The Qianlong Emperor’s metrical compositions were prolific, amongst his 40,000 poems, over 800 are related to jade. He believed that while paper could last a thousand years, jade — the crystallised essence of heaven and earth — was indestructible. Consequently, he made a number of commissions reproducing calligraphic masterpieces on jade, or engraving his complimentary verses directly on archaic jades.
The poem, entitled Jade ‘grain’ disc of the Han dynasty, is recorded in the Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji [Anthology of imperial Qianlong poems and text], Yuzhi shi san ji [Imperial poetry, vol. 3], juan 37, p. 24 (fig. 1) and can be translated as follows:
Jade pattern blurred by mud, its sheen is veiled,
An aspect like a wise old man, weather-beaten but not broken.
The beauty before my eyes more than a thousand years old,
Proportions calculated, circles well rounded, in admirable harmony.
Cut and polished, and yet not over-worked,
Its original spirit is well preserved,
Its fine grain well protected. What a treasure!
According to the Zaobanchu Archives of the Qing Imperial Household Department, on 19th day of the 3rd month of the 28th year of the Qianlong reign (corresponding to 1763), the Emperor was presented with a Han-dynasty jade bi by the eunuch Ruyi. The Qianlong Emperor commissioned a table screen to be made for the piece, and requested for a drawing to be submitted prior to the making of the screen. On the 28th day of the 3rd month, the table screen for which the drawing had been approved will be made, and the eunuch Ruyi presented the Han-dynasty jade bi for the combination of the works. On the 14th day of the 5th month, the Han-dynasty jade bi mounted in a zitan table screen was presented to the Emperor by eunuch Ruyi.
The present table screen, with the sides of the archaic jade bi and the reverse of the zitan screen both engraved with coherent poems, is a notable work of art combining history and art. It demonstrates the Qianlong Emperor’s artistic soul in advocating antiquity as a source of inspiration for modern designs, and the depth of his personal involvement in his collection.
Several similar zitan screens holding ancient jade bi discs were made for the Qianlong Emperor and inscribed with his poems, most of them today preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Four related examples with grain-patterned bi, are illustrated in Ch'in Hsiao-yi, Illustrated Catalogue of Ancient Jade Artifacts in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1982, pls 63, 68, 188 and 189. Only two related screens, both with plain bi discs, appear to be known outside the National Palace Museum, both sold in our rooms, one with an inscription dated in accordance with 1774, sold in London, 29th March 1977, lot 180; the other with its inscription apparently undated, sold in these rooms, 15th November 1989, lot 503.
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