Details & Cataloguing

Important Chinese Art


of cylindrical form rising from five ogee-bracket feet, the exterior meticulously carved in various levels of relief portraying a gathering scene of five elderly immortals in a secluded landscape setting amongst a forest of gnarled pine and wutong trees, two are engaged in conversation, while a third and his attendant makes a peach offering on a bridge, the opposing side with two further figures in front of a pavilion, the stone of a deep spinach-green tone highlighted with darker mottled inclusions
17.2 cm, 6 3/4  in.
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Collection of Robert Napier, First Baron Napier of Magdala (1810-1890).


The International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-36, cat. no. 2794.

Catalogue Note

A Constant Friend: On the Spinach-Green Jade ‘Five Immortals’ Brush Pot

Dr. Xu Lin, The Palace Museum, Beijing

When it comes to brush pots, I always think about the following line inscribed by the bamboo carver Pan Xifeng on one of his bamboo brush pots:

‘Void is its heart, firm are its joints. It serves me in my study, accompanying me every day and night’.

The brush pot was an indispensable part of the scholar’s study in classical China. Even in our increasingly computerised society, an elegant brush pot on a desk remains a loyal companion and a source of aesthetic pleasure.

The present spinach-green jade ‘Five Immortals’ brush pot is 16.5 cm in height. Its mouth and base both measure 17 cm in diameter, and its base measures 1.1 cm in height. Carved from spinach-green jade, the brush pot has a straight cylindrical form, with five geometric cloud motifs on its base. The body is carved in shallow relief with a continuous landscape scene of a tranquil forest with five elderly figures, each striking a different pose. One crosses a bridge holding a magical peach, trailed by a young servant holding a staff; in front of him is a high platform with a table, and on the table stands a vase holding blooming peonies, auspicious symbols of prosperity and good fortune. Two elderly figures are walking together, one holding lingzhi fungus and a staff and looking back, the other proceeding forward with a peach. The pair appear to be in conversation. Another two figures are holding a peach and lingzhi fungus respectively; behind them, a small pavilion with square double roofs stands in the shade of a wutong tree. In the distant background are rolling hills with pine trees and vines, as well as auspicious clouds. In the foreground, a river runs amidst pines and cypresses. The hills, river, vegetation, and pavilion together form an otherworldly paradise of peace, tranquillity, and comfortable enjoyment.

This complicated composition was created through a variety of techniques, including subtractive carving in high and low relief, incision, and drilling. The resultant scene, resembling a continuous scroll painting, is extremely illusionistic. In its material, craftsmanship, and composition, this brush pot is characteristic of the jade art of the mid-Qing imperial court.

The brush pot was exhibited in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from November 1935 to March 1936, and was included in the accompanying exhibition catalogue (fig. 3) [1]. Initiated by Sir Percival David, the major British scholar and collector of Chinese art, the exhibition aimed at promoting “the global appreciation of Chinese art and sympathy between the peoples of China and United Kingdom” and received support from the government of the Republic of China. A total of 1022 fine exhibits were selected from the Palace Museum, Academica Sinica, Antiques Exhibition Bureau, Beijing Library, and other Chinese collections, encompassing virtually all areas of classical Chinese art—ceramics, paintings and calligraphy, bronzes, jades, enamels, kesi textiles, lacquer carving, furniture, and other media. Among them, 735 were works from the Palace Museum that had been brought to southern China due to Sino-Japanese conflicts. The International Exhibition of Chinese Art also received the enthusiastic support of public and private collections around the world and featured works loaned from the U.K., United States, Germany, France, Japan, the Netherlands, India, Russia, Sweden, and Turkey. In sum, the exhibition featured 3080 works from 240 collections and 15 countries. It was an unprecedented opportunity for Europeans to gain an overview of Chinese art. Jade expert Oscar Raphael was responsible for curating the jade exhibits, and he selected the present brush pot, along with the washer, lot XXX, from a private British family collection[2].

As one of the Four Treasures of the Study, the brush pot appeared later than the brush. The term bitong was first used in Maoshi caomu niaoshou chongyu shu, a 3rd-century commentary on the Confucian Classic Shijing, by Lu Ji, who lived in the Wu Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms period[3]. According to research by Yang Zhishui, the bitong mentioned there was not the same as the brush pot familiar to us from the Ming and Qing periods, but rather “a brush case, common in the Qin and Han periods, consisting of two bamboo segments attached together and containing a pair of brushes”. The Song-dynasty medical recipe book Chuanxin shiyong fang mentions the use of bitong as a tool to feed liquid medicine, and another Song text, Zhixu zazu, mentions that “[Wang] Xianzhi owned a bitong named qiuzhong (‘fur cup’) made from spotted bamboo”. Yang believes that both were brush cases rather than brush pots[4].

