According to Sima Qian‘s Records of the Grand Historian, King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty wore jades all over his body and ascended Lutai to die in flames. But he only appeared to love jades and in fact wanted to use these lasting stones as a means to gain immortality. Among Chinese emperors of the past, the one who had a true passion for jades and who remains profoundly influential on our appreciation of them was Hongli, the Qianlong Emperor, Gaozong of the Qing dynasty.
The Emperor Gaozong, whose reign title was Qianlong, was the fourth son of the Yongzheng Emperor. The Qianlong Emperor reigned for 60 years and was one of the few historical emperors obsessed with jades. And it was during this jade-obsessed Emperor's reign that Chinese jade art reached an unprecedented peak.
Qianlong-era jades can be divided into jades in period styles (shizuo yu) and archaistic jades (fanggu yu). Through the present pair of Khotan-green jade vases, we may understand the Qianlong Emperor's appreciation of and taste for archaistic jades.
The current Khotan-green jade archaistic jade is 41.5 cm in height, 11.5 cm in diameter around the mouth, 11.9 cm in diameter around the base, and 23 cm in diameter around the waist. It is generously proportioned. It was ground and worked from Khotan-green jade that is warm and rich in tonality, with a shimmering luminescence due to its rich content of natural oils. The vase has a smooth and rich natural patina that immediately identifies it as a masterwork of the Qianlong imperial court. The body of the vase is divided by a total of six bands worked in shallow relief. From top to bottom, the neck is carved with S-shaped motifs and semi-geometrical dragon patterns in shallow relief and incised with three decorative bands of whirlpool patterns. The waist features two wide bands of aquatic creatures, each group of which consists of a fish, a turtle, a wild duck, and a snake. Vividly depicted and uniquely posed, the animals respectively swim, crawl, walk, lift their heads and catch snakes. The groups are divided also by bands worked in shallow relief, but unlike the bands around the neck, these bands are recessed in the middle, requiring much more work and indicating the craftsman's skilful articulation of details and textures. A circular plaited rope-twist band is decorated around the round foot, with conscientiously incised patterns. The three animal-head loop handles, located on two sides of the neck and on the waist respectively, are articulated in high relief approaching carving in the round. The rings rotate freely. The craftsmanship is flawless. The bottom of the vase is inscribed in seal script with the four characters Qianlong fanggu. Tidy and elegant, these characters were probably wheel-cut.
This jade vase reputedly belonged to Admiral Humman, a late nineteenth-century commander of the China fleet of the French navy, but unfortunately there is no further information on its provenance.1 It appeared around 1960-1961 in London and Milan, and was sold in our London rooms in 1961.2 It was published in Oriental Art Magazine in 1962,3 and in Jade of the East by G. Wills in 1972. In 1987, it was sold at Christie's London in 1987 to Spink & Son, London and then collected by Somerset de Chair (1911-1955), a British author, poet, and politician who served as a Conservative MP. After de Chair's passing, his wife retained the vase. It was published in the important publications A Dealer's Hand: The Chinese Art World through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi and Important Jade Carvings from the Somerset de Chair Collection in 2012 and 2014 respectively.6 From the above, the provenance of the vase is clearly traceable, and it may first have been taken to the United Kingdom during the late-Qing period.
The Qianlong fanggu mark on the base of the vase indicates that it is a Qianlong-period archaistic jade. Six comparable works are in the Palace Museum in Beijing, including two carved from similar Khotan-green jade, three from green and white jade, and one from emerald. All six are incised at the bottom with seal marks, one of which is identical to that on the present vase. The other five bear the marks of Daqing Qianlong fanggu. The present vase and four of the Palace Museum vases are taller than 40 cm, while the remaining two are respectively 38 cm and 29 cm in height, indicating that such vases tend to be large.
Among the six comparable vases in the Palace Museum collection, five are inscribed with Qianlong's poems, mostly around the lower waist or around the neck. There are two such poems, one composed in the 27th year of the Qianlong reign and entitled On the Khotan Jade Vase with Aquatic Creatures (fig. 1). The other poem was composed in the 56th year of the Qianlong reign and entitled On the Han-dynasty Style Khotan Jade Vase with Aquatic Creatures (fig. 2). All five vases bear imperial reign marks and seals.
