A pale green jade carving of three sheep with an Imperial inscription The jade Ming dynasty, with inscription from the Qianlong period
Lot 140
A pale green jade carving of three sheep with an Imperial inscription
The jade Ming dynasty, with inscription from the Qianlong period
Sold for £43,250 (US$ 71,697) inc. premium
Auction Details
A pale green jade carving of three sheep with an Imperial inscription The jade Ming dynasty, with inscription from the Qianlong period
Lot Details
A pale green jade carving of three sheep with an Imperial inscription
The jade Ming dynasty, with inscription from the Qianlong period
The jade carved with a simple scene of two recumbent rams resting on a rocky ledge beside one standing ram looking up at a branch of pine issuing from a steep mountainside, the reverse with a detailed inscription. 6.3cm (2½in) long

Footnotes

  • Provenance: the Collection of Lord and Lady Cunliffe and thence by descent

    明 青玉雕三羊開泰擺件 (題款 清乾隆時期)

    來源:康裏弗勛爵及夫人收藏,並由家族繼承下去

    Although the carving of this jade appears very simple at first glance, deeper meanings and fascinating associations soon emerge. The image of the sheep or goat, 羊 yang, appeared as early as the Han dynasty as a pun for 祥 xiang meaning auspicious or lucky. By the Qing period, the image of sheep had become heavily associated with 陽 yang, meaning the sun, and the warm, positive or masculine force in Chinese cosmology.

    The sheep imagery then developed into three sheep, 三羊 sanyang, often with three boys 三陽 sanyang, as a reference to the favourable arrival of spring, since the phrase 三陽開泰 sanyang kai tai, refers to the period between the winter solstice and the New Year. This was the period when the warm yang energy is emergent, as detailed in the ancient Chinese classic the Yijing, or Book of Changes. These intricate puns make the connection with the 18th century calligraphy inscribed on the back of the plaque, which is an exegesis on the auspicious meanings of the Book of Changes.

    Interestingly, the same inscription is found on a painting of three sheep attributed to the Qianlong Emperor himself in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, illustrated in Chinese Paintings in the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1981, p.315. Not only does this suggest a strong Imperial association, but also provides a possible inspiration for the Qianlong Emperor to write out such meticulous and elegant calligraphy to adorn the humble jade, since the painting from the Palace Museum was itself inspired by a painting attributed to the Xuande Emperor. In both the painting and the present jade piece, the Qianlong Emperor was therefore paying homage to previous Ming interpretations of the 'three rams' motif.

    The intriguing and personal nature of the piece also suggests that it may have been included in a 'curio' box, intricate boxes designed to house little treasures of jade, porcelain, cloisonné and other material favoured at the Qianlong court: see, for example, a curio box dated to the Qianlong period illustrated in Splendors of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2010, p.118-9.
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