Indeed, excavated tombs predating the Ming dynasty have yielded no cylindrical brush pots, but they have yielded long and narrow brush cases. When cylindrical brush pots first appeared remains a question for further investigation.

After cylindrical brush pots became fashionable in the mid-Ming period, the form began to appear in different materials. During the Qing dynasty, the quantity and material variety of brush pots both increased. Although the majority were still made from bamboo or wood, there appeared also ceramic, lacquer, jade, ivory, glass, enamel, and bronze examples. The Palace Museum collection contains some 1500 Ming and Qing brush pots made from a dozen or so different materials, documenting the rich variety of brush pots used at the imperial court.

The popularity of the brush pot was in part due to the ritual significance invested in it by the literati. Consider, for example, the Ming literatus Zhu Yizun’s Inscription on the Brush Pot:

‘A brush on a desk can tilt or lean. This is like a person behaving improperly. To contain a brush within a brush pot is like giving a traveller a home. It is to constrain its wandering heart, to return it to a state of moral purity’[5].

This analogy between a brush in a brush pot and a person behaving with ritual propriety became an important theoretical justification for the use of the brush pot by the Ming and Qing literati.

Jade brush pots required raw jade that was not only relatively large but also free from too many blemishes, chips, and other imperfections. Consequently, jade brush pots were rarer and more valuable than bamboo, wood, or porcelain brush pots, and tended to be concentrated in the homes of the nobility and the wealthy.

The earliest extant jade brush pot dates from the Ming dynasty, but overall the Ming and the early Qing periods produced relatively few of them. After the mid-Qianlong period, as the supply of raw jade from Khotan to the court became ample and reliable, jade brush pots increased in quantity. The Palace Museum collection contains approximately 200 jade brush pots dating from the mid-Qing and later, and most of these postdate the mid-Qianlong period. These were created by the Zaobanchu (Palace Workshop), the Suzhou Manufactory, and under the supervision of the Lianghuai Salt Administration, or sent as tributes by local officials. The production of jade brush pots accelerated during the Qianlong reign. According to Zaobanchu records, during the 59th and 60th years of the Qianlong reign alone (1794/5), the court created or received as tributes over ten jade brush pots[6].

The ample supply of raw jade after the mid-Qianlong reign meant that the Emperor’s need for jade desk items could be fully satisfied. The former Qing imperial collection contained many different kinds of brush pots, including those made from spinach-green, qingbai (‘greenish white’), white, Khotan-green, and yellow jade, as well as those made from crystal, agate, and other colourful stones. They encompassed also various different shapes, including cylindrical, rectangular, tree-branch, and bamboo forms, although the cylindrical type predominated. They came polished and undecorated, or carved with decorative designs featuring bamboo and plum, flowers and birds, or figures in landscapes. The Qianlong Emperor especially favoured brush pots carved with landscapes and human figures, composed poems about them and had them inscribed.

During the middle and later parts of his reign, he vigorously promoted the introduction of painting subjects into jade carving. He believed that while paper could last a thousand years, jade—the crystallized essence of heaven and earth—was indestructible. Consequently, many themes common in painting and calligraphy began to appear in jade carvings, which either were modelled on or inspired by pictorial prototypes or directly reproduced works of painting and calligraphy in the same way as stone stelae. For example, the Qianlong court workshop faithfully carved in jade calligraphies from the anthology Sanxitang fatie (‘Model calligraphies from the Hall of Three Rarities’) and the famous Lantingji xu (‘Preface to the poems composed at the Orchid Pavilion’). More common, however, were jade works depicting themes of painting. Most famous among these was the Jade Mountain with Great Yu Controlling the Waters, which was initiated in the 46th year of the Qianlong reign (1781) and finished only in the 52nd year (1787), and required the translation and transfer of the Song-dynasty painting Great Yu Controlling the Waters to four large-scale sketches on paper, a wax model, a wood model, and a drawing on the raw jade. The finished work was sent to the Summer Palace and housed in the Leshoutang (Hall of Joyful Longevity). The following year, the Emperor ordered his long commemorative prose-poem to be inscribed on this jade mountain. In it, he articulates an important motivation behind his transference of many paintings into jade carvings: “a painted picture may disappear as time passes, but a solid [i.e. jade] work can hardly be destroyed even after a thousand years.”

