The yi was a water vessel that was often used in conjunction with a pan for the ritual washing of hands. It was a late Western Zhou adaptation of the gong and the he. A bronze example from the early Eastern Zhou Dynasty (8th/7th Century B.C.) was sold in our New York Rooms, 21 September 2000, lot 167.
Ancient bronzes were one of the first things to be collected by the Chinese rulers, and have proved the most enduring items to influence other media in later periods. The Qing dynasty emperors showed an equal passion for ancient bronzes and for ordering contemporary vessels made in ancient style, fanggu (copying the ancient).
See the white jade vessel yi, similar to the present lot and illustrated in the catalogue Chinese Jade, Spink, London 15th June - 30th June 1998, p.22, pl.24. Compare also with the rhinoceros horn yi vessel sold in these Rooms, 11 June 2008, lot 269.
Not only were the shapes copied from the ancient bronze models but also some of the typical patterns. Among these were the taotie masks, kui dragons, greek friezes and leiwen.
On the current piece the overall outlines of the archaic model were retained but the craftsman liberally interpreted original decorative motifs such as the spirals, the dragons and chilong. The carving is extremely detailed and refined and shows how these original designs were skilfully adapted to the 17th/18th style.