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THE IMPERIAL JADE MARRIAGE BOWL
This beautiful white jade 'marriage' bowl is notable both for the quality of the jade itself and for its fine carving. The handles are quite generously proportioned compared to the bowl's diameter, possibly indicating on the part of the lapidary a reluctance to waste any more of this flawless white jade than was absolutely necessary. This idea is reinforced by the bowl having three loose rings attached to each handle, rather than the normal single ring. Jade of this quality became available once more to the imperial jade lapidaries working for the court of the Qianlong emperor after 1760, when high quality jade began to reach Beijing from the western provinces. The arrival of fine jade occasioned an expansion of jade carving in the palace workshops, with the Qianlong emperor taking a keen personal interest in the design of the pieces made, and the quality of the craftsmanship.
Although bowls of this kind are known as 'marriage' bowls, it may be that they were sometimes intended simply to reflect the wealth and status of their owners. In discussion of Ming dynasty twin-handled cups, the jade scholar Ming Wilson has suggested that they were indeed 'portable wealth akin to gold ingots.' (Ming Wilson, Chinese Jades, V&A Publications, London, 2004, p. 42). Ms. Wilson refers to the inventory of the precious items confiscated from the corrupt minister Yan Song (1480-1565), which contained 857 jade vessels, 311 of which were jade cups, many with elaborate handles. She makes the point that the large number of such pieces in the possession of a very powerful minister suggests that they were of great value and may have been given as gifts in lieu of precious metals.
The iconography of this bowl has been chosen with care to provide auspicious messages. Each of the feet on the bowl has a descending bat carved above it. In Chinese bats, which are pronounced fu, provide a homophone for blessings or happiness. The bats are depicted upside-down, and the Chinese word for upside-down dao is pronounced the same as the word for arrive. Thus, upside-down bats provide a rebus for happiness arriving. On the top of each handle is a butterfly, symbolising blessings, happiness, wealth and longevity. The term for butterfly is hudie in Chinese. Hu is pronounced fu in some Chinese dialects and thus provides a homophone for two words with that pronunciation - one meaning blessings and one meaning riches. Die is a homophone for a word meaning 'age of seventy to eighty', and thus stands for longevity, and also sounds like a word meaning duplicate, accumulate or pile up. When two butterflies face each other, as they do on the handles of this bowl, they suggest a 'joyful encounter', but also symbolize marital happiness.
The flowers which are carved on either side of the butterflies on the handles of the bowl seem, by virtue of what appear to be the extended pistil and stamens in the centre of the flower, to be hibiscus blossoms. Hibiscus are called mufurong in Chinese and therefore provide a rebus both for fu meaning wealth, and rong meaning glory The lozenges that have been carved around the sides of the bowl are fangsheng or caisheng in Chinese and provide a rebus for victory. Lozenges are therefore regarded as symbolising victory over evil. The motifs on this jade bowl thus provide many auspicious wishes, which would be entirely appropriate for its use as a 'marriage' bowl, while the beauty of the jade and the fine quality of the carving would have made it a precious and valuable gift.