PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
The Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) was not the first Manchu ruler to actively support Tantric Buddhism. Connections between the Manchu ruling house and the Dalai Lama predated the Manchu conquest of China. Once on the throne, the Qing (1644-1911) emperors eagerly promoted good relations to the Lamaist clergy, since support of this Tibetan-Mongolian brand of Buddhism was considered politically advantageous, if not imperative, in order to win the allegiance of Tibetans and Mongols. The Manchu emperors thus made visits to holy sites of Lamaism and invited the Dalai Lama and other important Buddhist dignitaries to the court in Beijing, they supported Buddhist building projects in and around the imperial palaces, but also in the country at large, and initiated Buddhist publishing and printing projects. They also collected ancient imperially sponsored Sutras, and commissioned replacements of lost copies in order to assemble complete canons of Buddhist texts.
Even in this already Buddhist-friendly climate, the Qianlong Emperor’s engagement in Buddhist causes still represented an exception. As a true believer and a genuine practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, this patronage was for him far more than a political necessity. Being considered an incarnate Tibetan Buddhist Lama, he had himself repeatedly painted in thangka format as on incarnation of the Bodhisattva Manjushri, from whose name the word Manchu is believed to be derived. He supported Chinese Buddhist monasteries in general, but focused personally as well as politically on Tibetan Buddhism (fig. 1). He patronized the construction of many monasteries of the Gelugpa sect, where he personally wrote lintel inscriptions and foundation tablets. Ancient Sutras in his collection – like ancient paintings and calligraphies – were impressed with his seals.
It was therefore only natural that he would be copying Buddhist Sutras himself, an act considered a meritorious deed, a way to accumulate blessings for one’s ancestors as well as for oneself, and in the case of an emperor, for the realm of the empire as a whole. His polished calligraphic style that he diligently practiced, gave him the tool to produce a superb work of art also from an aesthetic point of view. As the inscription at the end of the second volume tells us, he worked for nearly a month on the copying of this Sutra. Lavishly executed prototypes had been produced to imperial order at least since the Yongle reign (1403-1424) of the preceding Ming dynasty (1368-1644), several of which were in the Qianlong period preserved in the imperial library; see the discussion of the volumes of the Sutra of Perfection of Wisdom of the Xuande period (1426-1435), sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 3rd April 2018, lot 101.
Buddhist Sutras are canonical scriptures that render the teachings of the Buddha, which were brought over from India and then translated in China. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment, also known as the Great Vaipulya (Corrective & Expansive) Sutra on the Perfect Enlightenment was a very popular and highly influential scripture, although uncertainties exist concerning its origin.
Tang dynasty (618-907) texts list Buddhatrāta of Jibin (Kashmir) as the translator of the text, and as such he is also recorded in the present volumes. Buddhatrāta is generally considered to have been an Indian monk, who in the Tang dynasty brought Buddhist scriptures to China and translated them. One text even gives the exact date in the year 693, when he was supposed to have completed this translation in the White Horse Temple of Luoyang. Doubts about the text’s authenticity were, however, already raised in the early eighth century, and it is now largely believed to be an early text of Chinese origin. Peter N. Gregory (Tsung-Mi and the Sinification of Buddhism, Honolulu, 2002 , pp. 54ff.) concludes that this Sutra was current in Chan circles in or around Luoyang during the reign of the Empress Wu (r. 690-705) and considers it one of the apocryphal texts that played an important role in the adaptation of Indian Buddhist concepts into the Chinese cultural horizon, and thus a significant work for the sinification of the Buddhist doctrine. It was particularly influential for Chan Buddhism and Zongmi (780-841), fifth patriarch of the Huayan and Chan schools and one of the towering figures of Tang dynasty Buddhism, elevated it even above the revered Huayan Sutra: “If you want to propagate the truth, single out its quintessence, and thoroughly penetrate the ultimate meaning, do not revere the Hua-yen Sūtra above all others … its principles become so confused within its voluminous size that beginners become distraught and have difficulty entering into it … It is not as good as this scripture, whose single fascicle can be entered immediately” (quoted after Gregory, p. 54).