Both poems refer to the prototype of the jade vases in the form of a Han-dynasty bronze vase with aquatic creatures. In his own annotations to his poems, the Qianlong Emperor refers to the jade vases as "created in imitation of a Han-dynasty vase with aquatic creatures," and the latter is illustrated in Xiqing gujian. "Now the Han-dynasty vase with aquatic creatures from Xiqing gujian is only 9 cun and 4 fen in height, and the current [jade] vase is over 2 cun taller. It was fashioned from the raw jade. Its precious quality and monumental size were never seen in ancient times." In this passage we sense clearly the Qianlong Emperor's delight in ordering the creation of the jade vase. The bronze vase measured not much more than 9 cun in Qing dynasty standards, that is a little over 30 cm. The Qianlong Emperor's vases based on it were all made from jade. All the extant jade vases, including the five in the Palace Museum collection and the present lot, all far exceed the bronze original in dimensions-precious and monumental as never seen in ancient times, as Qianlong himself wrote.
Why was Qianlong so pleased? Why did he decide to order the jade vases made? To answer these questions, we must begin with the sources of raw jade during the Qianlong period and the emperor's love of the past.
From the beginning of the Qing dynasty to the early Qianlong reign, jade production was not especially well-developed. Aside from the emperors' preferences and national politics, an important reason was the lack of raw jade. The various Dzungar rebellions in Xinjiang blocked the supply of Khotan jade to mainland China, and the little raw jade available came as tributes or had to be smuggled. As a result, in the early-Qing period Chinese jades tended not to be very well made, and there were occasional waves of large-scale refashioning of jades from past dynasties. Highly influenced by Han Chinese culture, the Qianlong Emperor was fond of ancient artefacts, but he tended to create archaistic jade plates and other small items, and did not produce many large-scale archaistic jade objects. The earliest record of the jade vases with aquatic creatures in question dates from the 18th year of his reign. Court documents record that after the eunuch Hu Shijie brought the bronze vase with aquatic creatures to the court, a replica of it was made from green jade according to the dimensions of the raw jade on the emperor's order. Then the bronze vase, five illustrations on paper, and the jade replica were submitted for the court's review, after which the illustrations and the replica were sent to the Anning Workshop of the Imperial Manufactory in Suzhou for further production.7 The first jade replica vase appears to have been limited by the raw jade to be of modest size, at most identical to the original, because later court records refer explicitly to "large vases with aquatic creatures."
Between the 22nd and 24th years of the Qianlong reign, the Qing military defeated Dzungars and Hui peoples definitively and occupied Xinjiang, where it installed an administrator to cement its rule. From this point onwards, Khotan was ruled directly as the rest of the empire, and the supply of raw jade was no longer obstructed. Beginning in the 25th year of the Qianlong reign, jade was sent as a tributary good to the court in the spring and autumn of every year. This influx of raw jade allowed Qianlong to express his own understanding and obsessive love of jade to the fullest degree, and laid the material foundation for the golden age of jade during his reign.
According to an entry in the records of the palace workshops (Zaobanchu), the eunuch Hu Shijie submitted a large green jade vase with aquatic creatures with a base. The Emperor ordered that a brocade case be made for it and that the vase be installed at Qianqing Palace as high-quality archaistic ware. This large green jade vase with aquatic creatures can be related to three vases mentioned in Qianlong's poem dated to the 27th year of his reign. All three jade vases exceed 40 cm in height, with the tallest measuring 46.3 cm. It is clear that such large jade vases were occasioned by the ample supply of raw jade. From extant evidence it appears that the jade vase with aquatic creatures was one of the earliest large-scale archaistic jades created during the Qianlong reign (fig. 3).8
Aside from a minority created in the palace workshops, these jade vases with aquatic creatures mentioned in court records were generally created by the Suzhou Manufactory and the Yangzhou-based Lianghuai Salt Administration based on painted plans. The Tianjin-based Changlu Salt Administration sometimes created them too. To create such a large vase, shanliao raw jade (that is large pieces extracted from a mine) is required. In the 40th year of the Qianlong reign, the eunuch Ruyi submitted fourteen pieces of shanliao raw green-and-white jade, one of which weighed some 240 jin and was sent to the Shuwen Workshop at the Suzhou Manufactory to be made into a jade vase with aquatic creatures according to a painting. In the 41st year, a piece of raw green jade weighing 230 jin was similarly made into a vase according to a painting by the Shuwen Workshop. Again in the 52nd year, Zhengrui of the Lianghuai Salt Administration was given five pieces of raw jade, one of which was made into a large jade vase with aquatic creatures.
Shanliao raw jade invariably contains spots and cracks, which added constraints to sizing. During the 44th year of the Qianlong reign, the Suzhou Manufactory was ordered to create a jade vase from a piece of shanliao raw jade. Because of cracks in the jade, the intended size was not possible, and the Manufactory sought further instruction from the Emperor. Qianlong responded that if by reducing the size of the finished vase the cracks could be avoided, that would be a good solution, but if even then the cracks could not be avoided, then it would be better to maintain the intended size, as such cracks were a natural characteristic of jade after all.
