Large and impressive jade carvings, such as the present brush pot, appealed strongly to the taste of the Qianlong Emperor. The subject matter of the present scene would also have appealed to the emperor, as it depicts tribute bearers bringing gifts (hu ren xian bao en).
The subject matter of tribute bearers appears to have been a popular one in the eighteenth century, and it can be seen on a number of court paintings, such as the anonymous hanging scroll Envoys from Vassal States and Foreign Countries Presenting Tribute to the Emperor, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures - 14 - Paintings by Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 240-1, no. 64. Another famous depiction of tribute bearers is on a scroll painting by Xie Sui in the Palace Museum, Taipei, entitled Zhi gong tu (Foreign Envoys Bearing Tribute) and dated to around AD 1751.
A spinach-green jade brush pot with a related scene of tribute bearers was sold at Christie’s, London, 13 May 2008, lot 54; and another brush pot, from the Lord Blackford Trust, also with tribute bearers and bearing an inscription reading tian fang lu gong (bringing tribute from Central Asia), was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 5 October 2011, lot 1910A. Another related scene is carved on a circular jade screen from the collection of Alan and Simone Hartman, which was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th November 2007, lot 1513. This screen bears the inscription wanguo laichao (tributes from ten thousand nations) which is an archaic reference to the tradition of the Emperor receiving foreign dignitaries during the first fifteen days of the lunar New Year, as recorded by the Han dynasty historian, Sima Qian (c. 145 – c. 86 BC).
Such gifts or tribute for the emperor would be suitably auspicious, and might come from far-flung corners of the empire or even from beyond its boundaries, and the exotic nature of this tribute is suggested by the unusual clothes worn by the tribute bearers, most notably long, loose robes and tall, horn-shaped hats. Interestingly, the Yongzheng Emperor is shown wearing a similar, striped, outfit and a horn-shaped hat in one of the 13 anonymous album leaves depicting Life Portraits of Emperor Yongzheng, which are illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures - 14 - Paintings by Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 118, no. 18.2. This album depicts the Yongzheng Emperor in various guises, and it is likely that the striped costume is intended to portray him as a Western Asian prince.
The use of the present jade carving as a brush pot would have made it suitable for the desk of a scholar-official as he engaged in the cultured pursuits of painting and calligraphy. This scholarly connection is also apparent in the cylindrical format of the brush pot, and the continuous scene carved on the surface, which develops as the brush pot is turned in the hand, evoking the unrolling of a handscroll on a scholar’s desk. Some examples are raised on low, ruyi-form feet, such as the present brush pot, while others are simply cylindrical in form.
Given the popularity of spinach-green jade for use as brush pots, and the similar style of carving on many examples, the variety of subject matters is remarkable. Although the present brush pot celebrates imperial power, other examples found their inspiration from various historical and legendary sources. See, for example, three other spinach-green jade brush pots in the collection of the National Palace Museum in Taipei, illustrated in The Refined Taste of the Emperor: Special Exhibition of Archaic and Pictorial Jades of the Ch’ing Court, Taipei, 1997, pp. 172-173, no. 55, carved with a scene of shih-shih tsang-shu but lacking ruyi-form feet; pp. 174-175, no. 56, carved with a scene of Li Bai and his friends, and raised on low feet; pp. 178-179, no. 58, carved with a scene of a pavilion overlooking a lake of lotus blossoms, but also lacking feet. A spinach-green jade brush pot carved with the 'Six Old Men in Zhu Xi' (Zhu Xi liu yi) is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, and is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 42 - Jadeware III, Hong Kong, 1995, pp. 207-208, no. 169. A related spinach-green jade brush pot, inspired by agricultural scenes from woodblock prints in the Gengzhi tu, is in the British Museum and is illustrated by J. Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, pp. 406-409, no. 29:18.
A related brush pot carved with scholars in a landscape sold at Sotheby’s Paris, 22 June 2017, lot 9. A related example from the collection of Florence and Herbert Irving, carved with scholars and a pavilion in a mountainous landscape, sold at Christie’s New York, 20 March 2019, lot 822.