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photographer New Owner.
Water, Pine and Stone Retreat. Qianlong  Large picture | Small picture
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 8 October 2009: Lot 1823 

the translucent white jade of cylindrical form polished with a slightly bevelled top and a rounded base, carved in low-relief with an eight character admonition in seal script; the bamboo veneer case with golden patination and russet skin carved on the top with formalized scrolls tied in a quatrefoil panel, the sides with two registers of repeated tied scrolls, the base similarly decorated, the top, base and sides of the interior pierced with four slots for straps (fitted box)

Ring: Gerry P. Mack Collection. Acquired in New York, 1995.
Case: Sotheby's Hong Kong, 27th October 1992, lot 244.

The present archer's thumb-ring, made of flawless white jade, is carved with a phrase that serves as a reminder of correct behaviour expected by the Emperor from his subjects.

The eight-character phrase can be translated as follows:
‘Divine Justice is the province of Heaven
All should accept this’

Archer's thumb-rings (she) have a history dating back to the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1100 BC) when they were generally made of bone or leather and were widely used to protect the thumb from the bow string when the arrow was discharged. One of the earliest excavated thumb-rings, incised with animal mask decoration, was found in Fu Hao's tomb in Henan province. Further early examples were found in Guo Ji's tomb, from the Western Zhou period (1100- 771 BC) also in Henan province near the Sanmen Gorge. By the Qing dynasty the function of thumb-rings changed from being purely a practical object to one that became prized as a decorative showpiece. White jade archer's thumb-rings, such as this piece, were especially valued for their pure colouration and for the ring's association with the owner's Manchu identity. The Manchu nation rose to power on horseback, and archery was an essential part of every Manchu warrior's training. Qing rulers, especially the Qianlong emperor, was a keen huntsman and was especially proud of his skills in archery. He often had himself depicted while shooting a game, as seen on the painting titled Taking a Stag with a Mighty Arrow, from the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the exhibition Splendours of China's Forbidden City, The Field Museum, Chicago, 2004, cat. no. 117, where he is depicted wearing an archer's thumb-ring which appears to be made of white jade.

Qianlong had a vast collection of archer's thumb-rings and his fondness for them is expressed in over fifty poems that he wrote in their praise. Guo Fuxiang in his work on Qianlong’s ring collection notes that for the emperor the small archer's ring represented a profound source of knowledge. Qianlong was keen to safeguard traditional Manchu culture and heritage and he regarded archery as the basic weaponry of the Manchu nation with the archer's ring the indispensable tool. Despite its small size, rings involved a high level of craftsmanship and Qianlong, as with many of his jade pieces, was personally involved in the quality control of their making. For a detailed discussion of Qianlong period archer's thumb-rings see Guo Fuxiang, 'Qianlong's Imperial Jade Archer's Rings', By Heavenly Mandate, Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 2007, pp. 24-27.

For examples of archer's thumb-rings from the Qing Court collection see nine included in the exhibition Emperor Ch'ien-lung's Grand Cultural Enterprise, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2001, cat. no. V-36, made in various mediums; one white jade and two green jade rings, together with their case, included in the Field Museum exhibition op.cit., cat. no. 116; two green jade rings illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Armaments and Military Provisions, Hong Kong, 2008, pl. 109; a group of four white jade rings sold in our New York rooms, 17th September 1998, lot 31; and a single carved white jade ring, sold in these rooms, 1st November 1999, lot 552. A set of seven jade imperial rings, together with the original fitted cinnabar lacquer box and cover, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27th April 1997, lot 94, and again in these rooms, 8th April 2007, lot 602, from the Qing Court collection.

While archer's thumb-rings were made in large quantities, few examples of ring cases have survived intact. Bamboo-veneer ring cases are extremely rare and no other closely comparable example appears to be recorded. The deep carved decoration of this case is closely comparable with the carving found on a two-storey box, from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, published in The Palace Museum Collection of Elite Carvings, Beijing, 2002, pl. 51.

A number of large bamboo-veneer objects, such as vases, boxes, trays, cabinets and hat-stands are illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji, pls. 46- 65, all from the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing.


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Hugh Moss |