The Qianlong Emperor was so impressed by the basin that he had it cleaned and polished – a process that took four years given the scale of the work – and had three poems of admiration inscribed on its surface, dating to 1746, 1749, and 1773, respectively. Through cleaning and studying the basin, the Qianlong Emperor and his team of artisans developed a deep understanding of the vessel and the techniques involved in its creation. By 1753, the imperial workshop crafted a small jade washer in its image to present to the emperor. This delighted the Qianlong Emperor, who then commanded the artisans to rework the dragons on the Yuan dynasty basin according to those on the new, small washer. The exercise then inspired the Emperor to commission 40 further jade washers of this type: 20 of large scale, 10 of medium size, and 10 small versions.
Production of the Qianlong Emperor’s series of jade ‘dragon cloud’ washers began in earnest in 1759, when the emperor conquered Xinjiang and gained access to a steady and ample supply of jade from Khotan. The first large washer of the group, carved with nine dragons amidst clouds, was completed in the 34th year of the Qianlong reign (1769). The Emperor deemed the washer superior to its Yuan dynasty precedent, composed a laudatory poem to be carved on it, and installed it in the East Wing of the Qianqing Palace. Other washers from this series were placed in various halls throughout the palace. The imagery of the dragon and cloud – two entities that animate one another, and rely on their mutual interaction to realize their full power and potential – was a metaphor for good governance. Thus, when the Emperor would invite his officials to view the ‘dragon cloud’ washers, each viewer would be reminded that the empire needs virtuous, capable officials and a discerning emperor to appreciate their abilities.
Like the treasured ‘nine dragon’ washer in the Qianqing Palace, the present washer is similarly carved with a robust ‘dragon cloud’ design, and bears a poetic inscription attributing it to the 34th year of the Qianlong reign, corresponding to 1769. The exact dating of the Irving washer and its inscription have been the topic of some discussion, however, it is worth noting that the poem is recorded in Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji / Complete Works of Poetry of Emperor Gaozong of the Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 1993, vol. 6, juan 81, p. 552. A second jade washer inscribed with the same poem remains in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (inv. Gu 89417 Qinggong jiucang).
Additional Qianlong period washers of this type include a small spinach-green jade example with openwork details in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, published in Masterworks of Chinese Jade in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1969, pl. 41; a small white jade washer in the same collection (inv. Guyu 2963), exhibited in Jade: From Emperors to Art Deco, Musée Guimet, Paris, 2016, cat. no. 124; a large spinach-green washer with five dragons sold in our London rooms, 10th November 2010, lot 316; a white and russet washer of comparable size to the present, but with three dragons and formerly in the collection of Alan and Simone Hartman, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th November 2007, lot 1504; and a white jade example with nine dragons sold in these rooms, 16th-17th September 2014, lot 280.
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