Please note Session One, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale will begin, Wednesday, 18 March 2009 at 2:30 p.m.
Please note Session Two, Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sale will begin, Thursday, 19 March 2009 at 2 p.m.
Please note the viewing for both sales will close on Tuesday at 2 p.m.
Rare Jades from The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director, Asian Art
The majority of the jades in this interesting group date to the Qing dynasty; and a number to the reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736-95). Although the early part of the 18th century saw a shortage of jade stone arriving at the court ateliers, the successful campaigns against the tribes of Yutian (modern Xinjiang province) in 1760, the middle of the Qianlong reign, presaged a new era, when significant quantities of good quality nephrite jade were sent to the court as tribute. As the British scholar Ming Wilson has noted (Chinese Jades, V&A Publications, London, 2004, p. 48), this ready supply of high quality jade stone ushered in a golden age of jade production. The fine jade carvings of the Qianlong reign have been consistently admired by connoisseurs and were to influence the work of lapidaries in succeeding periods.
One of the developments in jade carving particularly encouraged by the Qianlong emperor was that of huayi or carving jade to produce a picture. As a painter might use his brush and ink to create a two-dimensional picture, particularly a landscape, on paper or silk, so the skilled lapidary could use his tools to create a three-dimensional picture in jade. The current group includes several superb examples of these huayi jades. One of these is a magnificent spinach-green jade brush pot [Lot 411] encircled by a deeply and crisply carved mountain landscape with a pavilion and terrace, and groups of Daoist figures bearing auspicious emblems. Three figures walk single file along a rocky ledge past a bamboo grove. The first figure, wearing a rattan hat, carries a Buddha-hand citron, which symbolizes happiness and longevity, the second figure carries a lotus seed pod, which symbolizes fertility, while the third figure, a servant or young boy, carries a large double gourd which has numerous meanings based upon the sound of its name in Chinese, hulu, or its physical properties. Most of these meanings relate to progeny - either a wish for many sons, or a wish for ten thousand generations of the family. A further meaning, based upon the pronunciation, suggests a wish for blessings and an official salary. In another group a figure with a long beard carries an open lotus flower, a symbol of beauty and purity. He is followed by someone who appears to be a boy carrying a hoe. This may be intended to represent one of the Eight Daoist Immortals, Lan Caihe, who is sometimes shown carrying a hoe, but is more often depicted with a basket of flowers. Accompanying these two figures is a deer, which can represent either longevity or an official salary and thus rank. Just outside of a pavilion bordered by plantain another figure appears to be feeding a lingzhi fungus to a crane. Both the lingzhi and the crane are symbols of longevity. A further bearded figure is shown riding across turbulent waters on a leaf raft carrying a large split pomegranate, symbolizing many sons. On the bank he is approaching stands a figure with a large branch with peaches, symbolic of longevity, and he is preceded by a young attendant holding a tall staff. On a small ledge is an incense burner, while on the terrace is a small, four-legged table with a bowl holding three more peaches. All these auspicious symbols are contained within a coherent landscape, in which great care has been given to the depiction of the rocks and the different types of trees.
A fine white jade brush pot of this huayi type [Lot 433] also has extremely well-carved figures in a landscape, and the lapidary has made good use of the translucent qualities of the jade in order to give added depth to the scene. In a clearing between a wutong tree (sometimes called a Chinese parasol tree or a phoenix tree) and a paulownia tree are three figures. The two larger figures appear to be immortals and carry ruyi sceptres. Such sceptres were often given as birthday gifts and represent 'everything as you wish it'. The smaller figure, which appears to be a young boy carries a jar containing a trident. The vase represents a wish for peace since the word for vase (ping) sounds like a word for peace. The trident was regarded as a weapon against evil with the ability to quell demons. To the left of the figures in the clearing a pine tree, symbolizing longevity, stands amongst rocks, while further around the brushpot two deer, representing longevity and rank, are depicted beneath a rocky overhang, while in front of them grow lingzhi fungus representing a wish for immortality. Like the spinach-green brush-pot, this white jade vessel combines a beautifully conceived continuous landscape with auspicious messages.
The pair of spinach-green jade table screens [Lot 451] perfectly exemplify the idea of huayi. Each side of each screen has been carved with a complex depiction of scholars or creatures in a rocky landscape with pavilions. On one screen four scholars are shown in what appears to be animated conversation on a bridge in the foreground, while another scholar waits further up the slope, just below a group of buildings. On the other side of this screen two cranes, symbolizing the wish for longevity, stand on the rocks beside a fast-flowing cataract, overlooked by a small pavilion perched on a high promontory. On the other screen, one figure, possibly Shoulao, the Star God of Longevity, descends the rocks followed by an attendant carrying a large peach, while two sages ascend another path towards a group of buildings, followed by an attendant carrying what appears to be a basket of flowers. On the other side of this screen a male and female deer stand on separate rocky outcrops beneath a small pavilion. The rocks and trees which form the landscapes inhabited by these figures and creatures are carved with great artistry and are indeed the three-dimensional equivalent of landscape paintings.
