PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT ASIAN COLLECTION
Carved in low relief on one side are the Ten Heavenly Stems and incised on the other are the Twelve Earthly Branches (tiangan dizhi). Together these two sets create the Chinese system that is used to count the years, months and days, as well as the two-hour periods (shi) which divides the twenty-four-hour day into twelve periods. In this lunar calendar, each year is assigned one of the Twelve Earthly Branches and an animal from the Chinese zodiac. Each unit in a cycle, whether it represents a year or minute, is assigned one stem and one branch. The Ten Stems and Twelve Branches run concurrently so a whole cycle takes sixty years to complete and for the Stems and Branches to once again coincide. Notably, this full cycle is also known as jiazi, as inscribed on one side of the plaque.
The direct representation of the Chinese lunar calendar in jade is also found on two sets of white jade zodiac figures, one held in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and the other in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. The twelve anthropomorphic figures were stored inside a box known as wannian jiazi he and arranged around a central rectangular jade box carved with the Daoist qian trigram, a symbol of the Qianlong Emperor. According to the Archive of the Imperial workshop, a complete set was made by imperial commission on the 21st day of the 5th month of the 48th year of Qianlong reign (in accordance with 1783), which was placed in Maoqindian (Hall of Merit and Diligence).
Akin to the zodiac figure sets, the present plaque appears to portray the Qianlong Emperor as the Son of Heaven; uniformly established and protected by celestial guardians to bring prosperity to the empire, as suggested by the central figure of Yuncai tongzi. This theme of establishment and protection is further suggested by the demon-like figure at the top of the plaque which may be a garuda, a guardian figure in Tibetan Buddhism. The dragon emerging from waves on the base draws attention to the imperial nature of this piece.
A much smaller white jade plaque, similarly carved with the Ten Heavenly Stems and Twelve Earthly Branches surrounding Yuncai tongzi in the centre, attributed to the Qing dynasty, was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 6th October 2012, lot 18, from the Yidetang collection.
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