Under the Qianlong Emperor’s auspices, the jade brush pot became an important medium for pictorial subjects. Its cylindrical form yields a suitably large, continuous, and regular pictorial surface, as could be seen already on many bamboo and wood brush pots. During the Qianlong reign, this format was transferred to jade. Through the various techniques of high- and low-relief carving, openwork carving, incision, and drilling, craftsmen realised an increasing quantity of compositions with figures in landscapes on jade brush pots. Possessing not only the continuity of a scroll painting but also the volumetric illusionism of sculpture, these brush pots fully embodied the aesthetic and moral values of the literati.

Common figure-in-landscape subjects include the historical narratives of the Four Sages of Shangshan, the Five Elders of Juyang, the Six Recluses of Zhuxi, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, the Nine Elders of Huichang, the Elegant Gathering at the West Garden, Immortals on Mount Fantong, the Spring Evening Banquet in a Peach Blossom Garden (after a poem by Li Bai), and so on (figs. 4 and 5), as well as such auspicious or didactic subjects as clouds and waterfalls, and the Three Friends of Winter[7]. Many of these brush pots faithfully illustrate historical stories or pictorial themes, but others, especially those dating from the late Qianlong reign, interpret their source materials innovatively. The present jade brush pot shows an innovative interpretation of the theme of the Five Elders of Juyang.

The Five Elders of Juyang were high ministers of the Northern Song court: Du Yan, Wang Huan, Bi Shichang, Feng Ping, and Zhu Guan. After retiring from office, they lived reclusively in Juyang (in present-day Shangqiu, Henan) and often gathered to compose poetry. They were all blessed with longevity: Du Yan lived to 80, Feng Ping 87, Zhu Guan 88, Wang Huan 90, and Bi Shichang 94. They garnered the respect and admiration of their contemporaries, and their story became a popular painting subject. In his old age, the Qianlong Emperor yearned for longevity, and this was reflected in the many longevity-themed works of jade carvings produced during his reign. Although the present jade brush pot depicts the Five Elders as recluses in nature, the peaches and lingzhi fungi they hold make explicit the Emperor’s wish for a long life. Of course, it is also possible that the craftsmen wanted to curry the Emperor’s favour by proactively emphasizing the theme of longevity.

The colour of this jade brush pot is well suited to the subject matter. Among extant Qing imperial brush pots, we find that those made from spinach-green jade generally depict landscape subjects with figures. The colour of the jade naturally evokes vegetation and infuses the composition with a feeling of peace and tranquillity. Always an astute connoisseur of jade, the Qianlong Emperor favoured spinach-green jade. He often purposefully chose raw jade with imperfections and blemishes because he believed that these could better represent the colours of nature. For example, he extolled the Jade Mountain Depicting a Spring Morning at Dantai (originally called Verdant Colours in the Southern Mountains), created in the 46th year of his reign (1781), in the following poetic couplet: “The green base colour and the white patterns look as if painted; the carved peaks and trees take on a form of their own”. In other words, the craftsmen exploited the colours of the raw jade to depict the mountains, water, trees, and peaks of the scene, ingeniously combining nature and artifice. They did not value white jade blindly and exclusively. This can serve as a lesson for collectors and connoisseurs of jade today.

[1] International Exhibition of Chinese Art, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1935-6, cat. no. 2794.

[2] Hu Jian, ‘Percival David and the 1935 London International Exhibition of Chinese Art’, Wenwu shijie, 2009:6. China Second Archive and Liu Nannan, eds., ‘Select Historical Sources for the Beijing Palace Museum’s Participation in the London International Exhibition of Chinese Art’, Minguo dang’an, 2010:3.

[3] Wu Luzhen, Maoshi Cao Mu Niao Shou Chong Yu Shu (Commentary on Botanical and Zoological Terms in the Book of Songs), Vol II, Siku Quanshu (Complete Library in Four Sections) - Jing (Literature) Section, Shi (Poetry) Section, Maoshi Cao Mu Niao Shou Chong Yu Shu (Commentary on Botanical and Zoological Terms in the Book of Songs), Vol II.

[4] Yang Zhishui and Guo Xuelei, “Bitong shitong, xiangtong”, in Shoucangjia, 2006: Vol.3.

[5] Zhu Yizun, Baoshuting ji, vol. 61 in Siku quanshu, ji section, [Collections of Individual Writers].

