PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE ENGLISH COLLECTION
Foreign Tribute and Auspicious Wishes
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director Asian Art
This magnificent pair of vases combine a wealth of traditional auspicious motifs with evidence of an imperial fascination with foreigners from the West. In addition, the large size and exceptional quality of the painting on these vases mark them out as particularly important vessels, probably commissioned for a special occasion. The style and fine quality of painting on the yellow-ground areas on the shoulders and necks of the vases is very close to that seen on the impressive Jiaqing yellow-ground pear-shaped vase sold by Christie's Hong Kong on 1st December 2010, lot 2981. In both cases the yellow enamel has a richness and clarity that shows the other enamel colours to their best advantage. The vases share a number of auspicious motifs, including upside-down bats, lotuses and wan characters, as well as particularly graceful vegetal scrolls. These vessels are closely linked to imperial yellow-ground altar garnitures such as the Jiajing censer, pair of gu vases and pair of candle sticks preserved in the Nanjing Museum (illustrated by Nanjing Museum in Treasures in the Royalty -The Official Kiln Porcelain of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Shanghai, 2003, pp. 374-5).
On either side of the necks of these vases are upside-down bats. The bats symbolize happiness, while the word for upside-down in Chinese is a homophone for 'arrive'. The motif, therefore, symbolises the arrival of happiness. In their mouths the bats each hold the tip of a halberd. This weapon is especially associated with one of the heroes of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Lu Bu. It came to symbolize rank and military success, while during the Tang dynasty a halberd was often displayed at the gate of households of the third rank and above. The word for halberd ji is also a rebus for 'rank'. However on these vases a chiming stone is suspended from the halberd, and in this combination the halberd provides a rebus for 'auspicious, to provide a wish for auspicious happiness. The chiming stone qing, which has its origins in China as early as Neolithic times, also provides a rebus for 'celebrate'.
The happiness and rank are multiplied by the golden wan characters, meaning ten thousand, which hang from the ends of the qing chiming stones. Hanging from the centres of the chiming stones are lotus blossoms, which are Buddhist symbols of purity and beauty, while scattered amongst the vegetal scrolls that surround these motifs are multi-coloured clouds. the word for cloud yun, sounds like the word for luck , while the word for coloured cai also so sounds like a word meaning lucky, and so reinforces the wish.
There are particularly beautiful large lotus blossoms painted below each bat, halberd and qing group, while resting just above each of these blossoms is a naturalistically painted lingzhi fungus. The lingzhi fungus is one of the most auspicious motifs in the Chinese decorator's repertoire. The name literally means 'divine branch' or 'efficacious branch', and is usually identified with the fruiting body of species of fungi belonging to the Polyporacae family, which are rare in north China, but more common in the south. The lingzhi fungi grow on the roots or trunks of trees, and instead of decaying, like most other fungi, they become woody and appear to survive indefinitely. It is this latter quality, and the fact that they are believed to grow near springs in the vicinity of the abodes of the immortals, that has contributed to their reputation as conveyors of long life. Because the shape of the fungi often resembles the head of ruyi sceptres, it is associated with the ruyi and its meaning of 'everything as you wish it'. The bands under the mouths of these vases, as well as those around the shoulders and the bases, are in the form of multiple ruyi . Another belief in relation to the lingzhi fungi was that they would appear when a virtuous ruler was on the throne and the empire was peaceful and prosperous. Their inclusion in the decoration of an imperial vessel was, therefore, a compliment to the reigning emperor.
On either side of the large blossoms on the shoulders of the vases are confronted archaistic pink kui dragons. They have flower stems in their mouths and their heads turned back. Their tails are raised in order to form a pleasing addorsement with the dragons which appear either side of the blossoms beneath the handles of the vessels. These handles are also in the form of archaistic kui dragons. This use of archaistic dragon handles as well as the general form of the vases is a continuation of forms popular amongst imperial porcelains of the Qianlong reign. Indeed the current vases may be compared in form and archaistic handles with the Qianlong revolving vase sold by Christie's London in June 1999, lot 99, although the current vessels are more slender since they have no need to accommodate an additional interior wall. A single-walled Qianlong vase of smaller size, but with similarly sharp shoulders to the current pair of vases is illustrated by Liu Liang-yu in A Survey of Chinese Ceramics - 5 - Ch'ing Official and Popular Wares, Taipei, 1991, p. 202, right-hand image). This latter vase, however, has bat-shaped handles. Also see a similar vase from the collection of Sir Frederick Bruce, sold in these rooms, 16 December 1981, lot 86. Another vase with an identical shape and similar famille rose decoration to the neck, was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 29 May 2007, lot 1378.
