AUSPICIOUS VOICES: AN IMPERIAL WHITE JADE CONCH SHELL
ROSEMARY SCOTT- INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART DEPARTMENT
The late 17th and 18th century lapidary artists delighted in the natural world, and there are many examples of jade items made in the shape of animals, birds, flowers and leaves, fruit and even vegetables. The current exquisite white jade vessel in the shape of a conch shell is, however, very rare indeed.
The conch shell is an important symbol in both Hindu and Buddhist rituals. In Hindu ritual the conch shell is regarded either as Vishnu's trumpet, or as a libation vessel, and conch shells were given elaborate carved decoration in Northern India as early as the 11th century (see M. Lerner, The Flame and the Lotus, New York, 1984, no. 29). In China, however, the white conch shell is primarily associated with Buddhism and is seen as symbolising the Voice of the Buddha and the transmission of Buddhist teachings. Such shells are particularly associated with Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaism, which became popular in China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), and which was especially favoured by the early Ming emperors and, in turn, by the Qing emperors Kangxi (1662-1722) and Qianlong (1736-95). The Qing emperors, on the one hand appear to have been genuine devotees of Tibetan Buddhism, but, on the other hand, also saw it as a means of controlling some of the more troublesome groups on their western and northern borders.
Most of the military challenges to the Manchus traditionally came from Inner Asia, with the Mongols being particularly troublesome. Much of the Manchus' success came from military supremacy, but, in the late 17th and 18th centuries, diplomacy was also employed to achieve the same ends. This was cemented by marriages between Manchus and the Mongol tribes: indeed the Kangxi emperor's grandmother was a Mongol princess. The Manchus, like the Mongols converted to Tibetan Buddhism. In 1642 the Mongol leader Gui Khan had made the Fifth Dalai lama the secular as well as the religious ruler of Tibet. This power was expanded by the Fifth Dalai lama and his influence became such that he could act as peace-maker between Mongol tribes and could even order the movements of Mongol armies outside Tibet. The Qing court's relationships with the Mongols and Tibet were therefore inexorably intertwined, and remained so even after the Kangxi emperor's assumption of a protectorate over Tibet.
The Qing emperors portrayed themselves as Bodhisattva-rulers, reincarnations of Manjusri (the Bodhisattva of Wisdom). In doing so they united the Tibetan view of the ruler as a living incarnation of a god with the Chinese Manjusri cult associated with the sacred Wutaishan in Shanxi province. This latter mountain, Wutaishan, was important in creating the image that the Qing emperors wanted to project to the Mongols and Tibetans. The emperors were patrons of temples in the area, and the Kangxi emperor made five pilgrimages to Wutaishan. Significantly the first Mongol-language guidebook to Wutaishan, published in 1667, refers to the Kangxi emperor as the 'reincarnation of Manjusri, sublime lord, who makes the world prosper'. The effectiveness of this propoganda can be seen in the frequent use in Tibetan texts of the name Manjusri, when referring to the Qing emperor (see Evelyn Rawski, The Last Emperors - A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions, Berkeley, 1998, p. 261).
Although it is often said that the Qing dynasty emperors patronised Tibetan Buddhism simply for political reasons, this does not seem to have been the case with the Kangxi emperor. He was largely brought up by his grandmother, to whom he was devoted. As noted above, she was a Mongol princess, and was an adherent of Tibetan Buddhism. It is probably due to her influence that the Kangxi emperor was the first Qing emperor to demonstrate a personal religious commitment to Lamaism. The Kangxi emperor and his son and grandson, the Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors, built some thirty-two Tibetan Buddhist temples in the Beijing area alone.
The Qianlong Emperor went so far as to have several portraits painted of himself in the form of a thangka - a pictorial hanging used to promote meditation in Tibetan Buddhist worship. The thangkas depict the emperor in monk's robes, seated in the centre of the painting, and pre-eminent due not only to his central position, but also his size. Seven of these portraits are extant, of which five are preserved in Beijing, one in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, and the seventh in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. One of the Beijing thangkas was included in the exhibition The Qianlong Emperor - Treasures from the Forbidden City, Edinburgh, 2002, pp. 52-3, no. 17 (see fig. 1). In this portrait the emperor is identified as a manifestation of Manjusri. Before the thangka entered the collections of the Palace Museum, Beijing, it was housed in the Puning Monastery in Rehe. This Sino-Tibetan monastery was modelled after the Samye Monastery in Tibet. Both the Puning Monastery and the painting were commissioned to commemorate the Qing victory over the Western Mongols in Dzungaria in 1755, in order to suggest that the military campaign had a religious purpose. It is significant that, amongst the precious objects placed in front of the emperor, a white conch shell takes central place.
