In line with and perhaps surpassing his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662-1722) and his father, the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-35), the Qianlong Emperor was a passionate patron of the arts. With his insatiable appetite for collecting, the imperial collections grew to become vast holdings. The Emperor’s passions were wide-ranged, from scholarly and literary to scientific and religious.
The porcelains manufactured at the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen during the Emperor’s reign, were directly connected with Tang Ying (1682-1756), Superintendent of Customs and Director of the imperial kilns, who began his career at the imperial factory under the reign of the Yongzheng Emperor. He ingeniously transformed the Emperor’s wishes into perfect end products. The present vase is typical of his work ‘in the style of the ancients’, illustrating the Qianlong Emperor’s great interest in archaic bronzes, but also his religious involvement with Tibetan Buddhism.
Archaic bronze shapes always appear to have inspired artworks in various materials and the present porcelain piece also falls in this category. The bronze vessel that may have been a model for this vase could have been a hu from the late Eastern Zhou period, 3rd century BC, such as the one illustrated in Jenny So, Eastern Zhou Ritual Bronzes from the Arthur M. Sackler Collections, New York, 1995, no. 51. Such bronze hu may also have been the source of inspiration for hu-shaped painted lacquer bottles of the Western Han period (206 BC-AD 9), illustrated in Hubei chutu Zhanguo Qin Han qiqi/Lacquerware from the Warring States to the Han periods excavated in Hubei province, The University of Hong Kong, 1944, nos 71A and 71B, and for similarly shaped painted pottery hu from around the same period, as illustrated in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994, vol. 1, no. 71, attributed to the Western Han dynasty, late 2nd or 1st century BC .
The Eight Buddhist Emblems is a decorative design introduced from Tibetan Buddhist art. On Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, we find the motif as early as the Yuan dynasty, on vases and jars, mostly as border decoration, compare for example, a jar illustrated in Krahl, op.cit., vol. 2, no. 640. With time, the Eight Buddhist Emblems developed into a principal motif, in combination with lotus, on mainly bowls and dishes. For an example of a bowl, from the Tianminlou collection, see Blue and White Porcelain from the Collection of Tianminlou Foundation, op.cit., no. 46 and the Min Chiu Society exhibition catalogue The Radiant Ming 1368-1644 through the Min Chiu Society Collection, Hong Kong Museum of History, Hong Kong, 2015-2016, cat. no. 122. In the Qing period, the Eight Buddhist Emblems on lotus re-appear on upright vessels. The present vase shows the familiar design, but includes an uncommon variant, a shou character in the lotus pod.
As a fervent believer and patron of Tibetan Buddhist art and literature, the design of Eight Buddhist Emblems with lotus on an archaic-inspired vessel, would have met the Emperor’s approval. The decoration with the motif of lotus enclosing a shou character in its pod may be compared to that of an important documentary blue-and-white altar vase with a dedicatory inscription of Tang Ying, dated to 1741, which was sold in these rooms, 8th April 2007, lot 508. Although without the Buddhist emblems, the scrolling shou lotus on the altar vase is rendered in a similar way.
An identical vase with a Qianlong reign mark, was included in the Hong Kong Museum of Art exhibition catalogue Anthology of Chinese Art: Min Chiu Society Silver Jubilee Exhibition, Hong Kong, 1985, cat. no. 185 and another was sold in these rooms, 29th October 1991, lot 152, and is illustrated in Sotheby’s Hong Kong Twenty Years 1973-1993, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 179. An unmarked Qianlong period vase, featuring the shou character enclosed in a lotus pod, is illustrated in Ethereal Elegance. Porcelain Vases of the Imperial Qing. The Huaihaitang Collection, Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 2007, cat. no. 97.
A Yongzheng vase of very similar design, but not including a shou character in a lotus pod, with ruyi lappets encircling the shoulder and a classic scroll at the foot, is illustrated in Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 44.
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