The decoration of figures in landscape that encircles the main body of the current vases is particularly remarkable. The lively depiction of figures in landscape, painted in famille rose enamels became popular in the Qianlong reign, as can be seen on vessels such as the lantern vases in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 39 - Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 146, no. 128 and p. 150, no. 132. The majority of these Qianlong vessels depicted boys at play, but in the Jiaqing reign other figures also appeared in these encircling landscapes. A group of Lohan, for example, is shown on a Jiaqing brush pot in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated by Liu Liang-yu in A Survey of Chinese Ceramics - 5 - Ch'ing Official and Popular Wares, Taipei, 1991, p. 218, upper image). A Jiaqing lidded lantern vase, with very similarly shaped borders to the current vessels, is encircled by a depiction of Daoist immortals walking towards their home at Penglai. This lidded vase, which is in the collection of the Shanghai Museum is illustrated by Liu Liang-yu, op, cit., p. 232, upper images.
The large size of the current vases provided the decorator with extensive 'canvases' and he has taken full advantage of this, providing the most complex and interesting scenes of figures in landscape on any of the surviving vessels. The scenes include crenelated walls in which there is a large gateway apparently leading to a palace. In this gateway stand two of the six Chinese figures on each vase. Two other Chinese figures are a splendidly dressed courtier with golden headdress and official scepter who stands on a bridge, apparently indicating the way to the travellers, and his attendant who is offering him refreshment from a golden ewer on a lacquer tray. The final Chinese figures are two scholars, identified by their hats, one of whom is carrying books and the other scrolls. All the other figures on the vases can be identified as western foreigners by their curly red hair and clothing, although some of the clothing includes Chinese elements. They are all tribute bearers, bringing precious and auspicious gifts for the emperor.
Western servants are shown transporting a range of gifts either in two-wheeled carts or on yokes carried across their shoulders. Their masters either ride in two-wheeled carts or ride on a variety of extraordinary animals. One rides a horse, but the others ride creatures such as a white elephant, a tiger, a blue Buddhist lion, and a range of colourful mythological animals including a qilin and a bixie. In sculpture a male Buddhist lion is usually shown with its paw on a brocaded ball. However, this creature, along with the qilin and bixie, could also represent one of the mythical creatures which are believed only to appear when a virtuous ruler is on the throne.
The theme of tribute bearers was a particularly popular one in the 18th and early 19th century. A very similar Jiaqing vase depicting a continuous scene of tribute bearers was sold in London Sotheby's, 4 June 2004, lot 225. This subject is also depicted in a number of court paintings, such as the anonymous hanging scroll Envoys from Vassal States and Foreign Countries Presenting Tribute to the Emperor, in the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures - 14 - Paintings by Court Artists of the Qing Court, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 240-1, no. 64). A very similar Jiaqing vase depicting a continuous scene of tribute bearers was sold in London Sotheby's, 4 June 2004, lot 225. On this scroll elephants are shown bearing some of these tribute gifts, including a vase, as the foreigners riding the elephants on these vessels are also shown holding vases. Elephants are associated with strength, wisdom and long-life in China and are also significant animals within the Buddhist religion. Elephants were a popular theme in Chinese art, especially that for the imperial court. The word for elephant in Chinese is xiang, which can also mean appearance, and which additionally sounds like a word meaning happiness. Elephants also provide another message when combined with a precious vase. The word for vase in Chinese is ping, which sounds the same as the word for peace. The combination of an elephant with a vase on its back thus suggests the phrase taiping youxiang, 'great peace in the world'. The depiction of these elephants, bearing on their backs someone carrying a vase, was therefore a very appropriate symbol which offered a subtle compliment to the emperor, as a monarch who ruled over a peaceful empire. Added to this the figures on the elephants have a branch of coral in their vases. Coral was regarded as precious and was traditionally one of the Eight Treasures. It was also a symbol of the First Rank, because only those who had reached that rank were permitted to wear coral finials on their hats. The vases also contain ruyi sceptres, conveying the message 'everything as you wish'. A single large ruyi sceptre is carried by another of the tribute bearers on each of the vessels, while the figures riding tigers carry vases containing ruyi, coral branches, halberds and qing chiming stones. In this case the coral is a precious treasure, the halberd and chiming stone provide a wish for auspicious happiness, while the ruyi suggests 'everything as you wish' and the vase itself offers a wish for peace. Other foreign tribute bearers on the vases carry musical instruments in silk cases, elaborate caskets, which probably contain precious jewels, trays of peaches - symbolizing longevity, scrolls or bolts of precious silk, and other precious items.
While these large and impressive vases would themselves have been valuable gifts, their decoration additionally contains a range of auspicious wishes and subtle compliments to the emperor.