The present vase represents a harmonious blend of technical prowess and artistic imagination. It is an arresting artefact, impressive for its use of a large yellow jade boulder that has been skilfully fashioned into an object seeped in classical symbolism while being contemporary at the same time. The vase is decorated in high relief carving with a large dragon and eight small chilong climbing amongst ruyi-form clouds over and around a conjoined cong and cylinder embedded in rocks above cresting waves. The beauty of the pale yellow jade is made prominent by its smooth patina and the use of its natural russet fissures that have been skilfully incorporated into the design.
The use of two distinct geometric shapes, the circle in the form of a cylinder and the square represented by the cong is perfectly balanced by the flowing and undulating forms of the animals, clouds and waves. In classical literature the circle and square together represent the pairing of Heaven and Earth. Thus, the carver of the vase has skilfully created a design which at first glance appears to merely combine two distinct forms, but explored closer, represents one of the most powerful symbolisms known in Chinese art, the ‘Cosmic Universe’. While the large dragon is the symbol of the emperor, in this arrangement it represents the supreme imperial power. The figure of the dragon, accompanied by its companions, the chilong, is depicted ascending from the waves and rocks, reaching to take its place as the ultimate ruler. The maker of this vase has thus created a visual programme which is about the supreme power of the emperor in the Chinese cosmic universe.
In order to better understand the hidden symbolism of this magnificent vase, let us examine the significance of the two important shapes, the circle and the square in Chinese art. One of the earliest circle form objects known in China are the bi jade discs, found carefully laid on the bodies of the royals in the tombs of the Hongshan (c. 3800-2700 BC) and the Liangzhu (c. 3400-2250 BC) cultures in northeast and east China. According to the Confucian cannon, the Rites of Zhou (Zhou li), a ruler was expected to use a green jade bi for worshipping Heaven and a yellow jade cong to worship the Earth.1 It is a challenge for any jade carver to form the perfect circle and perhaps for this reason it is a shape that has been valued so much. While historically the circle represented Heaven, in opposition to the square that symbolised Earth, in popular culture, especially though the influence of the teachings of Daoism, circles came to stand for perfection, oneness and unity. Furthermore, the flawless circle of the Daoist yin and yang symbol represents the reunion and harmonious blend of conflicting forces.
In contrast, the straight lines and sharp corners of the square symbolise the concept of rules, regulations and the correct way of doing things (fangfa). The idiom zhengfang comes to mind, which literally means ‘square and straight’ and used when describing one who is morally upright like the perfect square. The cong that forms part of the present vase represents another archaic shape known to the Chinese artist. Early examples of cong objects were unearthed from numerous tombs of the Liangzhu culture around Lake Tai in Jiangsu province. In the form of a tube it is square on the outside with a hollow cylindrical centre, thus it combines the two significant shapes of a circle and a square. Cong are amongst the most impressive yet enigmatic of all ancient Chinese jade carvings. Although they were objects that circulated amongst collectors throughout history for centuries, their nature and function remain a mystery. Recent archaeological excavations show that they were associated mostly with male tomb occupants, who, if powerful, could have a considerable number of them in a burial pit.2 While there is still no consensus amongst scholars as to the artistic intention behind the combination of circle and square, the Warring States period poet Song Yu (fl. 298-263 BC) employed the following metaphor in his poem titled Rhapsody on Talks about Greatness (Dayan fu) describing the ultimate goal that all men should aspire to:
Take square Earth as a chariot
Take round Heaven as its canopy
The shining long sword [accompanying the great man]
thus leans far beyond Heaven.3
This passage illustrates how the Chinese in ancient times considered Heaven to be round and Earth to be square, and the two together were compared to the round umbrella-like form of the canopy and square body of the chariot. Heaven thus became the dome that covered the flat Earth. This cosmological perspective, known as the ‘Canopy Heaven (gaitian)’, was also used to explain how celestial bodies turned around the celestial pole in daily orbits in a plane parallel to the earth’s surface.4
Bearing the above in mind, we can see that the vase is imbued with imperial symbolism and thus is almost certainly an object made on imperial order. Its fine carving, material and imaginative artistic composition corroborates its attribution to the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796) who was an avid collector of outstanding jade carvings. From the imperial records we know that Qianlong’s jade collection surpassed that of any of his predecessors in quantity and quality, and two-thirds of the more than thirty-thousand jade pieces in the Palace Museum today were either acquired or made during his reign. Furthermore, he was not only an enthusiastic collector of jades, but a great patron of artists working in the imperial palace workshops where creative and exciting pieces, such as the present vase, would have been produced to cater for his exacting personal taste.5
Apart from its imperial provenance, the present vase was also in the collection of the prominent Hong Kong shipping tycoon and real estate developer T.Y. Chao (1912-1999). Chao had already been collecting Chinese ceramics for decades, from the 1960s, when he started buying jade objects with a preference for large and imposing pieces.6
While no two jade carvings are ever the same, see a double-zun shaped vase from the Qing court collection illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Jadeware (III), Hong Kong, 1995, no. 145 (fig. 1); and another conjoined piece published in Zhongguo yuqi quanji [Complete collection of Chinese jades], vol. 6: Qing, Shijiazhuan, 1993, pl. 236 (fig. 2). See also a yellow jade archaic form vase carved with climbing chilong around the body included ibid., pl. 241; together with two examples of white jade vases of conjoined forms, pls 243 and 244.
1 Zhou li zhengyi [Rectification of the Rites of Zhou], Beijing, 2000, 35.1390.
2 See Lillian Lan-ying Tseng, Picturing Heaven in Early China, London and Cambridge, 2011, p. 43.
3 Yan Kejun, Quan shangshu sandai wen, 10.2a, vol. 1 of Quan shangshu sandy Qin Han Sanguo Liuchao wen. Translation in Tseng, op.cit., p. 45.
4 See Tseng, op.cit., p. 47 for more information on the cosmological aspect of the Canopy Heaven. See also Dirk L. Couprie, ‘An Ancient Chinese Flat Earth Cosmology,’ Tsinghua Journal of Western Philosophy, 2016, no. 3.
5 On Qianlong as a collector see Hajni Elias, ‘Qianlong: The Imperial Collector,’ Arts of Asia, 2006, vol. 36, no. 2, pp. 66-84.
6 Giuseppe Eskenazi and Hajni Elias, A Dealer’s Hand. The Chinese Art World Through the Eyes of Giuseppe Eskenazi, London, 2012, pp. 113-4.
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