It is extremely rare to find elephant and boys carvings of this type whereby the elephant has been hollowed and the vase fashioned as a cover. Compare a white jade vessel of a similarly rendered elephant surmounted by a hollowed jar flanked by two boys, from the De An Tang collection, included in the exhibition A Romance with Jade, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2004, cat. no. 87, sold in our London rooms, 5th December 1995, lot 101; and another illustrated in Zhongguo yuqi quanji [Complete collection of Chinese jades], vol. 6, Shijiazhuang, 1993, pl. 270. The motif of children washing an elephant represents happiness and good fortune while a vase on the back of an elephant evokes the rebus taiping youxiang, yutang fugui ('may there be peace and may your noble house be blessed with wealth and honour'), which is traditionally spoken during New Year celebrations.
Related white jade figure carvings of elephants with boys include one, depicting two boys with floral sprays clambering about the elephant surmounted with a potted plant, from the Alan and Simone Hartman collection, illustrated in Robert Kleiner, Chinese Jades from the Collection of Alan and Simone Hartman, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 170; another modelled with two boys riding an elephant, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, published in Gugong bowuyuan wenwu cangpin daxi. Yuqi juan/Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum: Jade, vol. 9: Qing, Beijing, 2011, pl. 136; and a green jade version from the collection of Sir Jonathan Woolf, illustrated in The Woolf Collection of Chinese Jade, London, 2013, pl. 96.
In the Qing dynasty, elephants were associated with the imperial court and very often appeared carrying vases on their backs during processions celebrating the Emperor's birthday. This imagery originates in Buddhism, where the vase represents an offering to the deity being worshipped. In Buddhism the elephant enjoyed high status, as white elephants symbolise the tamed and strong mind of the practitioner. Furthermore, it is also related to both Shakyamuni Buddha, the Historical Buddha, and Samantabhadra, the bodhisattva of compassion; the former is said to have been born as an elephant in one of his previous incarnations, while the latter is often shown riding a white elephant. The ears of the elephant, which are characterised by thin veins running through them, are believed to resemble the leaves of the lotus flower, which symbolise spiritual purity and the ability of all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood.
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