Among jade marriage bowls made in the Qianlong period, this piece is particularly special and rare on account of its exceptional carving and number of handles. Its form represents a free interpretation of archaic bronze basins, known as pan, which originated in the Shang dynasty (16th century-c.1046 BC). Pan were used for ritual ablutions before and after banquets, and this function may well have been preserved into the Qing dynasty. Its form, three animal-mask handles and the taotie masks on the exterior are an amalgamation of Bronze Age prototypes.
While in China vessels of this type are known as washers, in the West they are typically referred to as marriage bowls. The name derives from their auspicious designs that offered blessings and good wishes upon a marital union. This bowl is no exception, as the interior is carved with a luxuriant wannianqing (Chinese evergreen), rohdea japonica, with broad leaves and clusters of berries, and lingzhi. While the latter is a well-known symbol of longevity, the former became a popular subject matter only in the 18th century. Its name literally means ‘ten thousand years green’, and the character qing in its name is homophonous with the Qing dynasty. Its tight cluster of berries embodies the wish for fertility and male progeny, and when depicted together with the lingzhi, it expresses the wish wannian ruyi (May your wishes come true for one thousand years).
Basins of this type were typically fashioned with two handles, although a small number of vessels with four and six handles are known. Those with three handles are however very rare, and no other closely related example appears to have been published. A washer with two handles similarly fashioned in the form of animal masks, but carved on the exterior with a row of sinuous mythological creatures, from the collection of Mr and Mrs Barney Dagan, was included in the exhibition Chinese Jade from Southern California Collections, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, 1977, cat. no. 36.
Washers with two handles and carved with this auspicious motif of Chinese evergreen and lingzhi on the interior are known; a washer, but with a plain exterior, was sold in these rooms, 8th April 2010, lot 1869; another with two raised bow-strings, from the collection of the Manno Art Museum, Osaka, was sold at Christie’s London, 21st June 2001, lot 112; and a slightly larger spinach-green jade example was sold twice in our London rooms, 16th December 1969, lot 104, and 3rd June 1975, lot 24a.
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