The inclusion of the character chen before the signature Yuan Shou Tong jing shu ('Respectfully written by Yuan Shou Tong') signifies that he was a court official, and some records indicate that Yuan may have been the Governor General of Zhili, now Hebei province.
Images of luohan or arhats probably originated in Kashmir, and were first mentioned in the Mahayanavataraka which was translated into Chinese in AD 437; their names were later identified by the early Tang pilgrim monk Xuanzang in AD 654. According to early texts, these divine beings are advanced disciples of the historical Buddha Sakyamuni who epitomize the ideals of self-discipline and meditation. Having reached the end of the Eight-Fold Path, they have postponed Nirvana in order to remain in the world to protect the Buddhist law until the coming of the future redeeming Buddha, Maitreya. They are Angaja, Ajita, Vanavasin, Kalika, Vajriputra, Bhadra, Kanakavatsa, Kanaka Bharadvaja, Bakula, Chudpantaka, Pindola Bharadvaja, Pantaka, Nagasena, Gopaka, Abheda and Dharmata. For a discussion of images of the luohan, see W. Ho and W. C. Fong, 'Some Buddhist Images', Possessing the Past: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1996, pp. 210-7.
As Buddhism was the state religion during the Qing dynasty, and became even more of a focus during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong, it is not unusual that books of this type would have been made. A collection of fifteen Qing jade books in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, which cover a wide range of interests, attests to this interest in jade books during the Qianlong period. A portion of one of these jade books composed of twelve jade tablets, and with four covers in bronze decorated with repoussé dragons, dated to the late 18th century, is illustrated by W. Watson in Chinese Jade Books in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, 1963, pls. 6, 7 and 8.
According to court records, jade books, including those depicting luohan and inscribed with the emperor's praise of them, became one of the frequent tribute offerings by high-ranking officials to the emperor. Several of these books are still in the Qing Court Collection. A similar gilt-painted jade book of the Sixteen Luohan was sold at Sotheby's, New York, 22 September 2004, lot 53, and another from the Cornelius J. Hauck Collection sold in these rooms, 27-28 June 2006, lot 19.