LOT SOLD. 4,920,000 HKD


LOT SOLD. 4,920,000 HKD

Details & Cataloguing

Qianlong – Scholar and Calligrapher

Hong Kong

exceptionally worked with deep rounded sides rising from a straight foot to an everted rim, the exterior inscribed with an imperial poem titled Yong Hetian yu wan ('In Praise of a Khotan Jade Bowl') extolling the flawlessness and rarity of the bowl, dated to the yiyou year of the Qianlong reign (in accordance with 1765) and followed by two seal marks reading bide ('compare yourself to jade') and langrun ('bright and lustrous'), the base incised with a four-character reign mark, the softly polished translucent stone of a lustrous even white colour
12.7 cm, 5 in.
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Collection of Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990).
Christie's New York, 22nd March 1991, lot 532.
Sotheby's Hong Kong, 26th October 2003, lot 33.

Catalogue Note

An Appreciation of the Qianlong Emperor’s Khotan White Jade Bowl
Xu Lin

From Khotan, the packaged tributes arrive every year,
Of rare beauty, like fat, suitable for making bowls.
The finished vessel illuminates the palace
and realizes the grand ceremonies;
I brush these poetic lines to praise its preciousness.
Without flaw or defect, the jade needs no concealment;
With sufficient capacity, the bowl contains plenty.
Over the generations my sons and grandson
will always cherish it:
A treasure on par with the ancient swords and bi discs.

In 1765, the Qianlong Emperor wrote the above poem, entitled ”In Praise of the Khotan Jade Bowls,” on a pair of Khotan white jade bowls. He begins the poem by referring to his own edict demanding tributary raw jade from Khotan every spring and fall, which greatly pleased him. Thanks to the consistent supply of raw jade, the court had sufficient access to the mutton-fat jade suitable for making bowls. For what purposes were such flawless jade bowls used? The Qianlong Emperor explains in his annotation to the poem that the bowls were used to serve milk tea bestowed during the celebratory ceremonies in his court. Such an important occasion warranted the Emperor’s poem and its inscription on the bowls. The Qianlong Emperor even believed that the bowls were as precious as jade blades and large bi discs of the ancient past, worthy as bequests to his descendants (fig. 1).1

What are the current locations of these bowls used for the Qianlong Emperor’s ceremonial tea bestowal? According to my research, there are three such jade bowls. One is at the Palace Museum in Beijing, and another at the National Palace Museum in Taipei. The third is the Khotan jade bowl with the Qianlong Emperor’s imperial inscription presently on offer at Sotheby’s.

This jade bowl measures 5.6 cm in overall height. The flaring mouth measures 12.8 cm in diameter, and the ring foot measures 5.8 cm in diameter and 1 cm in height. The bowl was carved from Khotan white jade with a fine texture and lustre. It is undecorated except for the inscription of the Qianlong Emperor’s poem, which runs around the outer surface in alternating lines of four and three characters to create a rhythmic composition. Following the poem is an inscription and a date reading Qianlong yiyou jixiayue shanghuan yuti (‘Imperially inscribed during the first third of the month jixia of the year yiyou of the Qianlong reign’), a relief square seal in seal script reading bide (‘Compare yourself to jade’, and an intaglio square seal in seal script reading langrun (‘Bright and lustrous’). The year yiyou was the 30th year of the Qianlong reign, and the month jixia was the 6th lunar month. Shanghuan refers to the first third of the month, as evidenced by the Ming-dynasty writer Yang Shen’s Danqian zonglu. Qianlong-period objects inscribed with the Emperor’s poetry and prose are often also carved with dates, signatures, and informal seals.2 The base of the jade bowl is incised in seal script with the characters Qianlong nianzhi (‘Made during the Qianlong reign’). Done with an awl, the incision is deep and powerful.

This jade bowl was in the collection of Elizabeth Parke Firestone (1897-1990), whose son-in-law William Clay Ford was a grandson of Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company. Firestone was fond of fashion and organised fashion shows. She also had a love of Chinese jades. After her passing, this jade bowl was auctioned at Christie’s New York in March 1991. In October 2003, Sotheby’s Hong Kong again auctioned it.

