This exquisite little Songhua stone ink palette is not only exceptionally finely carved, but also bears decoration with a wealth of auspicious symbolism and compliments to the emperor. On the interior of the palette a dragon is shown rising from the waves. This is a very appropriate symbol for the emperor. The five-clawed dragon was the imperial symbol, and indeed the emperor was often referred to in terms of a dragon - for example his face would be referred to as 'the dragon's face.' The emperor was also seen as the link between the earth and Heaven and was responsible for the welfare of the empire. An important annual imperial ritual conducted in the third lunar month in the grounds of the Xiannongtan (the Temple and Altar of Agriculture, dedicated to Shen Nong, who is regarded as China's first farmer) required the emperor to personally plough three furrows and to witness princes and high officials ploughing further furrows in order to ensure a bountiful harvest. The Qianlong Emperor is depicted performing this ceremony in an engraving of 1783-88 by Isidore Stanislas Helman, executed from a painting belonging to the French minister Henri-Leonard Bertin, illustrated in From Beijing to Versailles - Artistic Relations between China and France, Hong Kong, 1997, pp. 248-9, no. 95. The dragon inside the current ink palette is also depicted preparing to ensure a bountiful harvest. It is shown rising from winter hibernation among the waves at the spring equinox in order to bring the rain necessary to water the crops.
While the symbolism of the interior of the ink palette refers to Spring, the symbolism of the decoration on the upper surface of the cover refers to Autumn. The main feature of this decoration is two rabbits or hares which are depicted in very lifelike poses. The color of the natural stone has been skilfully used to ensure that the foremost rabbit, and part of the second rabbit is white. According to Daoist legend, a jade-white rabbit or hare lives on the moon, grinding the elixir of immortality with a pestle and mortar. The elixir was believed to have been stolen from her husband, the archer Yi, by Lady Chang E, who fled with it to the moon. However, a Buddhist story provides another explanation of how the rabbit came to live on the moon. The Buddha arrived in a forest, exhausted and hungry after many days of traveling. All the animals came to him bringing the foods that they usually gathered for themselves. The rabbit intended to bring fresh green grass and leaves, but when he found them, he ate them himself. The rabbit was consumed by guilt and going to the Buddha admitted his folly and offered that the Buddha could eat him instead. The Buddha was so touched by this gesture that he bestowed upon the rabbit the gift of eternal life on the moon. Rabbits are therefore associated with long life.
A painting by the court artist Leng Mei (active 1696-1745) preserved in the Palace Museum, Beijing, depicts two white rabbits in very similar poses to those on the current ink palette illustrated by Zhang Hongxing in The Qianlong Emperor - Treasures from the Forbidden City, Edinburgh, 2002, p. 117, no. 61. As on the current ink palette, in the Leng Mei painting the rabbits are shown with chrysanthemums, the flowers of Autumn, since both are associated with the Mid-Autumn Festival, which takes place on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month. Both the painting and ink palette also include rocks, which are symbols of longevity, but while the painting shows the rabbits with a wutong tree and blossoming osmanthus, also associated with the rabbit's existence on the moon, the ink palette has bamboo. The bamboo was undoubtedly chosen as a compliment to the emperor, since it symbolizes moral integrity, and is often particularly applied to the scholar, who may bend with the wind of adversity but who will never allow his principles to be broken.