Imperial Archaism and Harmony
A Magnificent and Rare Jade Washer with Paired Fish
and Dated Qianlong Inscription
This exceptional imperial washer is of fine pale celadon-green jade and bears a four-character
Qianlong mark on its base, encircled by a forty-character imperial poem. At the end of the poem is a date - autumn in the bingwu year of the Qianlong reign – equivalent to AD 1786. The poem reads:
Shuang yu tong Han shi, yuan xi yi Zhou jin, zhu shui se ru yi, fei tong wei bu qin, kan xin jian huan gu, fu zhi ri qu jin, she zhan Xi Jing dui, ying zhi jun zi xin.
This may be translated as:
“The pair of fish are in Han dynasty style,
The round washer differs from Zhou-dynasty bronzes.
Its colour is that of the stored water,
But not being metal it does not affect the taste.
Gradually returning to antiquity,
There is no need to hasten towards modernity.
If one were to open the Book of Changes,
One could understand the heart of a superior man.”
Qianlong bing wu run qiu yu ti (???????? ‘Imperially inscribed in the autumn of the bingwu cyclical year’ 
Two square seals follow the inscription – one has the characters in gold on the pale jade ground and the other, in reverse, has the characters reserved against a gilt ground. The seals may be read as: “Son of Heaven at Seventy” (guxi tianzi (????) and “Still Diligent Every Day” (youri zizi ????). The Qianlong emperor had some 42 seals reading ‘Son of Heaven at Seventy’, and 24 reading ‘Still Diligent Every Day’. It is therefore not surprising to see these seals reproduced on a favored jade washer. The reign mark, the poem, the date and the seals on this washer are all carved and gilt on the base of the vessel. The text of the imperial poem is recorded in Complete Collection of the Imperial Poems of the Qing Emperor Gaozong (Qianlong) (Qing Gaozong (Qianlong) yuzhi shiwen quanji), Beijing, 1993, vol. 8, p. 713 ??? (??) ??????, ??, 1993?, ???, ?713, where it is entitled: “A Khotan Jade Twin-Fish Washer” (Ti hetian yu shuangyu xi ???????). (Fig. 1)
This washer is the largest of three known Qianlong jade washers of this form with two archaic-style fish carved on the interior. A small example (13.2 cm. diam.), apparently without an inscription, is in the Baur Collection, Geneva (see Pierre-F. Schneeberger, The Baur Collection – Chinese Jades and Other Hardstones, Geneva, 1976, no. B10); a somewhat larger, unpublished example is in a British private collection (17.8 cm. diam.); while the current example is the largest with a diameter of 25.5 cm. Like the present example, the washer in the private collection has low, neatly carved feet, but while the current vessel has five feet, this slightly smaller washer has four feet. The washer in the private collection also has the same imperial inscription and cyclical date.
The fish carved on these washers have been deliberately rendered in archaistic style, with the two fish carved side by side in high relief, and slightly under-cut, in a more formal style than is commonly seen on other jade pieces. As the inscription suggests, vessels with this type of twin-fish design are well-known in bronze from the Han dynasty, and there were a number of these bronze examples in Qianlong’s own collection. The Xiqing gujian ???? illustrated six bronze washers with paired fish dated to the Han dynasty (see Xiqing gujian – Qinding siku quanshu ???? ??????, Shanghai, vol. 2, 2003, pp. 692-95). (Fig. 2) The Xiqing gujian is a 40-volume illustrated catalogue of ancient bronzes commissioned by the Qianlong emperor. It was compiled between 1749 and 1755 by Liang Shizheng (???1697-1763), Yu Minzhong (???1714-1778) and Jiang Pu (??1708-1761) and includes some 1529 bronze objects from the imperial collection. The images in this catalogue exerted considerable influence on the form of jades commissioned by the Qianlong emperor.
