From the early Qianlong period onwards, the Emperor's passion for jade prompted a massive Imperial output of art works in the material. Qianlong was also deeply conscious of his Manchu ancestry and the need to claim credibility in the eyes of the native Han Chinese he ruled. As such he vehemently embraced the ancient arts of China by collecting vast quantities of ancient jades, bronzes, ceramics and other wares, and by incorporating archaistic designs into contemporary works. This archaistic penchant is typical of the Palace workshops, and with the present bi, the overall design is derived from jade bi of the Zhou and early Han periods, such as the Han bi in the present sale, lot 477, which, like the current bi, is carved with a thin rope-twist band separating an inner band of comma scrolls and an outer band of taotie masks. Many of these early bi were in the Imperial collection by the eighteenth century.
It is recorded in Imperial records that in the Spring of the 35th year of Qianlong's reign the Emperor was inspired by an archaic jade bi to write a poem, which he ordered the jade carvers to inscribe directly onto the piece. The bi was then mounted into a zitan stand, the back of which was further incised with the poem. See two Han dynasty jade bi treated in this manner, and bearing inscriptions composed by Qianlong, included in the Illustrated Catalogue of Ancient Jade Artifacts in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1982, nos. 188 (dated Spring 1764) and 189 (dated Spring 1778), along with an unmounted example, no. 190, which bears a date corresponding to Spring 1764. See, also, the zitan-mounted Eastern Han dynasty bi bearing a poem composed by Qianlong and a date corresponding to 1770, sold at Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 8 April 2007, lot 603.
The poem in five-character metre inscribed along the exterior edge of the present bi is recorded in Qing Gao Zong Yuzhi Shi Wen Quanji (Anthology of Imperial Qianlong Poems), vol. 5, juan 90, p. 4, and may be read as follows:
'In praise of a distinguished bi from Hetian
With raised bosses, the size of this broad circle is in accordance to the Zhou (dynasty);
the circumference has its characteristic three measures (*).
It auspiciously displays its carved exterior;
whilst the jade is balanced by a central circular void.
If this material is used to make a new carving;
and request the craftsman to follow the ancient style.
It will test the skills of the lapidary;
but there really is no need for exceptionally ornate work.
Imperially inscribed by Qianlong'
(*) The reference is to a Zhou dynasty measurement known as a che.
From the text, it is clear that Qianlong preferred to follow the ancients in advocating simple, balanced designs for jade carvings rather than those that were intricately carved. The Emperor wrote at great lengths to admonish carvers for their excessively carved designs.
A smaller (6.5 cm.) white jade bi carved in Han style with comma scroll and rope-twist bands similar to those on the present lot, but an outer band of what appear to be interlaced stylized dragons, in the Shenyang Palace Museum in Liaoning province, is illustrated in Imperial Life in the Qing Dynasty, Singapore, 1989, p. 10, opposite preface. The carving of the current bi displays rather fanciful interpretations of archaic designs, particularly in the carving of the taotie masks. Similarly carved taotie masks can be seen on a Qianlong-period hu-form vase bearing a fanggu (after the antique) mark illustrated in The Refined Taste of the Emperor: Special Exhibition of Archaic and Pictoral Jades of the Ch'ing Court, Taipei, National Palace Museum, 1997, p. 65, no. 5.
The two seals bi de (equal to virtue) and lang run (brilliant and unctuous) following the poem on the present bi appear on numerous Qianlong-inscribed pieces in various media, including the Mughal-style white jade shell-form cup with goose-head terminal sold in our London rooms, 11 November 2003, lot 68.