Two other jade bowls, bearing the same inscription, are in the Palace Museums of Beijing and Taipei respectively. The Taipei example is of the same type. I have not examined it in person, but according to published images and the introduction by museum expert Deng Shuping, it is similar in form and material to the bowl on offer. Both are undecorated except for the inscription of Qianlong’s poem, and both have the same signature and date, seals and reign mark (fig. 2).3

The Beijing jade bowl is made from white jade and has a high foot (figs 3 and 4).4 Its inscriptions and date are identical in textual content and script to those on the present bowl, but were carved more deeply. They are followed by two intaglio seals reading Dejiaqu and Jixia yiqing, which like Bide and Langrun were casual seals often used by Qianlong in conjunction with inscriptions of his poetry and prose on court jades. Compared to the lot on offer, the Beijing bowl has thicker walls, a shallower body, and a taller and thicker foot. Measuring 13.8 cm in diameter in the mouth, it is 5.7 cm in overall height, with a base of 6.7 cm in height, and is slightly larger than the lot on offer. Along the rim of its mouth and along the bottom edge of its body respectively, there are two bands of incised animal-face huiwen patterns. Notably, its base is carved in relief with the four characters Qianlong yuyong (‘For Qianlong’s Imperial use’) in seal script. The Beijing bowl’s form suggests that it was not created by the palace workshops or their subsidiaries in Suzhou and Yangzhou during Qianlong’s reign. Rather, it is an example of a Central Asian type.

To understand why the Qianlong Emperor loved jade bowls, it is important to investigate this high-footed and thick-walled jade bowl. Jade bowls of the same type were sent to his court from Xinjiang in 1740, 1756, and 1758, during which time the Qing empire continually battled the Uyghur and Altishahr forces entrenched in Central Asia and expanded its control of the west. The 1740 and 1756 tributes are now in the National Palace Museum in Taipei, and the 1758 tribute is in the Palace Museum in Beijing. The 1740 bowl bears no inscription of imperial poetry, but the corresponding case made by the court includes a label specifying that it was sent by Galden Tseren, ruler of the Dzungars. The 1756 bowl bears an inscription of the Qianlong Emperor’s poem (fig. 5).5

The poem and the Qianlong Emperor’s annotation to it indicate that the bowl was sent as a tribute from the ruler of the Hui. According to the research of Deng Shuping, the bowl came from the Yarkent Khanate in southern Xinjiang as a tribute through emissaries from Labunidun, ruler of the Altishahrs. Labunidun’s sister became a consort of the Qianlong Emperor and the Fragrant Concubine of popular lore. This jade bowl may very well have travelled to Beijing together with the Fragrant Concubine.6

High-footed and thick-walled jade bowls were popular in Central Asia between the 15th and the 18th centuries. They were primarily used to serve milk tea by nomads of the eastern plains of Central Asia, and were important personal objects. For these nomads, to give one’s own jade bowl to another person was to show the highest respect. Unfortunately, not all Chinese emperors understood this. According to Ming Taizong shilu [Veritable records of the Yongle reign], in 1406 the Yongle Emperor received a jade bowl as a tribute from the Altishahr emissary Huihuijieyasi, but had it sent back, citing as a reason that “the Chinese porcelain used in our court is pure and lustrous. It suits our heart. We do not need this…”7

The Yongle Emperor rejected the tribute for several reasons. First, he had little interest in jade, preferring the purity of porcelain. Second, in the sedentary culture of the Han Chinese, a bowl was an everyday vessel; the Yongle Emperor did not understand the jade bowl’s significance in nomadic cultures and failed to see it as valuable. Given the popularity of high-footed and thick-walled jade bowls during this period, the Yongle Emperor very likely received one of them. Due to his refusal, we have been deprived of a specimen of 15th-century Central Asian jade bowls.

Among Chinese emperors, the Qianlong Emperor best understood the jade bowl’s importance to the nomadic peoples of the Steppes. He was personally fond of jade, but more significant was the Manchus’ origin as nomadic hunter-gathers in the northwest. No stranger to life on horseback, the Qianlong Emperor appreciated the meaning of the jade bowls sent to him as tributes from Central Asia and reciprocated with even more valuable gifts, as he wrote humorously in his poem on the 1758 bowl (fig. 6).8

However, because the first three jade bowls that the Qianlong Emperor received were crafted from green jade of ordinary quality, he did not use them in his tea-bestowal ceremonies. Only in the 30th year of his reign, when he received the white jade bowl of high quality from Central Asia, did he have it inscribed with his own poem, decorated with decorative patterns, and used as a ceremonial vessel. It is as yet impossible to determine whether this jade bowl is the one in Taipei. However, the current lot was definitely a bowl created on the Qianlong Emperor’s order from Khotan white jade for tea-bestowal ceremonies. The Qianlong Emperor’s poems on these three bowls are the earliest extant poems known to me by the Emperor on jade bowls meant for these ceremonies. In other words, these three bowls are the earliest bowls definitely used for these ceremonies.

