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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part I  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2010: Lot 84 

Lot 84


Lot 84
Treasury 2, no. 338

The Courtly Carnelian Chi Dragons

Carnelian; well hollowed with a recessed, slightly concave foot; carved with two chi dragons
Probably imperial, possibly Suzhou, Beijing 1730–1820
Height: 3.75 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.45/1.20 cm
Stopper: chalcedony; silver collar

Lot 84 Provenance:
Jade House
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1992)

Treasury 2, no. 338

Lot 84 Commentary:
Hardstone carvings in the imperial collection are, quite literally, crawling with chi dragons. We have argued the case elsewhere for these playful lizard-like dragons being an imperial standard for much of the Qing dynasty and the exception as principal decoration on non-imperial wares (see Treasury 1, no. 99). This seems particularly evident during the Qianlong period but this may be misleading and due in part to the massive output of this long, artistically productive reign. The Kangxi emperor ruled as long, but spent much of his reign consolidating Manchu power rather than concentrating on the arts. The Qianlong emperor, one of the most compulsive and certainly one of the wealthiest patrons and collectors of the arts in history, inherited a relatively stable empire and was able to devote considerably more time to his obsessive production and collecting of art. The second half of his reign was particularly productive in the field of hardstone carving. The 1759 conquest of Turkestan brought the source of so much raw material in hardstones (including nephrite) into the empire and guaranteed massive quantities of raw material as tribute each year (see discussion under Treasury 2, no. 194). Imperial workshops devoted to the production of jade, and probably other hardstones as well, were increased from two to eight during this period. Output was prodigious, even by the standards of the uninhibited Qianlong emperor, and the productive and stylistic momentum of this period continued well into the nineteenth century. This is the mid-Qing period responsible for so many of our finest snuff bottles.

It was because of the stylistic momentum of the late Qing output that, without a reign-mark, it is often very difficult to date particular works confidently to the second half of the Qianlong period without accepting that they might as easily have been produced ten or even thirty years later while the standards and style persisted at imperial workshops, hence the useful, catch-all ‘mid-Qing’ designation. The great popularity of the chi dragon was undoubtedly due in part to the fact that it represented antiquity, particularly for the jade arts where it was one of the most popular decorative motifs of Han dynasty jade carving, appearing frequently on sword fittings and personal ornaments. Since few Han notables were buried without their all-important swords, these would have been among the most recognizable artefacts of this supposed golden age of Chinese culture. As we have pointed out elsewhere, the Manchus, in order to legitimize their conquest of China adopted the native culture with zeal. There were restrictions at court over the adoption of what was considered effete Chinese modes of dress, and over mixed marriages between Manchu and Chinese, but otherwise the enthusiastic adoption of the culture proved a successful public relations exercise for the Manchus. Adding chi dragons to works of art showed respect for the ancient culture and an obvious and legitimizing link between conqueror and conquered.

In this case the dragons are specifically based on the Han model, with its short, distinctly feline body, slightly squared-off head and curling, bifid tail. Other examples of chi dragons on similarly imperial-looking snuff bottles and other hardstone carvings are plentiful and even on the jade bottles in this collection many examples are found (see, Treasury 1, nos. 91, 92, 93, 99, 100, and 101 for instance). From the imperial collection of hardstone carvings in general there are many more, and just from those published from the remaining Beijing portion of the collection in a single publication (Zhongguo yuqi quanji, vol. 6) are found on a Qianlong-marked cup and saucer, p. 15, a rectangular vase, p. 149, and on two yellow jade vases, pp. 150 and 163, and on a rhyton in this same sort of carnelian which might have been carved by the same hand and is likely from the same workshop at lest. The material was a popular one from the latter part of the Qianlong period and, like so much of the raw material of the day, may have come from newly-conquered Xinjiang as tribute. The rhyton is a valuable comparison. It is archaistic in form and decoration, as was so much of the Qianlong hardstone output, and might have been made at any of a number of imperial workshops specializing in hardstone carving for the court during the second half of the reign. The palace at Beijing is a possibility, but the imperial workshops at Suzhou, administered by the local Silk Manufactory, are perhaps a more likely source for a wide range of similar wares. There is, for instance, a closely related, similarly small and strangely shaped bottle of the same material (although including the white quartz with which it is so often combined), decorated with similar chi dragons, which bears a Suzhouesque relief, draft-script inscription (Rachelle R. Holden 1994, no. 9). The style and the predominance of similar pieces in the imperial collection leave us in no doubt about the imperial nature of this group as a whole but until further research into the imperial archives reveal more facts about what was made for the court and where, we must leave open the question of original provenance. (For further discussion on this distinctive material, see Treasury 2, no. 339).

The shape here also suggests an imperial snuff bottle. The court had a preference for forms taken from existing arts, such as bronzes, ceramics and so forth, probably as a further subtle expression of their adoption of the Chinese culture. This shape is a ceramic one, the sort of shape one would throw on a wheel and with a long neck added it would be a typical Qing porcelain form.


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