Jade buffalos, like this charming example, have traditionally been greatly prized in China. The ox or buffalo is one of the twelve animals representing Chou, the second of the twelve terrestrial branches used in Chinese astrological, calendrical and zodiac systems. Buffalos are associated with strength, prosperity and tranquility in China, in part because of their role in farming and the production of food. The carving recalls a 1746 inscription by the Qianlong emperor: "The buffalo is essential to provide food, helping thousands of people to bring in a bountiful harvest every year." This inscription appears on a more simply carved brownish-black jade buffalo sold at Christie's London, 11 November 2003, lot 65.
The popularity of these animals has an ancient source, since the legendary emperor Yu of the Xia dynasty (c. 2100-1600 BC) is said to have made an offering of an iron ox or buffalo to subdue floods. This theme was taken up by the emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), who ordered the casting of a large bronze ox in 1755, which he had placed looking out over Kunming Lake at the Summer Palace. The back of the ox has an eighty-character inscription which refers to Yu's iron buffalo made to control the floods.
The mythological and practical auspiciousness of buffalos ensured that they were included among animal carvings from early times, and by the period of the late Ming into the Qing dynasty, a group of large, finely carved jade figures was being produced. One of these is a Qianlong spinach-green jade buffalo from the collection of Sackville George Pelham, the 5th Earl of Yarborough, sold at Woolley and Wallis, 20 May 2009, lot 388. The Pelham buffalo has an accompanying Qianlong-marked gilt-bronze stand, which reveals that it was a display piece in Qianlong's court. Another of these large green jade buffalos is in the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, illustrated by John Ayers and Jessica Rawson in Chinese Jade throughout the ages, Oriental Ceramic Society, London, 1975, p. 120, no. 395. A grey-green jade example, now in the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung, is illustrated by Jessica Rawson in Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, p. 375, no. 26:19. See, also, the large green jade buffalo sold at Christie’s, New York, 21 March 2000, lot 126, which is very similarly carved except that the head is slightly raised, not lowered, as here. Another large green jade buffalo, from the Estate of Leona M. Helmsley, was sold at Christie’s, New York, 19 March 2008, lot 436.