Let us now consider the difference between the reign marks ‘Qianlong yuyong’ and ‘Qianlong nianzhi’. In my survey of jades formerly in the Qing imperial court, I have found that objects bearing the former reign mark are far fewer than those bearing the latter, and the two groups also differ in object types. ‘Qianlong yuyong’ is inscribed primarily on two types of objects. The first is tributary jades from elsewhere and jades remaining from previous dynasties, as suggested by an entry from the 44th year of the Qianlong reign in palace workshop records on a tributary ‘Huizi’ bowl to be carved with the reign mark ‘Qianlong yuyong’.9

As mentioned above, the jade bowl that the Qianlong Emperor received from Xinjiang in 1758 is carved in relief with the reign mark ‘Qianlong yuyong’. Other Hindustan jades from the Qing imperial collection also bear this mark, as do jades from previous dynasties, such as the Ming, that remained in the Qing court collection.

The second type of jades bearing the reign mark ‘Qianlong yuyong’ are newly created ones that the Qianlong Emperor personally treasured, such as two white bowls recorded in entries from the 45th year of the Qianlong reign. These were respectively made by Ruyiguan craftsmen from sketches by the court painter Yang Dazhang and inscribed with poems by Zhu Yongtai. On the Qianlong Emperor’s personal order, both were carved with the reign mark ‘Qianlong yuyong’.10

In short, the reign mark ‘Qianlong yuyong’ expressed the Emperor’s personal preference and denoted vessels reserved for his personal use, regardless of place and time of creation.

The reign mark ‘Qianlong nianzhi’ is most commonly found on Qianlong-period jades. It primarily denotes newly created jade objects of high quality used and collected by the court, although it is found also on a very limited number of historical jade objects refashioned by the Qianlong court. The reign mark is mentioned very frequently in the records of the Qing court workshop.11

Qing court records indicate that reign marks carved on Qianlong-period jades, whether in clerical, seal, or regular script, were based on brush-written designs by calligraphers. Sometimes the designs were attached to the jades for the Emperor’s approval before execution. The Qianlong Emperor cared a great deal about his own poetic compositions. These were sometimes rendered in calligraphy by the Emperor himself, and sometimes by high ministers and professional calligraphers. The calligraphic models were then transferred to the jades by specially trained carvers. The process is fundamentally similar to the traditional process of reproducing calligraphy in stone stelae. These inscriptions in jades retained the calligrapher’s manner and intent, and for this reason the calligraphy found on Qianlong-period jades is of a quality unsurpassed by inscribed jades from other periods. Known jade inscribers in the Qianlong court include Zhu Yongtai, Zhu Shiyun, and Zhu Cai.

Aside from the Qianlong Emperor’s appreciation of the importance of jade bowls in nomadic culture and the Manchus’ own tea-drinking customs, the Emperor also had a more profound and personal reason for his love of jade bowls. In 1775 and 1786 respectively, he wrote poems in praise of a jade bowl (fig. 7) and a Khotan white jade bowl (fig. 8). In his annotations to them, he indicated that the tea-bestowal ceremonies were a symbolic expression of his benevolence towards his subjects. These poems are inscribed on four jade bowls in the Palace Museum collection (figs 9 and 10),13 which were used in tea-bestowal ceremonies like the aforementioned three bowls. Jade bowls reminded the Qianlong Emperor of a quotation attributed to Confucius in Hanfeizi: “The ruler is like the yu vessel, and the people like water. If the yu is square, the water is square. If the yu is round, the water is round.”14 Substituting the bowl for the yu vessel, the Qianlong Emperor took it as a symbol of his benevolent and just rule, which would ensure the continual peace and prosperity of his realm.

Among the jade bowls definitely used for the Qianlong Emperor’s tea-bestowal ceremonies, there is only one made from green jade; all of the other six were made from white jade that satisfies the aesthetic requirement of resembling mutton fat. The Qianlong Emperor expressed his preferences clearly in a poem: “Among the five colours, white should naturally come first; bowls with the appropriate circumstance and capacity are the finest”.15 The dimensions of the extant jade bowls conform to the standards of the Qing court.16

As a sign of his passion for jade bowls, the Qianlong Emperor wrote around 30 poems on them throughout his life. These were inscribed on jade bowls from different periods. Moreover, under his reign, a staggering amount of jade bowls were made, surpassing the quantities of all other types of jade. Jade bowls in the Palace Museum collection alone number over 2000.

