In 1766, the Qianlong Emperor composed a poem titled ‘Ode to the Khotan White Jade Bowl (Yong Hetian baiyu wan), in which he quotes the Liji [Book of Rites] as follows, ‘Flaws do not obscure its beauty, nor does beauty obscure its flaws.’1 In his poem, the emperor uses this classic reference to express his deep admiration for a white jade bowl from Khotan, suggesting that even if the material includes small blemishes, it does not detract from the vessel’s overall magnificence and beauty. His appreciation for Khotan jades is further documented in over seventy poems and essays, all of which represent his assessment and veneration for the jade and for the artistry that went into their carving. He favoured works that were refined, elegant and full of vitality, and especially cherished the lustrous white jade which he praised for its smooth touch. In 1756, when he received his first Khotan jade carving in the form of a flower-shaped basin, he wrote a poem commemorating the beauty of the vessel and hailed all jades arriving from Khotan as pieces of ‘heavenly craft (xiangong).2
Khotan jade became available to the court after the Qing military forces conquered the eastern edge of Central Asia in 1759, defeating the Dzungar Khanate and incorporating its territory into the empire under the name of Xinjiang, meaning ‘new borders’. From the following year, exquisitely carved jades from the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) and large amount of high-quality raw jade from the Khotan and Yarkent regions became available and were sent as tribute items to the Imperial court in Beijing. A bi-annual tribute system formally established between the Qing government and the four sub-Khanates of Xinjiang secured the Imperial Workshop a supply of 4,000 jin of raw jade from mid to late 18th century.3 It is estimated that at the height of this tributary period 300,000 jin of raw jade was transported to the Palace.4
The Qing gong neiwufu dang’an [Records of the Qing Court Imperial Household Department] document a number of white jade wares, including a pair of white jade covered bowls, submitted as tribute items to the Qianlong Emperor by the Lianghui Salt Government official Su Lengcha in 1795. Furthermore, the imperial records show that in the 59th year of Qianlong’s reign (1794), a white jade covered bowl was produced by jade carvers in the Ruyiguan, one of the art studios established under Qianlong’s edict to provide space for painters, jade-carvers, mount-makes and other artisans selected from the East and West of the empire by the Imperial Household Department.5 The Imperial Household Department’s records further reveal that a large number of wares carved in white jade were made in the Ruyiguan between 1760-1795. White jade covered bowls were also gifted as tributary items to the emperor throughout his reign from various regional officials from this border territory of the empire.
The present exquisite bowl and cover, made from the highest quality Khotan white jade with a warm and fine texture belongs to this special group of jade wares. The bowl, skilfully carved with rounded sides and applied with four openwork butterfly loop handles with rings, and the domed cover surmounted by a three-tier globular finial, is special for the simplicity of its decoration which allows a deeper appreciation of form and material, and an emphasis on the superb workmanship and finish of the polished stone. The high quality of the carving is also visible in the handles, with the ornately decorated butterflies in openwork and the suspending loose rings on the handles. The butterfly in Chinese art is amongst the most auspicious motives for its symbolism of blessings, happiness and longevity. The story of Zhuangzi who dreamed that he was a butterfly enjoying a carefree life, flying about and sipping delicious nectar from flowers, comes to mind and is a felicitous reminder of a joyful and content existence. The Chinese for butterfly hudie also serves as a pun, as the first character hu may be pronounced fu or fu meaning ‘blessings’ or ‘riches’; and the second character die represents a pun for the verb ‘accumulate (die)’, forming an overall meaning of an ‘accumulation of blessings’. The fact that there are four butterflies suggests that there was an intension to form a ‘group of butterflies’ to represent multiple good fortune. Another important meaning of the butterfly is its reference to one turning 70 or 80 of age (die). As mentioned above, white jade wares are documented in the imperial archives during the years between 1760-1795, the very period during which Qianlong would have celebrated his 70th and 80th birthdays, the former in 1781 and the latter in 1791. So we can speculate whether this jade bowl might have been made for him on the occasion of his birthday.
No two jade carvings are ever the same, unless they were made as a pair (which are often simple bowls or small utility items), thus the present bowl and cover remains a unique item with no closely comparable example known to date. However, in the quality of the jade and the execution of the stepped globular lobed knop on its cover, this vessel is possibly by the same hand that produced the white jade and cloisonné enamel ram-head teapot and cover sold in these rooms, 3rd October 2017, lot 3613 (figs 1 and 2). The shape of the stepped lobed knop is also reminiscent of that seen on the cover of a green jade incense burner, in the Palace Museum, Beijing and illustrated in Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum. Jade, vol. 10, Beijing, 2011, pl. 96. The current bowl and cover was in the collection of Millicent Rogers (1902-1953), a philanthropist, socialite, style icon and avid art collector, whose grandfather, Henry Huttleston Rogers, was one of the founders of the Standard Oil Company. At her homes in New York, Virginia, California, Austria, Jamaica, Italy and New Mexico, she entertained the great and splendid from American industrialists to European nobility. However, despite her active social life, it was knowledge and learning that motivated her the most. She taught herself to read Latin and ancient Greek, and had a passion for sketching costumes for her own wardrobe, illustrating books for her children, creating jewellery designs and collecting everything from Biedermeier furniture to Ashcan School art for her many homes. She had an eye for beautiful ornaments as seen from the many jewellery pieces she designed and wore herself. She was fascinated by the Far East and amassed a sizeable collection of Japanese art. Her interest in Chinese art appears to have primarily focused on white wares which included exceptional jades and porcelain. The white jade and cloisonné enamel ram-head ewer mentioned above was formerly in her collection, as was a pair of white jade ‘chicken’ bowls sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 28th November 2012, lot 2126, together with a white jade bajixiang decorated alms bowl, lot 2127, and a white-glazed relief-decorated Qianlong mark and period vase, lot 2129, also from her collection.
Shortly before her death she wrote a letter to her son describing her life as follows, ‘It was a journey worth every ache and every pain. So many things were discovered. Life has been marvellous, all the experiences, good and bad.’6 This bowl truly represents the beautiful and special in Millicent Rogers’ life.
1 Included in Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji [Anthology of imperial Qianlong poems and text], Yuzhi shi san ji [Imperial poetry], vol. 3, juan 53, p. 2.
2 See Heavenly Crafted from Hindustan - A Special Exhibition of Exquisite South Asian Jades, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2017.
3 One jin is equivalent to approx. 0.5 kg.
4 See Xu Lin, ‘An Appreciation of the Qianlong Emperor’s White Jade Ram-Head Teapot,’ in the notes on a Qianlong period imperial white jade and cloisonné enamel ram-head teapot and cover, sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 3rd October 2017, lot 3613.
5 Sue Naquin, Peking: Temples and City Life, 1400-1900, Berkeley, 2000, p. 321. See also Nie Chongzheng, ‘Qing Dynasty Court Painting,’ in Evelyn Rawsky and Jessica Rawson eds, China: The Three Emperors, 1662-1795, London, 2005, p. 79; and Michael Sullivan, The Arts of China, Berkeley, 1999, p. 250.
6 Mitchell Owens, ‘Desert Flower,’ The New York Times Magazine, 19th August 2001.
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