Jade carvings reached an unprecedented peak in quality and quantity as a result of the Qianlong Emperor’s outspoken passion for carved jade. The successful annexation of the Tianshan region around Hetian and Khotan in modern Xinjiang province secured access to the raw material. While his predecessor, the Yongzheng Emperor, had been faced with a severe shortage of good quality nephrite, large quantities of fine jade became available to the court from the latter half of the Qianlong reign onwards. While initially it was stipulated that all mined jade from the Tianshan region reached the court in Beijing, it was later established that an annual tribute quota of 4,000 catties (2,000 kilos) was to be supplied. Once in the palace, jade boulders were dispatched to the Palace Workshop (Zaobanchu) in Beijing, to the workshops of Suzhou, or those belonging to the Huai and Changlu Administrations.
Vases of this form carved with this auspicious motif are rare and no other closely related example appears to have been published. Melons and butterflies form the wish for many descendants (guadie mianmian), a pun also mentioned in the Book of Odes (Shijing). The motif is also related to the New Year when butterflies and melons represent the wish niannian jiqing (‘Auspicious happiness year after year’). Butterflies are also related to the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi (Mencius), who dreamt he was a butterfly flying in a carefree manner and enjoying the nectar from flowers.
A spinach-green jade vase carved with melons and butterflies, but lacking the loop handles and with a four-character Qianlong reign mark and of the period, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is illustrated in The Compendium of Collection in the Palace Museum. Jade, vol. 10, Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2011, pl. 61. Compare also a double-gourd vase carved with similarly rendered leaves, but also with the daji (good luck) characters, illustrated in Robert Kleiner, Chinese Jades form the Collection of Alan and Simone Hartman, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 149.
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