Mythical beasts of this form are known as ludan, legendary creatures capable of distinguishing between good and evil. Because of these qualities incense burners of this form were placed beside or in front of the imperial throne to symbolize that the emperor, protected by these animals, was a virtuous and intelligent ruler. In this function a pair of cloisonné enamel incense burners of this form can be seen in situ in a photograph of the throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony illustrated in Palaces of the Forbidden City, Hong Kong, 1986, pp. 66-7.
Ludan-form censers are seen as early as late Ming/early Qing. For a cloisonné example of Wanli date (36.5 cm. high) see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 43 - Metal-bodied and Enamel Ware, Beijing, 2002, p. 57, no. 55. A small bronze example dated late Ming/early Qing is illustrated in Selected Pieces from the Collections of the ROC Society of Art Collectors, Singapore, 1989, p. 209, no. 208. These examples share with later examples, whether made in bronze, jade or cloisonné, the same full round body, stiff legs, open mouth raised as if roaring and a single horn, as well as flames rising from the haunches. Of the illustrated examples, most are of smaller size, such as the pair (14.4 in. high) raised on cloisonné stands in the Shenyang Palace Museum, included in the exhibition, Imperial Tombs of China, Museum of Art, Brigham Young University, 1995, p. 145. Rather than scales the Shenyang Palace ludan are decorated with flowers. One of another pair of ludan from the Shenyang Palace Museum, this time with scaly body but in gilt-bronze inlaid with turquoise (17 in. high) is illustrated by R.L. Thorpe, Son of Heaven: Imperial Arts of China, Seattle, 1988, pp. 40-1, nos. 33 and 34. None of the published examples appear to be as large as the present pair.