An extant Han-dynasty bronze basin with similar twin-fish decoration on its interior is in the Lee Kong Chian Art Museum, Singapore (see National University of Singapore, Lee Kong Chian Art Museum, Singapore, 1990, p. 306, no. 336). On this bronze vessel there is an additional short auspicious inscription, which appears between the fish. Like the jade washers, the bronze vessels depict both fish facing in the same direction – not head to tail as was often the case on other vessels. Bronze basins with similar fish apparently linked by a line – possibly to suggest a cord that would facilitate carrying them - have been found in tombs in Anhui and Jiangsu, dated AD 245 and 295 respectively (see Kaogu, No. 3, 1978, p. 155, fig. 3, and Kaogu, No. 11, 1984, pl. 3, fig. 6). Another similar bronze basin, now in the Liaoning Museum, with a design of a bird and a fish, rather than two fish, but in similar style (see Liaoningsheng bowuguan, Wenwu chubanshe, 1983, pls. 28 and 29), has an inscription dated to first year of the Yongxing period of the Eastern Han dynasty [AD 153].
This formal twin-fish motif was also applied to early ceramics. There is a small number of early Yue-ware basins, which were clearly inspired by the bronze vessels with paired fish. One of these is the Western Jin dynasty (late 3rd-early 4th century) basin in the collection of Sir Percival David (see Rosemary Scott, Percival David Foundation – A Guide to the Collection, London, 1989, p. 33, pl. 13). On the David Collection basin, the fish are joined at the mouth with an incised undulating line. There is another early Yue ware basin from the Ingram Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (see Mary Tregear, Catalogue of Chinese Greenware, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1976, no. 13), which has similar formal paired fish on the interior, but the fish on this basin are not joined by a line. Fish also occasionally appear on Western Han-dynasty cold-painted vessels, such as the 1st century dish preserved in the Yamato Bunkakan Museum, Nara (see Special Exhibition - Jixiang –Auspicious Motifs in Chinese Art, Tokyo National Museum, 1998, p. 66, no. 42).
The choice of fish as the motif to decorate the current imperial jade washer would not simply have been a reference to ancient vessels, but also to the meaning behind the depiction of fish. A source for the link between fish and harmony can be found in philosophical Daoism, specifically in the Zhuangzi ??, attributed to Zhuangzi, or ‘Master Zhuang’ (369-298 BC), who, after Laozi, was one of the earliest philosophers of what has become known as Daojia ??, or the "School of the Way". Among other things, Zhuangzi consistently uses fish to exemplify creatures who achieve happiness by being in harmony with their environments. As part of a much more complex discussion in chapter seventeen (Qiu shui?? “The Floods of Autumn”), Zhuangzi, who is crossing a bridge over the Hao river with Huizi, notes: “See how the small fish are darting about [in the water]. That is the happiness of fish.” In chapter six (Dazongshi ???”Great Ancestral Master”), Zhuangzi recounts Confucius’ comments to illustrate Daoist attitudes. Confucius said: “Fish are born in water. Man is born in the Dao. If fish, born in water, seek the deep shadows of the pond or pool then they have everything they need. If man, born in the Dao, sinks deep into the shadows of non-action, forgetting aggression and worldly concern, then he has everything he needs, and his life is secure. The moral of this is that all fish need is to lose themselves in water, while all man needs is to lose himself in the Dao.” It is therefore not surprising that the depiction of fish in water came to provide a rebus for yushui hexie ???? “may you be as harmonious as fish and water”. When the fish in the bottom of the present jade washer were covered with water they would perfectly represent this wish for harmony.
The Qianlong emperor’s great love of jade combined with his passion for antiques resulted in his commissioning significant numbers of archaistic jade items for his court, a number of which were inscribed with the characters Qianlong fanggu ???? – “Qianlong copying the ancient." In the case of the present jade washer, the emperor’s intentions are made quite clear from the inscription that he commanded to be applied to the base of the vessel. Of all the Ming and Qing emperors, Gaozong (the Qianlong emperor) was perhaps the most fervent collector and patron of jade carving. In the early part of his reign the emperor was frequently dissatisfied with the work of the lapidaries producing carved jades for the court and encouraged the craftsmen to achieve higher standards of perfection. One of the problems for the jade carvers in the early years of the reign was the lack of suitable jade, and it was only in the 1750s, after the punitive battles against the Dzungar tribes and Hui people, that the Xinjiang area was captured for the Chinese empire and Khotan jade was sent to the court as tribute each spring and autumn. With this newly available source of fine, raw jade, the lapidaries in the palace workshops could produce carved jade pieces of the exemplary standard sought by the emperor. Clearly, the present jade washer met the extremely high imperial expectations and was deemed a fitting vessel on which to inscribe a poem from the imperial brush and two of his imperial majesty’s favorite seals.
Senior International Academic Consultant, Asian Art