Being an imperially sponsored book project, the present work was, naturally, executed to the highest standards overall. The elegant calligraphy of the Qianlong Emperor is impeccably executed, the characters superbly balanced on the yellow paper. The illustrations of the Buddha and Weituo are sensitively rendered in an unusual half-length format that serves to make them appear bigger. The books are opening with the depiction of the Buddha in voluminous robes, his expression compassionate and two fingers of his right hand holding a lotus flower at the height of his ear, as a symbol of the transmission of Buddha’s teachings; while a portrait of the celestial guardian deity Weituo, or Skanda, carrying a sword, is typically placed at the end of the Sutra as he is revered as protector of the Buddha’s teachings, his face expressing steadfast determination. A Tibetan prayer om ah hum is inscribed in cinnabar on the reverse side of each drawing, signifying that the sutra was consecrated. The ‘Eight Buddhist Emblems’, each supported on an elaborate baroque lotus arrangement adorned with ribbons, reflect the exuberant love of ornamentation characteristic of any work of art done to imperial order during the Qianlong reign.
Every detail in the production of this Sutra reflects the supremacy of imperial quality. The dyed-paper used for writing was made in the imperial workshops to imitate the highly precious paper, Jinsushan cangjingzhi (sutra paper from the Jinsu mountain), commissioned by the Jinsu Temple in Zhejiang province during the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). Forty-two sheets of such paper were used for this sutra, each neatly folded into leaves of identical size and then meticulously glued together. The sheets are not all of the same length however, and therefore, the total number of leaves they can be folded into varies, from one to nine. But careful calculation and coordination ensured no single sheet was folded into more than nine leaves, as the number ‘nine’, according to ancient Chinese philosophy, represents the highest numeral and was associated with the Emperor. A small imperial yellow label, adhered to the top left corner of one of the sheets, is found on the reverse side of each volume. One label is inscribed with the Chinese character for ‘nine’ and the other with ‘five’. Each number, interestingly, corresponds to the total number of leaves within the sheet. Columns were also prepared on the paper to guide the emperor in writing. Each spread was made with nine equally spaced columns, which were produced not just with the aid of rulers, but also minutely positioned pin holes. Barely visible to the naked eyes, four minutely positioned pin holes were first pierced to define the corners, and pairs of equally spaced pin holes mark the vertical columns, all of which were then connected by faintly-drawn lines.
No expense was spared when it came to the binding and encasing of the two volumes, for which a superb gold-ground brocade with multi-colored five-clawed dragons and longevity wishes was chosen, together with red-stained ivory tags carved with dragon motifs. In addition to the present lot, at least one other copy of this Sutra written by the Qianlong Emperor is recorded, which also has two volumes, dated by inscription to 1756, catalogued in Midian zhulin xubian [Pearl forest in the secret hall: series two], published in Midian zhulin Shiqu baoji hebian [Pearl forest in the secret hall and precious collection of the Stone Canal Pavilion], vol. 3, Shanghai, 2011, p. 29 (bottom).
At least two other Sutras copied by the Qianlong Emperor are published, which were bound in the same imperial brocade and fitted with the same kind of title slips: a copy of the Lotus Sutra preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, copied in 1765, and a copy of the Heart Sutra, copied in 1768, with very similar illustrations and equally bearing the Emperor’s seals, preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei; for the former see the exhibition catalogue The Imperial Packing Art of the Qing Dynasty, The Palace Museum, Beijing, 2000, no. 80, or The Imperial Packing Art of Qing Dynasty. Classics of Forbidden City, Beijing, 2007, pp. 134-5; the latter was included in the exhibition The All Complete Qianlong: The Aesthetic Tastes of the Qing Emperor Gaozong, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2013, cat. no. I-2.5 (figs 2 & 3).
The above Lotus Sutra is known to have been copied by the Qianlong Emperor to celebrate the birthday of his mother, the Empress Dowager Chongqing, and with its inclusion of longevity wishes in the brocade, the present volumes are likely also to have been produced by the Emperor for a similar, or the same, occasion, but nearly two decades earlier.
The present Sutra has a long collecting history in the West, that can be traced to Bernard Alfred Quaritch (1819-1899), a German bookseller, who in 1847 opened a bookshop in London, where he specialized in old and rare books and soon became the leading antiquarian bookseller worldwide. The company exists in London to this day.
Henry Yates Thompson (1838-1928) was a British newspaper proprietor and collector of illuminated manuscripts. Part of his collection was sold at Sotheby’s, beginning in 1919, when his eyesight began to fail, and part was donated after his death to the British Museum and is today kept in the British Library. The inside of the Sutra cover contains his well-known bookplate Ex Musaeo Henrici Yates Thompson (‘From the Museum of Henry Yates Thompson’).
James R. Herbert Boone (1899-1983) was a Baltimore art collector who left his entire home, the Oak Hill House, and his collection of Western paintings, sculpture, decorative art, and Chinese and Japanese works of art to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, for whose benefit it was sold at Sotheby’s in 1988. His elaborate bookplate is equally pasted inside the Sutra cover.
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