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Mughal and Mughal-style Jades for a Chinese Emperor
Jade was one of the great passions of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-95), and during his long reign he was an ardent patron and collector - commissioning new jade items, and building up an unrivalled collection of antique and contemporary works in this much revered material. Qianlong greatly admired archaic Chinese jades, but the contemporary jades for which he reserved his greatest praise were not in traditional Chinese style, but those he termed 'Hindustan' (Hendusitan or Wendusitan) jades. Such was his fascination with these foreign jades that in AD 1768 he wrote a scholarly text, entitled Tianzhu wuyindu kao'e, on the geography of Hindustan and the derivation of its name. The area he identified was in what is now northern India centring on the city of Agra. In the eighteenth century this area was part of the Mughal Empire and thus the jades from this region are today often referred to as 'Mughal' jades. In fact some of the jades that have been classed by Qianlong as 'Hindustan' jades are of Turkish origin, but the majority of those taken into the Chinese imperial collection came from northern India. Such items came into China through trade but were also presented to the emperor as tribute gifts and gifts from Qing court officials, especially once the emperor's admiration of these jades became known.
The skill of Indian lapidaries had long been admired by the Chinese. As early as the Han dynasty it was noted in Chinese texts that the inhabitants of the Kashmir/Gandhara region were especially skilled in carving and used such items to decorate their palaces. The major source of nephrite jade for both Chinese and Indian lapidaries was in the region of Khotan, in the Kunlun mountains on the southerly border of Xinjiang, and would thus have been transported over considerable distances to the jade carvers of India and China. Not only the jade but also the lapidaries were sometimes brought from distant lands. Records of the Imperial Household Department indicate that in the Qianlong reign (AD 1762) Moslem jade carvers were sent to work in the ateliers in the Imperial palace, Beijing.
It is interesting to note that these 'Mughal' jades are so fine that in the past some scholars of Chinese art have felt that they could only have been made in China, for only in that country were there jade carvers of such extraordinary skill. However, research has shown convincingly that these beautiful pieces were indeed made by Indian lapidaries. The Qianlong emperor was so entranced by these 'Mughal' jades that he commissioned lapidaries working for the Chinese court to make jade items in Mughal style. In the well-researched catalogue of their Special Exhibition of Hindustan Jade in the National Palace Museum, the National Palace Museum scholars provided a clear distinction between those jades of Indian origin, those of Turkish origin and those made in China (nos. 74-82 in the exhibition). The finest of the Indian pieces are particularly noted for the thinness with which the stone is carved, so that it often appears not just translucent but almost transparent. Open wares, like the jade bowl in the current sale, Lot 69, were often carved so thinly by the Indian lapidaries, that the Qianlong emperor described them as 'supernaturally made'. This bowl follows the exquisite decorative style of the 'Mughal' jades, carved as open flowers with flower-shaped foot, and with leaf handles that rise elegantly from the foot of the vessel. Although in very shallow relief, the three-dimensionality of the design is enhanced by depicting the edges of some leaves delicately curling inwards.
Although the same basic techniques of jade carving were used by the Chinese and the Mughal lapidaries, research suggests that the northern Indian carvers used a bow lathe while seated on the ground, while the Chinese craftsmen used a treadle lathe while seated on a stool. Their choice and use of the raw material was also slightly different. While Chinese carvers admired the natural qualities of the stone and incorporated variously coloured inclusions in the jade into their overall design and made use of the outer 'skin' of the jade pebble, the Mughal carvers preferred jade of a single colour. When making jades in the Mughal style, the Chinese lapidaries appeared to have evolved two distinctive types. In the first instance, the Chinese lapidaries intended to achieve an overall appearance as close as possible to the Mughal examples. Lot 67, a jade dish, and Lot 66, a jade snuff bottle, are two examples of this type. Following the Mughal style closely, the dish is delicately carved to incredible thinness, with its foot shaped like an open flower and characteristic acanthus leaf handles each bearing a curled bud. Its soft finish, compare to the high polish of lot 69, however, points to a more Chinese origin. The technically impressive snuff bottle shows in its complex design the creativity of Chinese lapidaries in incorporating the Mughal style onto a Chinese form. Its resemblance to a Mughal piece is further enhanced by the highly polished surface.
Another type of Chinese Mughal-style jade has motifs and sometimes forms derived from Indian sources, but is otherwise Chinese in its material, carving and finish. The traditional Chinese reverence for jade itself can perhaps be seen in the reluctance of the Chinese lapidaries to cut their jade to the extreme thinness of the Indian pieces, and the tactile, silky, less polished finish of the jade surface. Occasionally traditional Chinese features are incorporated into an essentially 'Mughal' scheme. Lot 68 is a notable example of this hybrid style. Although its shape is inspired by the elegance of the Indian examples, the choice of a goose head as its handle is decidedly a Chinese influence. This is further attested by the Qianlong emperor's poems inscribed on the jade, composed in 1783, which alludes to the goose motif and the great calligrapher Wang Xizhi. A total of sixty-four Qianlong emperor's poems in the Qing Gaozong yuzhi shiwen quanji are recorded for Mughal jades in the imperial collection dating between 1756 and 1794, and, on the emperor's instructions, a number of them were inscribed onto the pieces themselves. The National Palace Museum, Taipei has identified nineteen of these on pieces in their collection, and six more in other collections. Lot 68 is another one of these important imperial inscribed 'Mughal' or 'Mughal style' jades which has come to light.