The 'hundred deer' motif was very popular as the landscape depicted contains important symbolic references. The subject of deer has a long history in Chinese art as it refers to the rebus where the Chinese word for 'deer' is a homophone for 'emolument' or 'civil service salary'; the 'hundred deer' therefore represent the ultimate success, a career in government service in Imperial China. The deer is also associated with Daoism and the Star God of Longevity, Shoulao, while the inclusion of peaches and lingzhi fungus in the decoration is further symbolic of longevity. As such, the subject-matter on the present vase alludes to a multitude of auspicious connotations.
The picturesque scenes of deer in rocky, tree-strewn landscape were probably intended to represent deer in the imperial gardens and hunting parks. Indeed, one of the reasons for the popularity of deer in Chinese art is assocated with a favourite imperial pastime - the creation of gardens and hunting parks, which were frequently stocked with deer. The Manchu Qing dynasty were proud of their heritage and encouraged equestrian and hunting skills. The Qianlong Emperor revived the tradition of the annual Autumn Hunt, and the Summer Palace at Chengde was largely a hunting park kept stocked with game, particularly deer. Deer and deer huts were favourite themes in Qing dynasty court painting, as exemplified by a hanging scroll by one of the most revered Jesuit who served the Qing imperial court, Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1768); sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 30 May 2005, lot 1207 (fig. 1).
Examples of hu-shaped vases with this exquisite design are in various museum and private collections: one from the Beijing Palace Museum, is illustrated in Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1999, pp. 98-99, pl. 85; a pair is in the Shanghai Museum, illustrated in Selected Ceramics from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. J.M. Hu, Shanghai, 1989, pl. 67 (fig. 2); a single vase, also in the Shanghai Museum, is illustrated in Chugoku Toji Zenshu, vol. 21, Kyoto, 1981, pl. 103; and in the Hong Kong Museum of Art Collection, included in the exhibition, The Wonders of the Potter's Palette, Hong Kong, 1984, illustrated in the Catalogue, p. 119, no. 71. Compare also with two other similar vases, the first from the British Rail Pension Fund was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong, 16 May 1989, lot 89; and the other, from the collection of a medical doctor who worked in the German embassy in Beijing during the early 20th century, was sold at Christie's Paris, 14 December 2011, lot 170.
There appear to be a number of 'deer' vases with slightly different variations in their design. Another variation on the same shape and theme but with blue and yellow enamelled handles are known, such as the example in the Nanjing Museum included in the joint exhibition with The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Qing Imperial Porcelain, 1995, and illustrated in the Catalogue, no. 86. A pair in the National Palace Museum, is illustrated in Stunning Decorative Porcelains from the Ch'ien-lung Reign, 2008, pp. 156-157, no. 51 (fig. 3). Another example is the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, illustrated in Shincho Toj, Keitokuchin Kanyo no Bi, 'Ceramics of Qing Dynasty, Beauty of Jingdezhen Imperial Kiln', Tokyo, 2006, p. 68, no. 58; and published with a deer vase without the handles, p. 69, no. 59. A vase from the Earls Cowper Collection, where the depiction of the deer themselves are larger in size and fewer in number, was sold at Christie's London, 13 May 2008, lot 224 (fig. 4). Compare also a related deer vase with puce-enamelled handles, sold at Christie's London, 10 May 2011, lot 299.