[6] China First Archive and the Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, ed., Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang’an zonghui (Complete compilation of the archival material of the Qing dynasty imperial workshops), vol. 52, Beijing: Renmin chuban she, 2005.

[7] Zhang Guangwen, ed., Gugong bowuyuan cang wenwu zhenpin quanji—Yuqi (Complete collection of the treasures of the Palace Museum—Jade), Hong Kong: Sanlian Publishing and Commercial Press, 1996, vol. 2, figs. 168 and 169.



Imperial Jade Brush Pot

Regina Krahl

Green jade brush pots featuring immortals or sages in scenic mountainous landscapes belonged to the classic repertoire of the imperial jade workshops during the Qianlong period (1736-1795), and were occasionally inscribed with the Emperor’s own poems. Jade, both white and spinach-green, would appear to have been the most valued medium for such vessels in the Qianlong reign, as contemporary examples in other valued materials, such as precious metals, porcelain, lacquer, cloisonné or bronze, are rare. Brush pots would have been required throughout the imperial palaces and would also have made suitable imperial gifts to or from honoured officials. They were made in a wide variety of designs, but the spinach-green landscape brush pot appears to have been a particular favourite. The number of surviving examples of this type is nevertheless relatively small and, no two jade boulders being alike, no two brush pots are either, all being individually designed and fashioned.

On the perfectly cylindrical form of brush pots such as this the relief carving was treated like a continuous handscroll painting. To create such an even picture with a natural material, required the careful selection of a jade boulder of exceptional quality, the original shape of which can no longer be surmised. The superb composition of the landscapes carved around the sides of these brush pots becomes apparent when panoramic photographs are taken, which enable the full picture to be ‘unrolled’, as done, for example, with the brush pot in the Sir Joseph Hotung collection, illustrated by Jessica Rawson in the exhibition catalogue Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, The British Museum, London, 1995, p. 99, fig. 95; p. 416, fig. 3; cat. no. 29: 18.

The present brush pot shows five sages holding peaches of longevity, one accompanied by an attendant, in a hilly landscape among lush greenery that is dominated by three large trees of auspicious significance, a Chinese mahogany tree (xiangchun, cedrela sinensis or toona sinensis) with long feathery leaves, a Chinese parasol tree (wutong, firmiana simplex or sterculia platanifolia) here shown with four-lobed leaves, and a pine – symbolizing longevity and eternal spring.

Green jade brush pots with similar scenes of immortals and sages in scenic landscape settings are preserved both in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and the Palace Museum, Beijing; for an example from the former collection, but lacking the feet, see Gongting zhi ya. Qingdai fanggu ji huayi yuqi tezhan tulu/The Refined Taste of the Emperor: Special Exhibition of Archaic and Pictorial Jades of the Ch’ing Court, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1997, cat. no. 58; for three related pieces from the latter collection, one of them of more narrow proportions, see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Jadeware (III), Hong Kong, 1995, pls 168-170; and a fourth without feet, in Zhongguo yuqi quanji [Complete collection of Chinese jades], vol. 6: Qing, Shijiazhuang, 1991, pl. 278.

A spinach-green jade brush pot carved with a similar landscape was also included in the Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1975, cat. no. 415, together with one, from the collections of E.L. Paget, Sir J. Buchanan-Jardine, Sir Bernard Eckstein and Sir Jonathan Woolf, cat. no. 413, the latter also included in the exhibition The Woolf Collection of Chinese Jade, Sotheby’s, London, 2013, cat. no. 45. A similar brush pot inscribed with an imperial poem, from the collection of P. Ayers and later the Thompson-Schwab collection, was sold in our London rooms, 31st January 1961, lot 177, and again, 9th November 2016, lot 17.


Compare also a similar spinach-green jade brushpot depicting 'The Five Old Men of Suiyang', from the collection of A. Knight, sold at Christie's London, 21st March 1966, lot 152, and again in our Paris rooms, 22nd June 2017, lot 9. Two slightly smaller examples, but without feet, include one with scholars and immortals in a landscape, inscribed with an imperial poem and dated Qianlong yimao xia (summer of 1795), from the collection of George H. Taber, sold in our New York rooms, 20th March 2012, lot 208; and another carved with figures and auspicious beasts, sold twice in these rooms, 3rd April 1951, lot 189, and 5th May 1959, lot 164, and a third time in our Hong Kong rooms, 5th October 2011, lot 1910A. 

Important Chinese Art