The Qianlong emperor greatly valued these huayi jades, but most of the other jades that he admired had some link with antiquity, and indeed a significant number of so-called fanggu pieces were made during his reign. The term fanggu is usually translated as 'copying the ancient' or 'made in imitation of antiques'. As early as the Song dynasty, jade came to represent the achievements of an earlier glorious age. Archaic jades were prized and new jades were often made into objects in ancient style. This theme continued to find favour, and in the Qianlong period jades were frequently made in archaic styles related either to ancient bronze or ancient jade. The jade yi vessel in the current sale [Lot 434] takes its form from an ancient bronze vessel which may have been used to pour water for washing before the performance of a ritual. The Bronze Age form usually had four short legs rather than an oval foot, so it may be that the current jade form has taken some inspiration from a Shang dynasty bronze guang vessel without a lid. The decoration on the body of the vessel takes its themes from ancient bronze designs, but applies them in a very different manner. However, the thumb rest on the top of the handle has been beautifully carved with a complex pierced design closely resembling the style of the late Bronze Age.
A rare yellow jade vessel in the form of a phoenix [Lot 457] is also archaistic in form and strongly resembles both the ancient bronze bird-form vessels and those bronzes of the 18th century that imitated them. In the Qianlong publication Xiqing Gujian (Catalogue of Xiqing Antiquities) there is even an illustration of a bronze version of this bird on wheels (see Rose Kerr, Later Chinese Bronzes, p. 77, pl. 61), which has a trumpet vase shape in place of the lid with small bird on the current jade vessel. The lapidary has used the colour of this jade carving very effectively to enhance the overall design. The so-called 'champion vase' or 'hero vase' [Lot 440] has a form probably based on a Song dynasty jade prototype, which was itself archaistic, probably being based upon a Han dynasty bronze. This double cylinder vase takes its name from the falcon and bear which form the central part of the vessel, holding the two cylinders together. The Chinese words for falcon (ying) and bear (xiong) provide a rebus for champion or hero, hence the name given to this type of vase. The bear lies between the two vases, while the falcon stands on its head and spreads its wings across the two cylinders. The illustration of a similar vase appears in the Xiqing Gujian (Catalogue of Xiqing Antiquities), where it is described as a 'Tang dragon and phoenix double tube vase'. Ming Wilson in Chinese Jades, op. cit., p. 107, has pointed out that this was probably miscaptioned, it was the Qianlong emperor who gave this motif the name yingxiong, 'falcon and bear', and thus 'hero or champion' (see Teng Shu-ping, Neolithic Jades in the Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1992, p. 266). Prior to the Qianlong reign a variety of names were used.
The two white jade belt hooks [Lot 445] provide another example of archaism in Qing jades. Even as early as the Northern Song dynasty scholars collected antique bronze and jade belt hooks, and new ones were often made in antique style. While such hooks could, of course, be used for their original purpose, the arbiter of style Wen Zhenheng (1585-1645) noted in his Zhangwu zhi (Superfluous Things), written between 1621 and 1627, that such ancient belt hooks made very elegant hooks for hanging pictures on the wall. In the 18th century belt hooks continued to be made in ancient style although Qing clothing appears to have had little need of such hooks. Instead they were employed, for example, as brush rests on the scholar's table.
In addition to archaistic jade items, the table of the wealthy Qing scholar might contain jades made in forms taken from nature. Two particularly attractive water pots in the current sale provide good examples. A well-carved white jade double water pot [Lot 450] is made in the form of two lotus seed pods with a lotus bud, lotus leaf, sagittaria leaf and a dragonfly. The lotus seed pod symbolizes fertility, while the lotus itself symbolizes beauty and purity. The dragonfly reinforces the theme of purity, since the first character of its name, qingting, provides a rebus for pure and also for celebration. The sagittaria leaf is also sometimes called arrowhead, and it may in this case be included in place of a real arrow, which was a symbol of unity. The second water pot, also of white jade, is a rare and particularly beautiful example made in the form of a hibiscus blossom [Lot 401]. This also contained an auspicious wish since the name for this flower is mufurong, providing a rebus for wealth fu and glory rong. Because the hibiscus flowers in autumn, in ancient times it was called jushuang, 'resists frost', and therefore has connotations of resilience.
The wearing of suspended plaque-like pendants, sometimes strung together with beads, was popular amongst gentlemen as well as ladies in traditional China. Chinese literature contains frequent references to the sound of tinkling jade accompanying the movement of characters in the stories. Confucius (551-479 BC) had praised jade as 'the embodiment of virtue', and the notion was adopted that a gentleman should emulate its qualities of solidity and translucency. When a gentleman wore suspended jade pendants, they struck each other as he moved, and the tinkling sound was thought to be pleasing to the ear and was felt to be entirely appropriate.
