Included without any date or detailed description in the third and final auction of the confiscated stock of Yamanaka Sadajiro, the legendary early 20th century Japanese art dealer who had access to art treasures from the highest echelons of China’s elite society, it was spotted and acquired by F. Bailey Vanderhoef Jr., a young explorer who had recently returned from a pioneering expedition to Western Tibet. Cherished by him as a Song dynasty qin, it was exhibited at an exhibition of lacquer at Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 1976, where the catalogue referred to it having been repaired in 1746.
Recent research has revealed, however, that this qin is in fact the sole survivor of a group of four specifically created in 1746 from the trunk of a beloved ancient wutong tree situated in the garden where the Qianlong Emperor studied prior to ascending the throne. The Imperial records on the qin are extensive, providing a thorough overview of the sheer extent of the attention devoted to the selection of the craftsmen, sourcing of the material and planning of the production. The Emperor personally composed a poem, to be inscribed on each of the four qin, and was kept constantly updated over the following ten months, until they were successfully delivered to the Replenished Wutong Library. For this was a project close to his heart.
The ‘Clear Autumn Skies above the Xiang River’ Qin:
An imperial musical instrument from the Replenished Wutong Library
Teo Kheng Chong
overall length 101 cm
effective cord length 91 cm
head width 14.5 cm
shoulder width 16.5 cm
tail width 11.5 cm
The present cinnabar-lacquered qin of pearl-string (lianzhu) type is adorned with golden studs (hui). It is finely incised throughout to imitate the prunus crackles (meihua duan), a pattern said to be found only on five-century old lacquered qin according to related literature, to appeal to the Qianlong Emperor’s personal interest in and reverence of antiquity.
Elegantly shaped with curves and rounded angles, the qin is adorned with auspicious clouds and serene cranes at the ridge and near the 7th stud, with a network of fine ‘serpent belly’ crackles (shefu duan) on the front and the sides. Having not been played extensively, there is no sign of friction between the strings and the front of the qin and the colour has been well preserved. The ridges (yueshan), tuning pegs, goose feet, dragon gum, gum support, scorched tail and tail support are all made of jade. Except for the later married outer goose foot, all of the accessories are original. The finely incised and gilt-infilled dancing cranes among auspicious clouds on the tuning pegs and goose foot, perfectly complement the design on the lacquered front. The light green tassels are original, but the old strings and silk loops are now lost and replaced with new ones. The ruyi-style oval dragon pool and phoenix pond on the underside, as well as the oval sound hole measuring more than 2 inches long located between the dragon pool and the goose feet, are highly unusual.
Ink inscription in the dragon pool sound hole:
Knowing nothing of “plucking,” “pulling”—
I know the zither’s feeling!
No reason not hang on the wall
the seven stringed instrument!
The studs, thirteen of them in all,
glitter like stars at dawn:
For cultivating inner harmony,
second only to books.
Along the Xiang River at night, the moon
shines forth—Narcissus Sprite!
Glittering at the window, hovering there,
encaged by verdant shadows!
Why search out Jinru, have him make
another “Singing Jade?”—
I love this one! For, just as well,
it serves my every need!1
Made to imperial order
Impressed with the cinnabar seal Qianlong yubi
Inside the oval sound hole of over 2 inches long, located between the dragon pool and the goose feet:
Made in the Autumn of the tenth year of the Qianlong period (1745), at Butongshuwu ('Replenished Wutong Library') according to Qinding lulu Zhengyi [Imperial musical encyclopedia]
Impressed with the cinnabar seal bide (‘virtuous [as jade]’)
Title of the qin inscribed in ink and seal script in the phoenix pond sound hole:
Xiangjiang qiu bi (‘Clear Autumn skies above the Xiang River’)
Impressed with the cinnabar seal yushang (‘Appreciated by his majesty’)
According to Qing literature such as Yuzhi shiji [Collection of imperial poems], Guo chao gong shi [History of Qing imperial court] and Qinding rixia jiuwen kao [Imperially authorized edition of historical studies of Beijing] included in Qinding siku quanshu [By imperial order, complete works from the Four Treasures Library], the present qin was made to commemorate the wilted wutong tree at the Replenished Wutong Library (fig. 3). In the second year of the Yongzheng period (1724), before he ascended the throne as the Qianlong Emperor, Crown Prince Hongli studied at the Replenished Wutong Library in Yingtai (fig. 2). One of the two old wutong trees in front of the Library wilted and was replaced, hence the name of the Library. In the 10th year of the Qianlong reign (1745), the remaining old tree withered. To commemorate the tree, to grieve the passing, to cherish the memory, the Emperor ordered the lost tree to be made into four qin, each named and inscribed with a poem (fig. 1). In the autumn of the 11th year of the reign (1746), these four qin were completed, preserved in cases and stored in the Library.
//Four poems composed on the four qin of the Replenished Wutong Library. The old wutong tree had wilted, and I decreed that it be made into four qin, which I called respectively Yingpeng xianlai (‘Ethereal voice from the Island of Immortality’), Xiangjiang qiu bi (‘Clear Autumn skies above the Xiang River’), Gao qin shuang li (‘Sound of cranes in the frost) and Yun hai yi qing (‘Shifted infatuation of the clouds and waves’). They were stored in cases and remained at the Replenished Wutong Library. Feeling nostalgic as I paced in the library, I decided to compose these poems about them.
//‘Poems of the four qin’, Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji [Anthology of imperial Qianlong poems and proses], Yuzhi shi chu ji [Imperial poems, vol. 1], juan 28, pp. 21-22 and Yuzhi shi er ji [imperial poems, vol. 2], juan 7, p. 15
//Imperial poems on the four qin. To cherish the timber of the last old wutong at the Replenished Wutong Library in Yingtai, the wilted tree was turned into four qin, each bestowed a title and a poem.
