The Qianlong Emperor advocated that jade mountains and carved panels should carry the spirit of paintings by famous past masters. It is recorded that a number of classical paintings from the imperial collection were ordered to be reproduced in jade. The motif of quails on this piece is reminiscent of bird-and-flower paintings made in the Song dynasty (960-1279), such as the anonymous hanging scroll Peace and Harmony, depicting quails and millet, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s exhibition China at the Inception of the Second Millennium. Art and Culture of the Sung Dynasty, 960-1279, Taipei, 2000, cat. no. II-6.
Jade mountain carvings were kept in scholars’ studios where they provided a means of inspiration and escape from the regulated life of the court through their sense of ethereality and their subject matter. Quails, in China called anchun, are highly auspicious, since ‘an’ is a homophone of the word for peace. Depictions of quails among ears of millet are symbolic of abundance and express the wish for peace year after year (suisui ping’an).
Jade boulders carved with this motif are highly unusual, and no closely related example appears to have been published. A boulder carved with cranes, in the Sze Tak Tang Collection, was included in the Min Chiu Society exhibition Chinese Jade Carving, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1983, cat. no. 239; one with cranes and deer was sold at Christie’s London, 10th December 1990, lot 215; a boulder with monkeys, in the De An Tang Collection, was included in the exhibition A Romance with Jade, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2004, cat. no. 56, another was sold at Christie’s London, 6th June 1988, lot 3; and a further example carved with horses, was sold in these rooms, 23rd September 1995, lot 278. See also a much larger spinach-green jade boulder carved with chicks and inscribed with a poem composed by the Qianlong Emperor, sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 8th April 2011, lot 2812.
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