A pair of pale green jade 'sage' plaques mounted as table screens 18th/19th century
Lot 1*
A pair of pale green jade 'sage' plaques mounted as table screens
18th/19th century
£10,000 - 15,000
US$ 17,000 - 25,000
Auction Details
A pair of pale green jade 'sage' plaques mounted as table screens 18th/19th century A pair of pale green jade 'sage' plaques mounted as table screens 18th/19th century
Lot Details
The Property of a Gentleman 紳士收藏
A pair of pale green jade 'sage' plaques mounted as table screens
18th/19th century
The plain wood screens each embellished with a pale green jade plaque carved as a pair of animated smiling sages engaged in humorous conversation, one pair with both figures pointing at a ripe peach held in the left hand of one sage pulling at his beard, the other pair clutching onto a single staff, the smaller bent over and looking up at the taller scholar.
Both jades approx. 11cm (4¼in) high (2).

Footnotes

  • Provenance: Spink & Son Ltd., London, 5 April 1979

    十八/十九世紀 木嵌青玉雕人物圖插屏一對

    來源: 於1979年4月5日購自倫敦Spink & Son Ltd.

    The group of elderly scholars finely carved as two pairs, with one sage holding a peach, may represent the wish for longevity associated with the peach of immortality and the God of Longevity, Shoulao.


    In Pursuit of Excellence: an English Private Collection of Fine Jade Carvings

    Carol Michaelson

    It is with great pleasure that I remember my visit to see this collection of jades many years ago. It was a very cold, December evening, and having driven through roads of stately looking houses, many front gardens of which were adorned with brightly coloured Christmas lights, Santas and reindeer, it was a great pleasure to be welcomed into the gracious home of the collector (who wishes to keep his identity anonymous), and to sit down, handle and talk jades.

    The jades have been lovingly collected over the years from various dealers such as Spink & Son, Ralph M.Chait, Rare Art and Roger Keverne. So many are worthy of comment but I will focus on those that particularly remain in my memory from that visit long ago.

    Two of the jades which I particularly remember were the yi and the jade screen. This beautifully worked and lustrous jade yi, or pouring vessel, has an inscription suggesting it was made by Lü Zigang of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD), a master jade craftsman who lived in Suzhou. Lü's name was traditionally inscribed on many later pieces, however, particularly in the Qing Dynasty, to show the artisan's reverence for the past jade master craftsman. Many Imperial jades bear his name, though many such inscriptions were also of a later period, but are there to indicate the quality of the jade workmanship.

    The base of the yi is skilfully worked with dragons, (which often depict an Imperial connection, as a dragon represented the Emperor), and wonderfully delineated foaming waves. Such a pouring vessel would have been the prized possession of an important scholar or top official who would have used it with pride as one of the essential components of the Four Treasures of the Scholar's table.

    This scholar or top official, indeed, possibly a member of the Imperial Court, might well also have appreciated the next jade I have selected to talk about: the jade screen. The Confucian gentleman was supposed to be an adept at calligraphy, in the writing and appreciation of poetry, in playing the qin, a stringed instrument, archery and other such skills. Even today an appreciation of calligraphy and the ability to write characters well, and in certain approved, historical styles, is something that still has a lot of resonance in China. Here the scholar is seen reading a book, accompanied by two attendants. The poem on the reverse, written by Imperial command, suggests the screen may well have been in the possession of someone at the Imperial Court, either the Emperor himself or someone on whom he bestowed it, because of its depiction of someone studying the Classics and the cautionary reminder to stay true to oneself. A thorough knowledge of the classics was an essential for anyone aspiring to enter the Civil Service, since the exams were based on them, and for any scholar, or literati, they were an essential reference. The Qianlong emperor, who reigned for much of the eighteenth century, was, like his forebears, a Manchu and not a native Chinese. But he was determined to outdo the Chinese native scholars by his erudition, made a thorough study of the Chinese classics and practised his Chinese calligraphy religiously and he became an adept at both.