The present jade vase and the jade vases in the Palace Museum collection show spots and cracks, defects that were not important for the Qianlong Emperor, who in fact thought they added to the archaic feeling of a work. This aesthetic use of material defects can also be seen in other archaistic jade objects created during the Qianlong reign, indicating that the Emperor considered the craft and decorative program of a jade object more important than the quality of the raw material.
The records of the palace workshops indicate that the vase with aquatic creatures was one of Qianlong's favourite archaistic object type. The first such vases were based on paintings of a bronze vase. However, current archaeological evidence indicates this bronze object type in fact dates from the Warring States period, not from the Han dynasty as Qianlong believed.
Bronze vases originated in the Shang dynasty and persisted in popularity into the Han dynasty. They came in a variety of forms, with long or short necks; straight or tapered mouths; tubular, animal-head, or animal-ear loop handles; ring- or square-feet; round, square, ovoid, flat, or gourd-shaped bodies. During the late Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States period, bronze vases with round bodies were popular. Their decorative programmes were often divided into several bands, and they often featured animal-head loop handles. Han-dynasty bronze vases tended to have plain surfaces and animal-head loop handles.
Bronze vases were used in worship rituals and were also important wine vessels. Book of Rites, Book of Poetry, and Mencius all refer to the use of vases as containers of wine in official ceremonies. The round and flat bronze vases excavated from the Warring States-period mausoleum in Pingshan County, Zhongshan, Hebei all contain traces of alcohol-the oldest alcohol sample yet to be found in China.
The bronze vase with aquatic creatures in the Qianlong Emperor's collection was later documented in the catalogue Xiqing gujian, which was compiled on the Emperor's order by Liang Shizheng and others between the 14th (1749) and 20th (1755) year of his reign. Modelled after Xuanhe bogu tu of the Northern Song Dynasty, Xiqing gujian includes some 1500 bronzes in the imperial court collection dating from the periods between the Shang and Zhou and the Tang dynasties, but Shang and Zhou ritual vessels predominate. Each work is illustrated and accompanied with detailed textual documentation of its dimensions and weight. Each illustration includes the work's inscriptions and is conscientious and accurate. Surpassing similar catalogues of the past, Xiqing gujian set the highest standards of Chinese books at the time. Many of the bronzes in this catalogue later became models for Qianlong's archaistic jades. Thus Qianlong's poems and the palace workshop records from the 56th year of his reign alike identify the source of the jade vase in question as Xiqing gujian, which includes a bronze vase with aquatic creatures identified a Han-dynasty piece that is consistent in form and decorative programme to the extant jade versions (fig. 4).9 The bronze vase measures 9 cun and 4 fen tall, that is slightly above 30 cm, and has two loop handles on the side and one loop handle in front. It is consistent in form and decorative programme with the jade vases. The extant jade vases are likewise consistent among themselves. The only differences are slight and in the details, such as the animal-head loop handles, the semi-geometric dragon and wave patterns around the neck, and the poses of the waterfowls, fish, and turtles. They can thus be reliably traced to the same model. Unfortunately, the present location of the bronze original recorded in Xiqing gujian is unknown. Only bronze plates with similar aquatic creatures are known, and they can be found in the Palace Museum and the Shanghai Museum collections.
Qianlong had a lasting love of the past, but he only promoted the production of archaistic jades in society at large during the middle and late periods of his reign. This was related to the appearance of certain new kinds of jade that he detested. In the 39th year of his reign (1774), Qianlong criticised the "wretched new forms of jade" in his writing, and later proceeded to lodge repeated criticisms against other new-fangled forms that he considered unacceptably vulgar for being overwrought, excessively ornate, or slavish towards raw materiality. He regarded the popularity of such forms as a "catastrophe for jade".10 Whether these forms strike us today as indeed catastrophic or rather innovative, it is clear that the emperor found them unbearable.
Influenced by Han culture and passionate about antique objects, the jade-obsessed Qianlong proceeded actively to shape jade production with his imperial authority. His solution to the "catastrophe" was vigorously to promote archaism-the creation of jades in imitation of antique objects, especially the bronzes and jades dating from the periods between the Shang and Zhou and the Han. Qianlong advocated that "to approach the desired feeling of the ancients, it is best to revert to origins," and encouraged jade craftsmen to "consult Bogu tu frequently" and "imitate antique vessel types." After the 38th year of his reign, archaistic jades became a frequent theme in his poems.11 Qianlong's commentary on the present jade vases with aquatic creatures was as follows: "with two loop handles on the sides, another loop handle underneath in front. The middle areas are carved with waterfowl and fish. The craftsmanship is most sophisticated and elegant."