To be sure, most of these jade bowls were ordinary utensils meant for banquets. They were often made from large pieces of raw jade or from material hollowed from larger vessels, including shanliao jade. These bowls were often made in dining sets alongside basins, plates, and cups to ensure consistency of colour, although they far outnumbered other vessels. An entry from the 44th year of the Qianlong reign in the palace workshop records, for example, refers to the creation of 42 jade bowls and 12 jade plates.17

Extant documentation indicates that banquets during the later part of the Qianlong reign required vast quantities of jade bowls, each necessitating the creation of over a hundred of them. Such large-scale production was only possible because of improved efficiency enabled by innovations in tools and techniques. The lathe was invented during this period, and most of the tea bowls in the Qianlong court were created on lathes. The palace workshops recorded hiring “lathe experts” like Pingqi and Zhu Yunzhang to teach younger jade craftsmen how to operate lathes.18

The most important component in a lathe was the bowl-shaped grinding wheel (wantuo), which enabled the efficient creation of thin-walled bowls of uniform shapes and dimensions.

Although jade bowls are relatively simple in form, they still required the Qianlong Emperor’s approval. On the third month of the 25th year of the Qianlong reign, the Zaobanchu created a wood model of a jade bowl for the Qianlong Emperor’s inspection. The Emperor approved the design and ordered a jade bowl created according to it. Such wood models were also sent to the Suzhou manufactory and other workshops for reproduction.

Because most jade bowls were undecorated, they required raw jade of high quality. Jades with noticeable cracks or blemishes could not be used. As a result, despite the vast amount of jade bowls created by the Qing court, few were of a quality suitable for display or ceremonial use. Those that were mostly created from high-quality white jade, usually Khotan jade but occasionally shanliao jade also. Because Qing-period shanliao jade tended towards green, Khotan white jade was more usually used. The famous white jade sculpture Lady under Wutong Trees was in fact made from the remnant of a piece of raw Khotan white jade used to make bowls. It typifies the warm, mutton-fat white colour that Qianlong preferred.

Carved from Khotan white jade, the jade bowl presently on offer at Sotheby’s has a warm tonality and pure and “fatty” lustre. The textual inscription around its body and the reign mark beneath it showcase the masterful craftsmanship of the jade inscribers of the Qing court. As one of the earliest bowls used by the Qianlong Emperor’s in his tea-bestowal ceremonies, it is a rare treasure of Qing court art.


1 Qing Gaozong (Qianlong) yuzhi shiwen quanji [Anthology of imperial Qianlong poems and text], Beijing, 1993, Yuzhi shi san ji [Imperial poetry, vol. 3], juan 53, p. 2.
2 Yang Shen, Danqian zonglu, vol. 3.
3 Empty Vessels, Replenished Minds. The Culture, Practice and Art of Tea, Taipei, 2002, cat. no. 165.
4 Zhang Guangwen, ed., The Complete Collection of Treasures in the Palace Museum. Jadeware (III), Shanghai, 2008, no. 223.
5 See note 1, Yuzhi shi er ji [Imperial poetry, vol. 2], juan 65, p. 18.
6 Deng Shuping, ed., Exquisite Beauty – Islamic Jades, Taipei, 2007, pp. 28-30. Deng Shuping, ‘Xiangfei de yuwan’, Bulletin of the National Palace Museum, 1983, vol. 1, issue 1, pp. 88-92.
7 Ming Taizu shilu [Veritable records of Emperor Taizong of the Ming dynasty]. Here the jade bowl is mistakenly recorded as a jade pillow, but the section on Chengzu in the Mingshi [Historian of the Ming dynasty].
8 See note 4, no. 220.
9 First Historical Archives of China and Art Museum of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, eds, Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu huoji dang’an zonghui [Documents in the Archives of the Workshop of the Qing Palace Imperial Household Department], Beijing, 2005, vol. 42, Ruyiguan, p. 716.
10 Ibid., vol. 44, Ruyiguan, pp. 38-39.
11 Ibid., vol. 42, Ruyiguan, pp. 708-709; vol. 44, Ruyiguan, p. 48.
12 See note 1, Yuzhi shi si ji [Imperial poetry, vol. 4], juan 31, p. 18; Yuzhi shi wu ji [Imperial poetry, vol. 5], juan 23, p. 8.
13 See note 4, no. 217.
14 ‘Waichushuozuoshang’, Hanfeizi, passage 32.
15 See note 1, juan 98, p. 34.
16 On the standard dimensions of bowls used in the Qing court, see Liao Baoxiu, ‘Cong sede huafalang yu yangcai ciqi tan wenwu dingming wenti [On naming artefacts: a study based on colour-ground enamelled wares and yangcai porcelains]’, The National Palace Museum Monthly of Chinese Art, issue 321, December 2009.
17 See note 9, vol. 30, xingwen [general text], p. 772.
18 Ibid., vol. 42, Records of the imperial workshops dated to the 44th year of the Qianlong period, p. 666.

Qianlong – Scholar and Calligrapher

Hong Kong