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photographer E-Yaji.
Water, Pine and Stone Retreat. Qianlong  Large picture | Small picture
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 8 October 2009: Lot 1822 

the translucent white jade of cylindrical section polished with a slightly bevelled top and a rounded base, inscribed on the exterior with a poem written in kaishu and dated to the bingshen year, corresponding to 1776, marked with Qianlong yuti ('Emperor Qianlong's imperial composition') followed by two seals the qian trigram and long; the black lacquer case of cylindrical form with thin sides painted in gold and red with peonies, orchids and butterflies, the interior flecked with gold, set on a silk brocade base raised on three low padded feet, fitted with a slightly domed ivory cover inscribed in black with the characters yuzhi ('by Imperial Command') (fitted box)
CASE: 4.4 CM.

The poem inscribed on the ring is titled Poem of the Jade Thumbring  in which the emperor praises the beauty of thumb-rings made by using pure white and flawless Hetian  jade. Qianlong also expresses his admiration for the cut and polish of the material (zhuomo) which has evoked the past in his heart. The word zhuomo is a reference to one's wish to be virtuous.

The Manchu nation rose to power by means of horse riding and archery, and all Manchu rulers deemed it essential to continue the long tradition of archery even when it became merely a showcase at military parades or was only practiced at hunting. Qing Imperial records document the obligation every young man belonging to the Eight Banners had in practicing archery in the 'archer's house' of their respective Banners. Archer's thumb-rings (she) were worn on the right thumb to protect the archer from the bow string when discharging the arrow. They not only became part of the bannerman's indispensable paraphernalia but a fashionable piece of accessory and a symbol of rank and wealth.

Although thumb-rings were made in considerable quantities during the Qing dynasty thumb-ring cases that have been preserved intact to this day, such as the present container, are relatively rare. Furthermore, while the majority of cases were made to hold a group of rings, this box is unusual for its size which was to contain a single thumb-ring when not in use. The yuzhi ('by Imperial Command') mark on the cover confirms the Imperial origin of the case and identifies the piece as the product of the Palace Workshop. Yuzhi marks were commonly used on wares made in the Palace Workshops especially during the Kangxi and Qianlong periods.

This case is the product of the combined effort of crafts men working in four different mediums, lacquer, ivory, textiles and paper. From Imperial records it is known that co-operative ventures between different workshops was widespread, resulting in the making of objects carved in one atelier and then sent to another to have a cover or a stand made, while a third workshop might provide a suitable box for packaging.

A wooden archer's thumb-ring case made to contain three rings, from the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, was included in the exhibition Splendours of China's Forbidden City. The Glorious Reign of Emperor Qianlong, The Field Museum, Chicago, 2004, cat. no. 116. See also a carved cinnabar lacquer case made to hold seven archer's thumb-rings, sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 27th April 1997, lot 94, and again in these rooms, 8th April 2007, lot 602, with a Qianlong four-character reign mark incised on the cover. Compare another single ring case made of bamboo veneer in this catalogue, lot 1823.

The decoration found on this case is full of auspicious symbolism. The rock and the butterfly represent longevity, while the peony is the symbol of wealth and the orchid represents the ideal scholar-gentleman. The motif also stands as a visual pun for the blessing of a male offspring, a wish for the continuation of the family line.


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Hugh Moss |