The vase with aquatic creatures became one of Qianlong's beloved vessel types for its elegant and solemn form, sophisticated and elegant craftsmanship, lively decorative program with swimming turtles and geese and soaring fish and dragons, and for its rich cultural significance as both ritual implement and wine vessel. This vase became one of Qianlong's favourite models for archaistic jades. According to records of the palace workshops, between the 27th and the 60th year of his reign, as the supply of raw jade became abundant, he ordered such archaistic jade vases produced over eight times. Most of these productions came after his vocal criticism of the "catastrophe for jades" and his vigorous promotion of archaism.
Below is an even more striking example of Qianlong's love of the pattern of aquatic creatures. In the first month of the 41st year of his reign, Xining, the Changlu Salt Administrator submitted a wood model for a jade dou for the emperor's inspection through the eunuch Hu Shijie. Qianlong was displeased with its decorative programme and expressly ordered that it be replaced with that of the vase with aquatic creatures carved in relief.
However, we must note that Qianlong's archaism was not a slavish adherence to classical forms. The imitations of Zhou and Han vessels produced under his auspices still incorporated Qing dynasty carving techniques, and they were never subjected to the dyeing and artificial aging processes commonly used in forgeries of antique jades. The articulation of details on Qianlong-era archaistic jades is often very lively. This is evident in the carving of the animal-head loop handles on the present jade vases. By turns they are full-bodied and flat; incised or in low relief and in such high relief as to be almost carved in the round. The stylistic divergence of the vases demonstrates the shifting fashions in Qianlong archaistic jades.
The Qianlong Emperor's love of the past is grounded in his admiration for Chinese culture. Since the rise of epigraphic studies during the Song Dynasty, the Chinese literati almost universally revered antique objects. For example, the Song scholar Zhao Xihu, in his Dongtian qinglu ji, wrote that "Fondling a bronze bell or a ding is like witness Shang and Zhou times first-hand. [...] One forgets the human world of the present, and enjoys what is called pure pleasure. [...] Is there anything better than this?" The Ming literatus Dong Qichang, in his Gudong shisan shuo, more explicitly defined antique objects as the medium through which to commune with and learn from the ancients. For him, bronzes and jades, symbols of ancient rituals and music, were especially beneficial to one's moral and ethical cultivation: "The virtue of the former kings resides in rituals and music. The spirit of the literati resides in painting and calligraphy. The appreciation of the vessels of ritual and music improves one's virtue. The appreciation of ink traces and their carved or printed reproductions refines one's art. Even living in the present, one can meet the ancients".12 If a contemporary collector shares the state of mind described above, and is not exclusively concerned with investment and material gains, then he or she has recovered the original motivation of collecting.
1 Geoffrey Wills, Jade of the East, New York, 1972, p. 93, figs 116-117.
2 Sotheby’s London, 21st November 1961, lot 164, cover image. The caption specifies the work as formerly in the royal collection.
3 Oriental Art Magazine, Summer 1962, pp. 88-89, fig. 7.
4 Geoffrey Wills, op.cit., p. 93, figs 116-117.
5 Sotheby’s London, 16th December 1987, lot 472.
6 Giuseppe Eskenazi in collaboration with Hajni Elias, A Dealer's Hand: The Chinese Art World Through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, London, 2012, p. 237, fig. 157. Important Jade Carvings from the Somerset de Chair Collection, Bonhams, 2014.
7 China First Archive and the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, eds, Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang’an zonghui [General collection of archival records from the Qing imperial household department workshop], Beijing, 2005. Subsequent citations are likewise to this publication and are not individually specified.
8 Gugong bowuyuan wenwu cangpin daxi. Yuqi juan/Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum: Jade, vol. 10: Qing, Beijing, 2009, p. 24, fig. 3 (Gu 98477).
9 Xiqing gujian [Catalogue of Chinese ritual bronzes in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor], vol. 21, fig. 19. Woodblock-printed facsimile republished in Ginwen wenxian jicheng [Compilation of bronze script literature], vol. 3: Gudai wenxian, tuxiang yu mingwen zonglu [Summary of ancient literature, images and inscriptions], p. 496, according to the version dated to the 20th year of the Qianlong period (1755), Hong Kong, 2004.
10 See Zhang Liduan, ‘The Debacle of Jade: A Discussion of Prevailing Types of Jade and Imperial Taste During the Middle and Late Ch’ien-lung Period’, Gugong xueshu jikan/ The National Palace Museum Research Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 2.
11 Qing gaozong (Qianlong) yuzhi shiwen quanji [Anthology of imperial Qianlong poems and text], Beijing, 1993.
12 Cited in Zhang Liduan.
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