According to Buddhist legend, the makara was originally a whale that saved the lives of five hundred drowning merchants at sea, and then sacrificed itself by providing its own body for food to feed the victims. Because of its compassion and sacrifice, both important virtues in Buddhist philosophy, the whale was then immortalised and transformed into a makara, characterised by the head of a dragon, the body of a whale with wings and a pearl by its side.
The subject-matter is visually very similar to that of the carp reaching the upper courses of the Yellow River and leaping up the rapids at Dragon Gate where it transforms into a dragon. This feat is compared to success in the state examinations and the transformation from carp to dragon symbolising promotion to the position of official. This was a popular subject on carved jadeware for its drama and auspicious representations. Compare another jade carving of a markara, also from the Hartman Collection sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 28 November 2006, lot 1425.
A very similar spinach jade carving, this time of a pair of leaping makara is in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Jadeware (III), Hong Kong, 1995, p. 61, no. 49 (fig.1).