Gong Xinzhao (1870-1949) was the last administrator of the official examinations to the Qing Court. He served as the Chinese ambassador to England, France among other countries, as well as consul-general to Canada.
The word for elephant in Chinese is xiang, which can also mean appearance, and which additionally sounds like a word meaning happiness. Elephants also provide another message when combined with a precious vase. The word for vase in Chinese is ping, which sounds the same as the word for peace. The combination of an elephant with a vase on its back thus suggests the phrase taiping youxiang, 'great peace in the world'. As such, elephants with vases on their backs were put beside the throne to symbolize universal peace. A pair of blue cloisonné enamel elephants with vases on their backs can be seen flanking the elaborate throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City, Beijing, in a photograph illustrated in Imperial Life in the Qing Dynasty, The Empress Place Museum, Singapore, 1989, p. 46.
Elephants were not only used as decorative objects and their symbolic significance, but because they were regarded as exotic, valuable and magnificent. Elephants were presented to the Emperor as evidenced by the Qianlong period handscroll painted by He Qingtai and Pan Tingzhang in the Palace Museum, Beijing, entitled Kazaks Presenting Horses and Elephants to the Emperor, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - Paintings by Court Artists of the Qing Court, Vol. 14, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 244-45, no. 67. This handscroll has an inscription detailing the presentation, and illustrates each horse and elephant with an individual inscription in both Chinese and Manchu.
The present vessel is a particularly unusual representation of the animal in bronze form. Numerous eighteenth century examples of elephants bearing vases are known in a variety of materials including jade, cloisonné and painted enamel but no other bronze example bearing a Qianlong reign mark appears to have been published. A small (4¼ in. high) cloisonné elephant with a vase on its back is illustrated by C. Brown, Chinese Cloisonné: The Clague Collection, Phoenix Art Museum, 1980, pp. 112-13, pl. 49. A pair of gilt-bronze and cloisonné enamel elephants with impressed Qianlong marks on the base, from the C. Ruxton and Audrey B. Love Collection was sold at Christie's New York, 20 October 2004, lot 353.