    While the Qianlong emperor might not have been renowned for being a calligrapher of the highest level though, Zhao Bingchong, an 18th century artist, certainly was. Here his inscription could very well be referring to the Emperor's discipline in practising the art of calligraphy and also to his study of the Classics themselves. The table screen would therefore have served as an "aide memoire", to constantly remind the scholar who owned it, whether it was the Emperor himself or one of his courtiers, that he should not only think of the quality of his calligraphy but also remind himself of the importance and relevance of scholarly learning to life in general.

    The Chinese words Ruyi means "as you wish" and a ruyi sceptre is seen as a talisman presented to bestow good fortune. Its meaning expressing the desire to be fulfilled, belongs to the person to whom the ruyi is given as a gift. Thus it became a symbol of good luck for the receiver and many were bestowed as gifts. Its shape and symbolism developed over a long period of time and it was first associated with Buddhism and then, later, Daoism. In China early Buddhist deities were often shown holding simple back scratchers which are considered to be the progenitor of the later sceptres. By the Tang period these functional items, which often terminated in small cupped hands, had become ornamental and auspicious. However, Buddhism was persecuted as a religion during the Tang Dynasty and its popularity suffered greatly and, gradually, the shape of the ruyi sceptre changed. It was adopted by Daoists and the top became a longevity fungus (lingzhi) suited to its use as a secular good luck charm.

    The more formal ruyi , as this one must be, clearly show two arcs and three medallions along its length: the head, the raised centre, and the foot. The head is generally circular or lobate, as here, slightly larger than the handle, which is always flat and rarely round, characterised by a slight arched curvature in the middle. The outspreading mushroom head symbolises the flow of the Dao, like rising smoke and waves. The lingzhi, or spirit mushroom, is a favourite Chinese motif because of its medicinal or hallucinatory qualities, thought to ensure immortality.

    During the Qing Dynasty, the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1723-35) revived the ruyi's auspicious tradition by commissioning examples in various materials. He is often depicted in paintings holding a sceptre and in his own Imperial collection there were sceptres of jade, wood, some inlaid with gems, and of gold filigree, set with precious jewels. When the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95) officially called upon courtiers to present ruyi sceptres on Imperial birthdays and New Year celebrations, their number and opulence increased and as their only function now was to serve as auspicious objects, the artisans' imaginations were allowed free rein. The Eight Immortals featured very frequently on them.

    It became customary during the Qing Dynasty to present these sceptres to emperors and empresses on their birthdays and other auspicious occasions, such as betrothals and weddings. Lord McCartney, who visited the Chinese court in 1793, was given one (which is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London). To show how popular these items became during the Qing Dynasty, He Shen, the notoriously corrupt Qing Dynasty official owned 1,200 jade ruyi, quite apart from ruyi of other materials, at the time he was arraigned.

    During the eighteenth century, ruyi were made in many media: jade, gold and silver, carved in precious and semiprecious stones as well as made of wood. Although the sceptres were themselves auspicious objects, the Chinese further embellished them with the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism and with the motifs of blessings, featuring bats; longevity, featuring peaches or the attributes of the Eight Immortals; and conjugal bliss, featuring the character for double happiness. On this ruyi the Daoist iconography is given free rein and each of the Eight Immortals is featured as well as Shoulao, the God of Longevity, and Xiwangmu, Queen Mother of the West.

    The jade of the ruyi is particularly fine and the decoration on it suggests that the sceptre belonged to an important official, either having been made for him or given to him as a gift with the wish for long life suggested by the iconography of the Immortals on it.


    The goose box is a beautifully crafted piece of jade. This is both a decorative and utilitarian object, very similar in style to the famous box in the Victoria and Albert Museum and, like it, carved in careful detail, including the webbed feet of the geese and the tendrils of the aquatic plants.

    The Chinese goose, like the mandarin duck, (although this is not apparently true of their European counterparts,) mates for life and is thus a motif associated with weddings and the goose also decorated the rank badge of civil officials of the third grade. As the harbinger of good news it was also used as the emblem of the Chinese postal flag as supposedly a goose was used, rather like pigeons were used in the West, to transport messages. The Book of Rites contains a passage mentioning wild geese coming as guests in the autumn and this led to geese becoming a symbol of longevity.

    To me, one of the most fascinating iconographically was the boulder depicting the relatively rare portrayal of a lion hunt. There are three hunters, three lions and one tiger and a distant sage contemplating the scene.

