting; secondly, because such paintings were popular with the emperor because they implied his worthiness to rule, and thirdly, because herding was increasingly used as a metaphor for attaining enlightenment by Chan artists. Large scale sculptures of water buffaloes such as the current lot are much rarer than images of buffaloes in paintings, but are likely to have served the same purpose – to transport the owner to a bucolic paradise.
In contrast to antiquity, when animal sculptures were created for burial, the post-archaic period saw the emergence of a new tradition of such animal sculptures being created for pleasure and utility rather than for ritual or burial. This is epitomised by a rare bronze figure of a water buffalo, closely related to the ox included in this sale as lot 3104, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession no. 1985.214.92.
Excavated animal figures from the Song dynasty are rare, though a small stone paperweight in the form of a stylised buffalo was recovered from a Southern Song tomb at Zhejiang Zhuji county, illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, British Museum, London, 1995, p. 356, fig. 10. Like the current buffalo, its naturalistic recumbent pose encapsulates the more secular treatment of the animal sculpture. Accompanied by another stone paperweight and other items used for writing, it was clearly a valued possession of a wealthy individual in life, rather than an object created for the tomb.
Song dynasty jade carvings of buffaloes of any size are rarer than representations of other animals, and the exceptional size of the current sculpture makes it all the rarer. However, several examples are recorded in museum and private collections, including a small greyish-white jade figure of a buffalo in the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung, included in the exhibition Chinese Jade Animals, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1996, cat. no. 109, and illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, op. cit, p. 370, fig. 26:14, where she notes the rarity of figures of buffaloes among pre-Ming jade animal carvings and argues that the smoothness and relaxed appearance appears to derive from the painting tradition, and that a ‘vogue for pastoral imagery was instrumental in the carving of jade buffaloes’.
Several Song dynasty jade carvings of mythical animals also exhibit a similar style of craftsmanship as on the current buffalo – the naturalistic carving with monumental simplicity of form, spontaneously created so close to the shape of the original pebble or boulder. This can be seen in the precise turn of the head and recumbent posture on the current buffalo, and on other smaller Song jade animals, including a greyish-white jade figure of a mythical beast from the Hei-Chi collection, playfully rendered in an archaistic style characteristic of the period, included in the exhibition Chinese Jade Animals, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1996, cat. no. 83, and sold in these rooms, 8th April 2010, lot 1992. It shares a similar circular perforation in the body. See also a celadon and russet jade ram from the Hei-Chi collection, included in the exhibition Chinese Jade Animals, op. cit., cat. no. 92, and sold in these rooms, 8th April 2010, lot 1990. Both jade carvings, though much smaller than the current buffalo, demonstrate the same structural approach to the carving, the use of bold arc and powerfully defined lines to etch out the form of the animal while remaining integrally close to the pebble or boulder itself. See also a jade mythical animal in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Jadeware II, Hong Kong, 1995, pl. 58, where the naturalistic treatment of the animal depicting turning its head, and the characteristic networks of veins on the stone, closely resemble that on the current figure.
The following inscription is intricately incised on the base, together with the seals Qianlong chenhan and Xintian Zhuren, both important seals used on paintings created by the Qianlong Emperor:
The spirit of Chou (buffalo) provides the foundation for food, brings joy to tens of thousands of people, and forms the basis of the harvest year by year.
The essence of this inscription strongly points to the buffalo itself being used in an important annual agricultural ritual. It is recorded that the Qianlong Emperor commissioned a large bronze ox to be placed at Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace in 1755. The back is inscribed with an eighty-character inscription relating to the legendary Emperor Yu having cast an iron buffalo to control the floods. It is likely that he was consciously looking to emulate the past, not only due to his reverence and interest in it, but also to endure stability and prosperity in the present. What is interesting is that it demonstrates his commitment to the traditional belief in the power of objects to have an effect on nature itself.
On the first auspicious day of this month, the Son of Heaven conducts the rites and entreats the supreme deity for a bumper harvest. He brings the plough personally, placing it between the guard and the driver, and commands the three dukes and nine princes to assist him in tilling the field.
This excerpt from Li Ji (Book of Rites) by Confucius provides the background to the annual sacrifices proscribed for the Son of Heaven to ensure a healthy harvest. The Xiannongtang altar complex was created in 1420 during the Yongle era, and annual sacrifices were made there. The Qianlong Emperor is recorded as having been particularly serious about the practice, conducting it 58 times and ordering a renovation of the whole complex with additional buildings created. On the third lunar month he would personally plough three furrows within the grounds. This is shown in an engraving by Isidore Stanislas Helman in the 1780s, illustrated in From Beijing to Versailles – Artistic Relations between China and France, Urban Council, Hong Kong, 1997, pp. 248-249, no. 95.
The precise inscription on the current buffalo clearly makes reference to this ritual, so important to the Qianlong Emperor, suggesting it was actually brought to ritual sacrifices at the Xiannongtang, where its additional potency as a treasured object of antiquity would enhance the effectiveness of the ritual, or kept as an object of contemplation in the halls of the palace, to remind him of the importance of the ritual.
The buffalo was originally in the collection of Natasha du Breuil (1891-1966), a renowned White Russian antiques dealer who moved to Beijing in 1918 after the Russian Revolution and operated between Beijing and Tianjin before eventually moving to Hong Kong after 1949.
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