The elephant is an auspicious symbol which is used in numerous rebuses to convey peace, prosperity and good fortune. The present carving combines two of the most popular elephant rebuses: boys riding and washing an elephant, jixiang, represent good fortune, and an elephant supporting a vase, taiping youxiang, represents ‘peace in the land.’
With its auspicious theme, images of boys washing an elephant found favor in the Qing court, and were depicted by court painters such as Ding Guanpeng (fl. c. 1738-1768): see a hanging scroll in ink and color, depicting attendants washing an elephant, dated 1750 and with the artist’s signature, two seals of the artist and one seal of the Emperor Qianlong, now in the Palace Museum, Beijing, no. GU4794.
The depiction of boys washing an elephant was also a particularly popular subject matter for jade carvings, giving a lively context to a sophisticated play on words. A related carving of two boys washing an elephant, also of white jade and of a similarly large size (20.4 cm. high) as the present example, in the Qing Court Collection, is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, and is illustrated in Jadeware (III). The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1995, p.117, pl. 98. (Fig. 1) The Beijing carving was also included in an exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, and illustrated in China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, London, 2005, p. 377, no. 300.
Another example of a white jade carving of figures with an elephant, also in the Qing Court Collection, is illustrated ibid., pl. 97. This carving shows a boy with a ruyi scepter clambering on the back of the elephant, while a man wearing a hat stands at the proper left hind leg. In comparison, the standing figure in the Irving carving appears to be a foreigner, suggested by the curling beard and the band around the head. The inclusion of a foreigner is very unusual, and illustrates a high degree of characterization and individuality in the carving. A related depiction of a foreigner, with a similar head-band and beard, but shown riding an elephant, can be seen on a grey and black jade carving dated to the Yuan dynasty, and illustrated by T. Fok, The Splendour of Jade. The Songzhutang Collection of Jade, Hong Kong, 2011, p. 92, no. 82.
The Irving jade carving also incorporates such details as a ruyi scepter and a flowering spray (probably peony) held by the bearded foreigner. The ruyi scepter represents wishes for good fortune, and the peony represents wealth and prosperity. The addition of the vase on the back of the elephant expresses the wish for peace, Taiping youxiang. During the Qing dynasty, real elephants with vases on their backs appeared in processions to celebrate the birthday of the emperor. Although the motif of the elephant, combined with boys and a vase was popular in jade carvings, it is very unusual to find so many auspicious symbols incorporated into a single carving. The leafy fronds and fruits which issue from the vase held by the two boys may be identified as Rohdea japonica, an evergreen plant native to East Asia which is also known as the ‘sacred lily’ or wan nian qing in Chinese. The Chinese name can be translated as “may the New Year bring a revival of ten thousand things”, expressing hopes for a new beginning at the start of a New Year.
For a white jade carving of an elephant and boys with a vase, see Zhongguo Yuqi Quanji, vol. 6, Beijing, 1991, p. 187, pl. 270. In this example, the boys flank the vase which sits on the back of the elephant, but the vase is empty, unlike the vase in the Irving carving which contains auspicious Rohdea japonica. Two further examples of white jade ‘elephant’ carvings are illustrated in A Romance with Jade From the De An Tang Collection, Beijing, 2004, p. 142, no. 83 (without boys but with a large ring-handled vase) and p. 149, no. 89 (with two boys and a small vase).
The elephant is also associated with Buddhism, and the Buddhist deity Samantabhadra is shown riding an elephant. The white elephant in particular recalls the birth legend of the historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama: his mother Queen Maya did not have children for twenty years, but one night the queen had a vivid dream in which a white elephant appeared to her, and she later gave birth to Siddartha Gautama. In the present carving, the use of such high-quality white stone to depict an elephant may be a specific reference to this Buddhist legend. The Qianlong Emperor was a strong supporter of Buddhism, and his mother the Dowager Empress Chongqing was a particularly devout Buddhist.
The Irvings are well-known for their superb collection of jade carvings. A large and finely carved white jade ‘luohan’ boulder, depicting a recumbent elephant next to a Buddhist monk within a cave setting, also from the collection of Florence and Herbert Irving, sold at Christie’s New York, 20 March 2019, lot 823.