The Qianlong emperor was an enthusiastic antiquarian, adding a huge number of antiques to the Imperial collection during the period of his reign. One of the areas in which he showed particular interest was ceramics, and one of the periods for which he had especially high regard was the 15th century. It is, therefore, not surprising to find that he commissioned porcelains from the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen in the style of 15th porcelains. The current blue and white vase is just such a piece. It is closely based upon a Xuande blue and white vase of the same shape and with the same decorative scheme. An example of the Xuande original, which is of approximately the same size as the current vase, preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 34 - Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (I), Hong Kong, 2000, p. 98, no. 92. Further Xuande-marked versions of this vase type are in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, illustrated by S.G. Valenstein, The Herzman Collection of Chinese Ceramics, New York, 1992, p. 72, no. 67, and in the Chang Foundation, illustrated in Selected Chinese Ceramics from Han to Qing, Taipei, 1990, no. 87. A further Xuande vase is illustrated in Mayuyama, Seventy Years, Tokyo, 1976, vol. 1, no. 784.
It is clear that not only the Qianlong emperor, but his father the Yongzheng emperor admired vases of this design. A massive handscroll, entitled Pictures of Ancient Playthings and dated by inscription to the sixth year of the Yongzheng reign (AD 1728), is in the collection of the Percival David Foundation. This scroll is number 6 of a series, and another inscribed as number 8 is in the Victoria and Albert Museum. They depict items from the Imperial Collection in the Yongzheng emperor's reign, which must have been specifically selected for inclusion on these remarkable painted records. On the David Foundation scroll is clearly painted a Xuande blue and white vase of the same design as the ones discussed above, illustrated in China - The Three Emperors 1662-1795, E.S. Rawski and J. Rawson, eds., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2005, p. 252, middle row, lower right.
The shape of these vases, with their tubular lugs on either side of the columnar neck, may derive from much earlier vessels used in the arrow- tossing game, and known as arrow vases. The original arrow vases must have been made of bronze and were related to the game called touhu, which seems to have existed in China as early as the Zhou dynasty. The game required arrows to be thrown so that they landed either in the mouth of the touhu vessel or went through the handles. Touhu appears to have remained popular through the dynasties, and in the decoration on the sounding board of a Chinese Tang dynasty instrument a touhu vase can be seen with arrows sticking out of both the mouth and handles. This musical instrument is preserved in the imperial repository of the Shoso-in in Nara, Japan. The Shoso-in also has in its collection a Japanese bronze vase, dating to the 8th century, which is a version of the Chinese touhu, and is preserved with the arrows used for the game, illustrated by Ryoichi Hayashi in The Silk Road and the Shoso-in, New York/Tokyo, 1975,p. 160, fig. 188. In 2002, during the excavation of pit number 16 of the kiln site in Gongyixian, Henan province, Chinese archaeologists found a high-fired white ceramic touhu vase dating to the Tang dynasty, and the shape is also known among Southern Song crackled wares.
It is noticeable that while the Qianlong vase follows the same decorative scheme as the Xuande version, the painting style is different. Typical of Qianlong palace style, the 18th century vase is painted with great precision, and with careful control of the cobalt blue pigment so that even coloration is achieved. A Qianlong vase from the Palace Collection, which is of the same size, shape and decoration as the current vessel, was included in the International Exhibition of Chinese Art, held at the Royal Academy, London, in 1935-6, included in Illustrated Catalogue of Chinese Government Exhibits for the International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London, vol. II, Porcelain, Shanghai, 1936, p. 199, no. 263. This latter vase, or one extremely similar, now in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, is illustrated in Porcelain of the National Palace Museum, Blue-and-White Ware of the Ch'ing Dynasty Book II, Hong Kong, 1968, p. 34, no. 7. Another Qianlong blue and white vase of the same size, shape and decoration preserved in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing is illustrated in Gugong Bowuyuan cang - Qingdai yuyao ciqi, vol. I-2, Beijing, 2005, pp. 66-7, no. 22. A further Qianlong vase of exactly the same size and design as the current vessel in the collection of the Nanjing Museum is illustrated in The Official Kiln Porcelain of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, Shanghai, 2003, p. 240.