//Qinding rixia jiuwen kao [Imperially authorized edition of historical studies of Beijing]//
The production of these four qin is well documented in Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang’an zonghui. The story began in the end of the tenth year of the Qianlong period, when the Emperor summoned Prince Zhuang, Wang Youdun and Zhang Ruo’ai to discuss about the management of the production of the qin. The production of these four qin, from planning to completion, took approximately ten months. Every single detail was recorded; from the archaistic design, the draft for his Majesty’s review, how the poems should be inscribed, the selection of talented craftsmen, the presentation of the body of the qin, where to obtain jade for the ridges and tuning pegs, to the final lacquering finished according to the predesigned drawing, pattern and colour by Tula in Suzhou (figs. 4 and 5).2
//In the 10th year of the Qianlong reign, on the 2nd day of the 12th month, (Gilding Workshop) Attendant Sele came to say that on the 15th day of the 11th month of the 10th year of the Qianlong reign, the four qin that Wang Youdun and Zhang Ruo’ai were ordered by imperial decree to make would be carefully worked on by the Zaobanchu and by fine craftsmen selected by Prince Zhuang. Their gold insignias, jade bridges, and other parts would be fashioned after classical examples. Wang Youdun and Zhang Ruo’ai would discuss and take care of the poetic inscriptions on the bodies of the qin. The consistent manufacture of the four qin would be ensured, and before the carving of the bodies a sample would be submitted for the Emperor’s inspection. It was so decreed. […]
//On the 2nd day of the 12th month. Treasurer Bai Shixiu and Samuha, Shouling of the 7th rank, presented four qin to the eunuch for the Emperor’s inspection. The decree was received that the dragon pools on the qin need not be opened, that the imperial poems be inscribed on yingshou of the dragon pools, and that the titles of the qin be inscribed on the yingshou of the phoenix pools. The inscriptions would be written or carved. Wang Youdun and Zhang Ruo’ai were tasked with submitting calligraphic samples. Gilding was to be applied in a timely manner, and fashioned in an archaistic and excellent manner. “You should carefully, conscientiously, and respectfully make the qin.” So it was decreed. On the 22nd day of this month, the eunuch Hu Shijie conveyed the imperial decree that the qin be presented. So it was decreed.
//Today, Treasurer Bai Shixiu took the four finished qin to the eunuch Hu Shijie for inspection. The imperial decree was received that the qin be inset with jade bridges, dragon tails, feet, and other parts; that the jade insets in Prince Zhuang’s old qin be removed and reused; that, if these were not available, the parts be fashioned from jade from the treasury. If the treasury contained no more jade, more should be purchased. So it was decreed.
//On the 23rd day of this month, Samuha, Shouling of the 17th rank, brought ten white jade bridges to the eunuch Hu Shijie for inspection. The imperial decree was received that four of these bridges be selected and used, and the rest stored at the Imperial Workshop; that the white jade parts of the dragon gums, dragon tails, chenglu, bridges made at the Suzhou Manufactory after the samples be submitted. So it was decreed.
//On the 8th day of the 1st month of the 11th year, Samuha, Shouling of the 17th rank and said: following Prince Zhuang’s order, the bridges, chenglu, dragon tails, dragon gums, lower dragon gums, gum supports, and lower gum supports were all fashioned from jade. If wood was used for samples submitted to the Suzhou Manufactory, it was feared that they would shrink due to their soft nature. If the Suzhou Manufactory created parts in wood, they would not fit the qin. Soapstones or serpentine should be used for the parts; the stones sent to the workshop were soft but not to the point of shrinkage. Only if the workshop fashioned samples from stone would the parts match the specifications. So it was recorded.
//11th year of the Qianlong reign, 1st day of the 2nd month, Suzhou Samuha, Shouling of the 7th rank, came to say that the eunuch Hu Shijie conveyed an imperial decree: the four finished qin be sent to the Suzhou Manufactory for lacquering. So it was decreed. On the 6th day of this month, Samuha, Shouling of the 7th rank, came to say that the eunuch Hu Shijie sent four paintings of archaic qin showing their patterns [old crackles] and colours, and conveyed the imperial decree: the Suzhou Manufactory be tasked with lacquering [the four new qin] according to the patterns and colours shown in the paintings. So it was decreed.
//On the 5th day of the 9th month this year, the four lacquered qin completed by Tula of the Suzhou Manufactory, together with the boxes and brocade packaging, were handed to the eunuch Hu Shijie to submit to the Emperor.
//On the 20th day of the 10th month of the 11th year, Treasurer Bai Shixiu took the four lacquered qin created by Tula to the eunuch Hu Shijie to submit to the Emperor.
//Qinggong Neiwufu Zaobanchu dang’an zonghui [General collection of archival records from the Qing imperial household department workshop]//
Among the dozen or so qin with imperial inscriptions by the Qianlong Emperor known to exist, most were made in the Tang and Song dynasties, and many of them are now preserved in museums. According to the records, during the Qianlong period, only four qin were produced. For generations in the past 270 years, despite its departure from the imperial Library, the ‘Clear Autumn Skies above the Xiang River’ Qin has been secluded and preserved, until finally brought to light and its music heard again.
1 Translated by Dr. Jonathan Chaves.
2 Tula (d. 1752) was Commissioner of the Suzhou Imperial Manufactory between the 5th and 16th years (1740-51) of the Qianlong reign. During his tenure, he submitted all the textiles, jades, and lacquers produced by the Manufactory to the Imperial Workshop. At the time, the Commissioners of the Imperial Manufactories, Salt Commissioner, and the Supervisors were all appointed directly by the court. They tended to be personally close to the Emperor and understand his aesthetic preferences. Ed.
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