This beautifully made imperial bronze tripod vessel is exceptionally well cast and has a particularly fine six-character Yongzheng mark on the base. The latter is subtly high-lighted by the delicate gold speckling on the surrounding areas.
At first sight this vessel would appear to be a censer, but informal imperial portraits of the Yongzheng and Qianlong reigns suggest an additional function for bronze tripods of this form. On one leaf of a sixteen-leaf album of Life Portraits of Emperor Yongzheng, painted in color on silk and now in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, the Yongzheng Emperor is depicted seated in an armchair reading, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 14 - Paintings by Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, p. 110, no. 16.15. He is completely at leisure and there is a display cabinet of artistic treasures behind him. Even more interesting in the current context, the emperor is shown resting his feet on the rim flange of a low 'censer'. The fact that the emperor wears a fur-lined outer robe suggests that the scene is set in winter, and the emperor is availing himself of the heat from the 'censer' to warm his feet. Indeed, careful examination of the painting reveals that instead of a few incense sticks on sand, the 'censer' appears to contain a generous, hill-shaped stack of charcoal, which would have given off a significant amount of heat.
The Qianlong Emperor is shown resting his feet on a bronze tripod of identical form to the current vessel in another court painting preserved in the Palace Museum - this one by the famous Giuseppe Castiglione (Lang Shining) and others, entitled Emperor Qianlong Enjoying Himself in Snowy Weather, illustrated op. cit., p. 152, no. 30. (Fig.1) Once again the weather is cold and the emperor warms his feet with the heat of the 'censer' as he watches the royal princes playing in the snow. The stack of charcoal is smaller than in the 'censer' in the Yongzheng painting, but is shown being tended by a crouching young man, who may be one of the princes. This bronze vessel in this painting is so similar to the current tripod that one is tempted to think that Qianlong may have inherited it from his father.
The question therefore arises: is this vessel a censer or a brazier? The answer is that is could be used as either. As a censer in the imperial chambers it could have held burning incense to perfume the room. However, in winter it could fulfill the dual purpose of a brazier to warm the room, especially the feet of an imperial inhabitant. Braziers usually had covers of some sort, most probably to reduce the risk of fire. However, the lower section of covered braziers tended to be of similar form to shallow censers. This can be seen from a pair of Qianlong cloisonné braziers in the Forbidden City, Beijing, which are illustrated in Splendors of China's Forbidden City, Chicago, 2004, p. 49, pl. 38. Although somewhat larger, the base sections of these cloisonn/ae braziers are of similar shape and proportions to the current vessel - a shallow cylindrical body supported on three low feet and with a wide horizontal flange around the rim. They, however, have mesh covers to prevent any burning embers from falling out. No doubt court servants were responsible for ensuring that no embers or sparks escaped from the open vessel at which the emperor warmed his feet. Even more pertinent to the current discussion is a gilt-bronze tripod vessel preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, which appears to be almost identical to the current vessel, illustrated in Palaces of the Forbidden City, London/New York, 1984, p. 298, no. 446. The palace brazier, however, has a mesh cover with gilt finial.
During the cold Beijing winters parts of the Forbidden City were heated by means of heating pits built under the corridors of specific buildings, and palaces with this kind of heating were known as nuan ge, 'heated halls'. There were also heated kang. However, for the most part, heating was provided by braziers, which could be moved around to wherever they were needed. The number of braziers was regulated, although more were permitted to be brought in if the temperature dropped below a certain level. In 1723, for example, during the imperial examinations, the Yongzheng Emperor ordered that more braziers should be put into the Hall of Supreme Harmony so that the candidates' brushes and ink did not freeze. Generally, the amount of charcoal and firewood each person was allowed for heating depended on their rank. In the 18th century the Empress Dowager was allowed 55 kg, while each of the emperor's grandsons was allowed only 5 kg.
In both the above-mentioned portraits, and several others, small bronze censers/braziers, like the current example, are shown being used by the Yongzheng and Qianlong Emperors to act as very personal heaters for their feet on cold winter days. If the vessels in these portraits ever had covers, they have been abandoned by their imperial owners in favor of greater access to warmth.