    From antiquity to the 19th century the royal hunt was a vital component of the political cultures of the Middle East, Central Asia, India and China. Besides marking élite status, royal hunts had another function: as inspections tours and Imperial progresses, a means of asserting royal authority over the countryside. The hunt was in a way the "exterior" facade of the court, an occasion for the display of majesty, the entertainment of guests, and the bestowal of favour on subjects.

    In the conduct of international diplomacy, great hunts were used to train armies, show the flag, and send diplomatic signals. Wars which might have begun as hunts might well have ended as celebratory chases. The royal hunt was subject to the same strict discipline as that applied in war and was often a source of innovation in military organisation and tactics, as well as being understood as a kind of covert military training.

    Lions originally came to China as tribute animals from the Western Regions. In the Near East they served as the symbols for royalty. In India they were the protectors of Hindu gods, and later protectors also of Buddhism. Lions enter China first probably during the Warring States period, (475– 221 BC), as artistic representations, usually figurines based on West Asian prototypes. These representations soon became fairly common in tombs and temples, where they served as guardians or auspicious spirits. The first living lions came to China in the early centuries of the CE via the Silk Road during the Six Dynasties period, (220-581 AD) and were associated with the historical Buddha and Buddhism. Persia exported lions to the Northern Wei, (386-534 AD). In the Tang period (618-906 AD) the lion became an awesome beast of supernatural powers and appeared as a powerful tomb guardian. India exported lions to the Song Dynasty (906-1279 AD). The Mongolian rulers of China, (1279-1368) received lions and tigers from their ally the Mongolian court of Iran. The Ming (1368-1644) also received lions as tribute presents from the Western regions, principally Samarqand, and through commercial channels.

    Lions are very popular animal motifs in Chinese art. Because they are powerful beasts, statues of lions guarded official entrances. The lion also served as a pun for two high ranks in ancient China and lions have generally been considered one of the most auspicious animals in China. As a motif in art, lions performed an interesting metamorphosis. The awesome guardian lions of stone or bronze were of a demon-scaring grandeur; gradually over the millennia lions came to be depicted as quite playful, particularly in the final two Imperial Dynasties, the Ming and the Qing.

    Royal lion hunting can be seen to have begun in the ancient Near East, with its staged combats and demonstrations of the king's ability to constrain wild nature. (Such hunts are superbly illustrated in the British Museum's Assyrian lion hunt reliefs). Historically royal hunters often protected specific species from molestation, except of course from themselves. In the Liao Dynasty (915-1125 AD), only the emperor could shoot stags with antlers. And in Mesopotamia, Yuan China and Mughal India, only the emperor was permitted to hunt lions; they were the sole prerogative of the ruler.

    The lion in China therefore had from the beginning great symbolic power. The two large guardian lions standing in front of the tomb of the famous empress Wu ( r. 683 – 705), might be read in different ways. For some they symbolise the power and majesty of the Buddha but they could also be read as a successful assertion of the ruler's domination over nature. Again the point is that lions were regarded as symbols, whether in the flesh or in statue form, representing physical and spiritual power.

    The Confucian ideal of kinghood was that of a sage ruler and one way of reading the imagery on this boulder is to see the sage looking on the scene as that sage ruler engaged in his temporal rule. The beautiful white, highly polished jade is skilfully carved with the figures of the animals and the riders, a testimony to the jade worker's ability to visualise what he can make of a piece of jade. The hunter on horseback and the hunters on foot might well be the people who goaded the lion into a corner to enable the sage ruler to be the one to kill him, as in Ancient Near Eastern traditions. The lions themselves are not particularly fierce looking, because, as explained above, the original fierceness of earlier times gradually transmogrified into a more playful representation over time; definitely by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) this was quite marked.

    So this one jade has many associations, showing the importance of the royal hunt in itself and its importance in both élite and royal life, and the hunting of lions was a means of showing that the ruler had control over all he ruled. Therefore, one can postulate that this jade might well have had an Imperial association.

    This collection has a wide range of jades within it and I have only written about a small selection but they have all been lovingly collected and treasured and now there are opportunities for other people to take on this charge.
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