Some of these strung pendants were rather long, however, and could cause embarrassment. In the reign of the Ming dynasty Jiajing emperor (1522-66), during one of the imperial audiences, a court official by the name of Xie Minxing approached the throne in order to show something to the emperor. Unfortunately the official's pendant became entangled with that belonging to the emperor, and they had to be disentangled by a nearby eunuch. As Shen Defu (1578-1642) reported in Wanli yehuo bian: "The emperor pardoned Xie, but ordered that from then on the officers should place their pendants inside a red gauze pouch. That was a convenient device, but the tinkling sounds could no longer be heard." (translated by Ming Wilson in Chinese Jades, op. cit., p, 26). A less cumbersome use could be made of pendants carved in the round, which could be used as toggles when suspending pouches and other necessities from a belt. The toggles provided both a counterweight and enough volume to prevent the cord attached to the pouch slipping from the belt.
The decoration or shape of pendants and toggles frequently conveyed a message of some kind. One of the fine white jade pendants in the sale [Lot 404] has a beautifully carved low relief design of pomegranates (shiliu in Chinese) and daylily. The pomegranates are all shown with their skin split open showing the seeds inside. This suggests the phrase liukai baizi or 'pomegranate revealing one hundred sons'. This four-character phrase has been written in seal script within a cartouche on the back of the pendant. One of the names given to the daylily in Chinese is yi'nancao, 'boy favouring herb', and it was believed that if a pregnant woman wore daylilies during her pregnancy then she would bear a son. The daylily is also known as wangyoucao or 'plant that dispels grief', and additionally is associated with longevity and is a symbol of motherhood. The combination of the pomegranates and daylily, therefore, provides the message: 'wishing that you will have many sons', and these motifs were used to decorate gifts given to celebrate a marriage, birthday gifts for women, and even items for the scholar.
The message on another pendant [Lot 419] would have made it a very appropriate gift for a scholar-official. This pendant is finely carved from white jade with russet areas, the latter having been skilfully used by the lapidary to highlight a chrysalis and a cicada on one side, and a beetle perched on a leaf above a spider and its web on the other. The main motif on this pendant is bamboo, which is a symbol of humility and fidelity because it grows straight and has a hollow interior. It is also a symbol of integrity because of its ability to bend in the wind without breaking, and because the Chinese word for the joints of the bamboo (jie) is the same as the word for integrity. The Chinese word for bamboo (zhu) can also be a rebus for the word congratulate, while the fact that it is evergreen and once established is long-lived, makes it a symbol of vitality and longevity. Bamboo also traditionally represents peace. The spider, shown with its web on the pendant, can serve as a rebus for 'to know' and as such can combine with the symbolic meanings of the bamboo. However, the spider was also regarded as a sign that happy events were about to occur. The cicada is a symbol of rebirth, a theme which is reinforced on this pendant by the inclusion of a chrysalis. While in early times jade cicadas were placed in the mouths of the deceased as symbols of immortality, they later became suitable decoration for the hats of members of the elite, symbolizing honesty and high principles. The painter Zhao Shao'ang, (1905-1998) liked to depict cicadas because they alighted on the highest branches of trees and drank only dew. Zhao felt that they showed integrity, like men who would not compromise their principles in order to acquire fame or riches (see T.T. Bartholmew, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 2006, p. 178). Another pendant or toggle which would have been suitable for a scholar is the white openwork example [Lot 423] which is composed of a pile of scholarly objects. These include books, scroll paintings, a chess board, and a guqin wrapped in a brocade case, as well as water-pots to hold the water for mixing ink. These represent the four scholarly pursuits. A Chinese scholar was expected to be well read with an extensive knowledge of the classics. He should be able to play chess and be an accomplished painter. He should also be able to play the guqin, a seven-stringed, zither-like, instrument.
A further well-carved and pierced white jade pendant or toggle [Lot 413] is composed of one of the most popular themes in the Chinese decorative arts - fish. In this case two gold fish are shown swimming around each other. Fish are a popular symbol since the word for fish (yu) sounds like the word for abundance, and two fish would represent doubled abundance. The fact that they are gold (jin) suggests an abundance of gold, but also suggests gold and jade (yu), which represent wealth. It is suggested by the inclusion of lotus and a shell that the fish are swimming in a pond. The word for pond in Chinese is tang, which sounds like the word for hall, suggesting the family home. The whole composition can therefore be taken as a rebus for jinyu mantang, 'may your household be prosperous'. In addition two fish in water also suggest a suitable wish in the context of marriage, yushui hexie, 'may you be as harmonious as fish in water'. This is reinforced in this composition by the inclusion of the lotus, one character for which, he, sounds like the word for harmony. Paired fish in any visual context are an appropriate wedding gift, since they symbolize marital bliss, fertility and an abundance of good fortune.