There appears to be only one closely comparable vase of this type published. For a Qianlong baluster vase with a central design of numerous magpies amid prunus and nandina, and a turquoise-ground floral scroll decorated neck, refer to Sekai toji zenshu, Tokyo, 1983, vol. 15, p. 180, no. 223.
A likely source of inspiration for this 'one hundred birds' motif was the Ming dynasty court painting by Bian Wenjin, The Three Friends of Winter and One Hundred Birds, dated 1413, and illustrated by R. Barnhart in Possessing the Past, Fong and Watt eds., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1996, p. 340, pl. 165. A prized possession of the Qianlong emperor, as testified by his numerous seals, this painting would have been available to artists working at the imperial workshops (Zaoban Chu) in the Forbidden City. Bian, one of the early Ming masters of flower-and-bird paintings, used the 'three friends', bamboo, pine and prunus as the symbols of integrity, loyalty and friendship, growing out of a rock that provided a shelter for the 'one hundred birds'. According to Barnhart, the artist uses a 'variety of birds of all colors, sizes, and shapes that function also as metaphors of human society. In this metaphor sparrows are the common people, and the more colorful, larger birds suggest the aristocracy.'
In the present example, two of the 'three friends', the pine and prunus, form a perch for the 'hundred birds', while the stream and pond offer additional resources for the birds. The rockwork on the vase, on which some of the larger, more flamboyant birds are perched, is realized in a painterly way with very fine brushstrokes. The pairs of birds include the male and female phoenix, probably symbolizing the emperor and empress, as well as the wide variety listed above, representing the social spectrum. A further reference to the social hierarchy may also be seen in a comparison to Qing rank badges. Many of them use birds - such as the crane, peacock, golden pheasant, silver pheasant, egret, quail and mandarin duck - to distinguish the different civil ranks.
In addition to the overall symbolism of the vase, where the natural world functions as a metaphor for human society and life, many of the birds depicted carry their own symbolism in the Chinese decorative arts. Cranes, for example, are a commonly employed motif for longevity, particularly in association with pine; mandarin ducks are symbolic of marital fidelity. In addition, rebuses are included, such as that of the magpie and prunus (xi zai mei shao), a homonym for 'happiness up to one's eyebrows' while a pair of quail (shuang an) represents harmony.