It seems to have been in the 18th century that the production of elaborately carved conch shells reached its peak. There are ten white conch shells in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, two of which are illustrated in Monarchy and Its Buddhist Way - Tibetan-Buddhist Ritual Implements in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1999, pp. 154-5, no. 65. A white conch shell, bestowed as an imperial gift by the Qianlong Emperor to the Dalai Lama, is preserved in the Potala Palace in Tibet. This conch was included in the exhibition Treasures from Snow Mountains - Gems of Tibetan Cultural Relics, Shanghai, 2001, no. 56 (see fig. 2).
From at least as early as the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906) conch shells were imitated in other materials. There are a number of Tang dynasty vessels in the shape of conch shells made in ceramic with a sancai (three-colour) glazes. An example from the Eumorfopoulos collection is illustrated by R. L. Hobson in The Eumorfopoulos Collection, volume I, London, 1925, pl. LIX, fig. 344 (see fig. 3). Another Tang dynasty sancai shell-shaped vessel from the Barlow Collection is illustrated by Michael Sullivan in Chinese Ceramics, Bronzes and Jades in the Collection of Sir Alan and Lady Barlow, London, 1963, pl. 21c. A fine Northern Song dynasty (AD 960-1127) conch shell has been excavated, which has a white Ding ware glaze. According to archaeologists, this Ding ware conch could be used as a musical instrument. It was excavated in 1969 from the underground foundation vault of the Jingzhisi Pagoda, at Gongyuan, Dingzhou City, Hebei province and is illustrated by Zhang Bai (ed.) in Complete Collection of Ceramic Art Unearthed in China - 3 - Hebei, Beijing, 2007, no. 99. This pagoda and its foundation deposits date to AD 977. At 19.3 cm. in length, this Ding ware conch is only slightly smaller than the current white jade example. The Shenyang Palace collection includes a naturalistically glazed ceramic conch shell from the Qianlong reign, which is illustrated in The Prime Cultural Relics Collected by Shenyang Imperial Palace - Chinaware Volume II, Shenyang, 2008, pp. 200-01, no. 10.
The elaborate decoration of real conch shells for ritual use appears to have become more prominent in the Qing dynasty, and, at the same time, rare examples of the conch form were made in other, more expensive, materials. For example, a metal conch shell with cloisonné enamel decoration, dating to the Qianlong reign, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong in May 2008, lot 1870. An 18th century conch shell carved from lapis lazuli is in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, and is illustrated in Monarchy and Its Buddhist Way - Tibetan-Buddhist Ritual Implements in the National Palace Museum, op. cit., 154-5, no. 65. A small 18th century conch shell vessel made of black and white jade was sold by Spinks prior to 1993. However, very few conch shell forms appear to have been made in jade. This is probably because fine jade, especially fine white jade which would have been the most desirable for the conch shell form, was a particularly precious material, and the form of the shell would have necessitated the cutting away of quite a significant amount of jade in order to achieve as satisfying a shape as is seen in the current vessel.
There was a shortage of good white jade in the late Ming and early Qing periods. The carving of as large a piece of white jade as was used for the current conch shell would have been a major undertaking in the early Qing period, and would suggest that the shell was made for a special occasion. After 1760, when the Kingdom of Yutian (modern-day Xinjiang province) was brought under Chinese influence, the fine raw jade boulders from that area were readily available to Chinese carvers. The region known as Khotan, now in Xinjiang province, is particularly famous for its fine nephrite jade and the beautiful, almost luminous, white jade. With these materials, and the encouragement of the emperor, the jade lapidaries of the Qianlong period were able to produce remarkable feats of carving.
The decoration subtly rendered in low relief on the current white jade conch shell was carefully chosen to be auspicious. The main decoration is comprised on the Eight Buddhist Emblems, of which the conch shell is one, which, as noted above, symbolises the Voice of the Buddha and the transmission of Buddhist teachings. The other Buddhist emblems are the wheel, often called the wheel of Dharma, or the wheel of law, symbolising knowledge; the lotus flower, which symbolises purity and enlightenment; the endless knot, symbolising harmony; the fish, symbolising both freedom and conjugal harmony; the banner, symbolising victory in battle; the precious vase, symbolising great treasure; and the parasol, symbolising both royalty and protection. In addition to these the jade shell also bears depictions of bats, which in the Chinese language provide a homophone for blessings or good fortune, and clouds, which provide a homophone for luck. This is not only a rare and beautiful object, but one which carries with it numerous religious and auspicious messages.
QING DYNASTY, 18TH CENTURY