Guangdong was famous as the centre of fine craftsmanship and among its various crafts ivory carving was one of the most technically advanced. It quickly emerged as the centre of this industry as craftsmen flocked to the region, where they combined their traditional carving skills with this precious imported material. Ivory carvers became renowned for their ability to produce beautifully carved work, some of which was presented to the Qing court as tribute from officials in the South. The most accomplished carvers were ordered to work in the Imperial Palace Workshop in the Forbidden City. Imperial records show that by the 7th year of the Qianlong reign (in accordance with 1742), ‘Guangdong ivory artisans were in complete control of the Imperial Workshop and monopolised the production of ivory items in the Palace’ (see Tributes from Guangdong to the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1987, p. 64).
Since the 16th century, Guangdong had comprehensive trade links with the rest of the world and traded extensively with European merchants, particularly from Britain and Portugal. The Qianlong Emperor displayed a passion for foreign curiosities and trends and, like his predecessors, began to collect imported luxuries as well as commissioning pieces that drew from both Chinese and European traditions. While the subject and materials employed are Chinese, compositional and stylistic devices draw from European traditions. For example, the use of perspective and condensing the image into a landscape format creating a sense of depth similar to European landscape paintings. Furthermore, the idealised landscape and placement of figures is reminiscent of pastoral scenes. While the use of blue as a compositionally unifying device also refers to Western tradition, in Chinese tradition it also refers to the ethereality of the scene.
See a polychrome ivory panel carved with meiren figures occupied in leisurely pursuits within a courtyard, from the Qing court collection and still in Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji. Gongyi meishu bian [Complete series on Chinese Art: Arts and Crafts section], vol. 11: Zhu, mu, ya, jiao, qi [Bamboo, wood, ivory and horn], Beijing, 1987, pl. 104, together with another depicting three boys playing, pl. 103; and another with figures, in Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, illustrated in Soame Jenyns and William Watson, Chinese Art: Textiles, Glass and Painting on Glass, Carvings in Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn, Carving in Hardstones, Snuff Bottles, Inkcakes and Ink Stones, London, 1981, pl. 97. See also an ivory panel depicting scenes of the Eastern Sea with the Eight Immortals, sold in these rooms, 2nd December 1997, lot 67; another magnificent panel with a scene inspired by the landscape of the Whampoa (Huangpu) region, Guangdong, sold in our London rooms, 12th July 2006, lot 74; and a panel within a zitan frame, depicting a busy village scene, from the Muwentang collection, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1st December 2009, lot 1954. Compare also a pair of later ivory and kingfisher-embellished panels, mounted on similarly shaped and embellished zitan frames, depicting New Year’s festival scenes, from the collection of Sir John R.H. and Lady Thouron, sold at Christie’s New York, 15th September 2009, lot 275. For carved and painted appliqué panels of figures that would once have formed part of a screen, see the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition Chinese Ivories from the Shang to the Qing, British Museum, London, 1984, cat. nos 165-168.
These panels illustrate scenes that are associated with the Dragon Boat Festival. One of the panels depicts clusters of figures cheering on boys as they paddle a small dragon boat, while the other depicts boys and the symbols of wudu (five noxious creatures) which are linked to the Dragon Boat Festival. A boat race is held during the Festival as a re-enactment of a legendary event that happened in Chinese history when people in boats searched for the drowned body of the patriotic statesman Qu Yuan of the fourth and third century B.C. The race is held annually on the fifth day of the fifth month of the lunar calendar to commemorate Qu’s death, and a loud noise of drums and paddles splashing on water is made to ward evil spirits away. Food is thrown into the water as an offering to distract the fish from eating his body. On this day the people also try to battle and expel the wudu, which consists of the centipede, snake, scorpion, gecko and toad, as it falls close to the summer solstice – a critical moment of transition when mankind is particularly exposed to danger.
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