This exquisite jade cup reflects the Qianlong emperor's fascination with Mughal jades and his determination that Chinese lapidaries should be able to produce fine jade items in this style. The emperor's admiration for Indian, Turkish and Chinese jades of this type can be seen in the number of such jades preserved in the Chinese Palace Collections in Beijing and Taipei. The current cup, called a shuiyu or 'water coupe' in its inscription, is a particularly beautiful example of imperial jade carving.
The Qianlong emperor was not only an active patron and avid collector, he also enjoyed studying and composing commemorative poems about items in his collection. A number of these poems, which are recorded in the Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji (National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1976), were, on the emperor's instructions, inscribed onto the pieces themselves. The current cup bears such an imperial inscription (op. cit., pp. 126-7, pl. 1). Sixty-four Qianlong poems are recorded for Mughal and Mughal-style jades in the imperial collection, dating between 1756 and 1794. The National Palace Museum, Taipei has identified nineteen of these on pieces in their collection, and six more in other collections (Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Hindustan Jade in the National Palace Museum, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1983, p. 87). Items bearing the other recorded poems could not be located by the researchers. One of these has now surfaced in a European private collection. The current cup bears one of the inscriptions for which an object could not be found by the National Palace Museum scholars in 1983 (ibid., p. 46, no. 60). The inscription, which is recorded in the fourth part of the collection of Emperor Qianlong's imperial poems, book 97, page 27, is entitled Yong hendusitan shuiyu, and is dated to the 48th year of the Qianlong reign, equivalent to AD 1783.
This cup shares with the famous jade vessel in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, dated to AD 1657 and previously belonging to Shah Jahan, a swirling shell-shape terminating in an animal head. A similarly shaped jade cup is preserved in the National Palace Museum, Taipei (see Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Hindustan Jade in the National Palace Museum, op. cit., pp. 174-5, no. 25). The form is usually described in Chinese as gourd-shaped, and in the case of the London and Taipei examples the animal-head is either a ram or an ibex. It is significant that the present cup has a goose-head elegantly arching from the tapered end of the vessel. This jade cup was almost certainly made in Mughal style by Chinese lapidaries on the instructions of the Qianlong Emperor, and the choice of a goose head was by no means capricious.
A link with ink and calligraphy is made plain in the imperial inscription incised into the cup, and particularly mentioned is the ancient calligrapher most admired by the Qianlong Emperor. This calligrapher was Wang Xizhi (AD 303-361), whose graceful brush strokes were said to have been inspired by watching the fluid movements of the necks of geese. Wang Xizhi is therefore always associated with geese, and was painted by the famous artist Qian Xuan (c.1235-1300) standing in a pavilion looking out at geese on a lake (Wen Fong and Marilyn Fu, Sung and Yuan Paintings, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1973, cover and frontispiece (detail), no. 13 and pp. 86-7). At the end of this scroll painting Qian Xuan appended a poem, which may be translated as reading:
'Much pleasantness is found in that elegant bamboo grove;
In a peaceful pavilion, with a bare stomach, how wonderful it feels;
Writing the Daode jing for a Daoist friend,
He leaves behind a romantic image - the man who is a lover of geese.'
Wang Xizhi was an ardent Daoist and closely connected to the Daoist master Xu Mai. One story relates how Wang wrote the text of the Daode Jing (Classic of philosophical Daoism) for a relatively lowly priest, who in turn presented him with a basket of geese. This story has been interpreted as demonstrating Wang's humility and his disregard of convention, but it has also been noted that such an action would accumulate religious merit for him. A further association with Wang's Daoist beliefs may have been the fact that geese were greatly valued for their medicinal properties in the making of drugs, and Wang is recorded as having followed Daoist dietary regimes and searched assiduously for medical stones (L. Ledderose, 'Some Taoist Elements in the Calligraphy of the Six Dynasties', T'oung Pao, LXX, 1984, pp. 248-50). Wang Xizhi's name is therefore inextricably linked with geese.
So great was the Qianlong Emperor's admiration for Wang Xizhi's calligraphy that he wrote some seventy eulogies on an album containing a famous piece of calligraphy (Kuai xue shi qing tie, Clearing After Snowfall) attributed to Wang Xizhi. The emperor also copied Qian Xuan's work, mentioned above, as a particular tribute to Wang Xizhi. In addition, Qianlong installed three pieces of calligraphy, one by Wang Xizhi, one by his son Wang Xianzhi (344-386) and one by his nephew Wang Xun (350-401) in a special hall in the palace, which the emperor named the Sanxi Tang, Hall of the Three Rarities. The emperor established this hall as his personal study within the Yangxin Dian, Hall for Cultivating the Mind, into which he moved after he ascended the throne, and where he lived for 63 years. Not only did Qianlong preserve the calligraphic masterpieces themselves, in 1747 he also ordered them copied in stone and rubbings published in an anthology entitled Sanxi Tang fatie, usually translated as Model Works of Calligraphy in the Hall of the Three Rarities. This enterprise took six years to complete. Qianlong even ordered a special building to house the stone slabs within the Sea Palaces of the famous Yuanming Garden.
It seems most likely that this jade cup, with its goose-head handle, was ordered by Qianlong as a deliberate allusion to Wang Xizhi's calligraphy, and perhaps he intended to use it in the Hall of the Three Rarities. It is recorded that after his abdication in 1795, when the Qianlong Emperor left the Hall for Cultivating the Mind and moved into the Ningshou Gong, Palace of Tranquil Longevity, he did not feel that he could remove the precious calligraphy from the Hall of the Three Rarities. We may imagine, however that he may have gained solice from holding in his hand this beautiful jade cup - a treasure in its own right and a reminder of Wang Xizhi's elegant brushstrokes.
The inscription may be translated as:
'A stemmed gourd forming the water coupe,
Its handle the curved neck and head of a goose.
Surely its white down is not a result of studying Youjun*'s legacy?
It inspired the 'ink pond'** and the bizhentu.'***
Imperially inscribed by Qianlong
Seals: bide equal to virtue, and lang run brilliant and unctuous
* Youjun is a reference to Wang Xizhi, since that is the highest official rank that he attained, and he was subsequently known as Wang Youjun. It also became a synonym for geese because of Wang's admiration of these birds. Youjun is usually translated as 'General of Right'.
** Mochi, literally 'ink pond', refers to the legendary pond in which Wang Xizhi used to wash his brushes. Because he practised his calligraphy so diligently, the water in the pond eventually became totally black from all the ink. The phrase can also refer to the inkstone.
*** The bizhentu, which may be translated as 'Illustrating Formations of the Brush', is an important example of calligraphy and a treatise which compares brush strokes to military formations. It is written in a mixture of running and cursive script, and the text illustrates the seven essential brush strokes of calligraphy and compares them to an advancing military troop. This treatise has been attributed by some scholars to Wang Xizhi, but nowadays is generally thought to be the work of the Jin dynasty calligrapher Madame Wei (Wei Shuo, Wei Maoyi), who was in fact Wang Xizhi's first calligraphy teacher. However, the Qianlong Emperor obviously still believed the treatise to be by Wang Xizhi.