Jade buffalo, like this superbly carved example, have traditionally been greatly prized in China, where the buffalo is associated with strength, prosperity and tranquility. The ox or buffalo is one of the twelve horary animals representing one of the twelve branches of the Chinese calendrical system. Buffalo are also associated with farming and the production of food. The poetic view of the buffalo had resonance for Chan Buddhists and Daoists alike, suggesting retreat into a tranquil rural life away from the cities and the responsibilities of public office.
The popularity of these creatures has an ancient source, since the legendary Emperor Yu of the Xia dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BC) is said to have cast an iron ox or buffalo to subdue the floods. This theme was taken up by the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95), when in 1755 he had a large bronze ox cast and placed looking out over Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace. On the animal's back was cast an 80-character essay in seal script referring to Yu's casting of the iron buffalo to control the floods.
The mythological and practical auspiciousness of buffalo ensured that they were included among animal figures from early times, and by the period of the late Ming into the early Qing dynasty a group of large finely carved jade figures was being produced. These buffalo were clearly treasured by the imperial family, since several of the extant examples are known to have come from the Summer Palace in 1860. One of these is the grey-green jade example now in the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung illustrated by J. Rawson in Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, p. 175, no. 26:19, which was formerly in the collection of The Rt. Hon. Lord Gladwyn, and previous to that in the possession of Colonel Arthur Jebb, who acquired it on the troop ship returning to England from China. Another of these large jade buffalo in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, is illustrated by J. Ayers and J. Rawson in Chinese Jade throughout the ages, Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1975, p. 120, no. 395. This example, formerly belonging to Oscar Raphael, was included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art held at the Royal Academy in 1935-36, as exhibit 480. In the catalogue of the exhibition, the story, now discounted, was repeated that the piece had been brought to Beijing by the Yongle Emperor in 1422, and that it might be of Han date. According to J. Goette, Jade Lore, Ann Arbour, 1976 ed., p. 199, the Raphael/Fitzwilliam jade was purchased in Tianjin, when the foreign troops were leaving China following the Boxer rebellion of 1900, and could therefore be assumed to have come from the Palace. Another fine example, reputedly looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing, was sold in London in April 1953. Two other impressive jade buffalo were also published by J. Ayers and J. Rawson, op. cit., no. 396, and no. 397 from the collection of Somerset de Chair, later sold at Sotheby's, London, 9 June 2004, lot 151. See, also, the large green jade buffalo sold in these rooms, 21 March 2000, lot 126.
What differentiates the present figure from the aforementioned and other published examples is the way in which the body of the buffalo follows the shape of a large jade pebble or boulder which retains some of the original skin, rather than having been carved from a block of jade. This can also be seen in the large (15¾ in.) mottled brownish-black and greenish-white jade figure of a recumbent buffalo sold in our London rooms, 11 November 2003, lot 65, dated 17th century or earlier. This figure was also carved following the natural shape of the boulder and, as with the present figure, this necessitated the head being tucked along the side of the body rather than raised, as is the case with most large jade water buffalo. This figure is also inscribed with an Imperial inscription dated to the bingyin year, corresponding to 1746.
These pieces, together with a small number in museums such as the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; the Royal Ontario Museum; the Cleveland Museum of Art; and the Chinese Imperial Collection are part of a rare group that is distinguished by their unusually large size, by the naturalness of their forms, and by the extraordinarily fine quality of their carving.