The Emperor Qianlong's Hindustan Jade Drinking Vessel

The Emperor Qianlong's Hindustan (Mughal) Jade Drinking Vessel

The Emperor Qianlong's Hindustan (Mughal) Jade Drinking Vessel
The Emperor Qianlong's  Hindustan (Mughal) Jade Drinking Vessel
The Emperor Qianlong's  Hindustan (Mughal) Jade Drinking Vessel
Country of Origin: China

Date of Origin Dated 'Qianlong jiawu' (1774)

Use: Cup

Comments: Beside being a splendid object it has outstaning provenance. This piece demonstrates a flow of art and trade between India and China.
Jades carved in this florid style, which originated in Hindustan in the Mughal period, began to come to China around the middle of the Qianlong Emperor's reign, and the Emperor quickly grew very fond of them. The first carved jade bowl to have been sent from Central Asia as tribute is recorded for AD 1756, and thereafter tribute gifts of this type continued to arrive throughout the Emperor¡¦s reign and beyond. At the same time Moslem jade carvers were brought to work in the Palace Workshops to fashion similar wares and as early as 1764, exact copies of Indian jades held at the palace were ordered from the Chinese craftsmen working at the court. At least twenty-five extant Mughal-style jades bear poems by the Emperor, engraved in the Palace Workshops. (For further historical details see the article by Teng Shu-ping in the Catalogue of a Special Exhibition of Hindustan Jade in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1983, pp.9-109.)

This exceptional white jade cup must rank among the finest Mughal jades to have entered Emperor Qianlong¡¦s collection. The outstanding quality of the carving, as well as the unusually pure white nephrite out of which the cup is carved, compares very favourably with Mughal jades formerly in the collection of Emperor Qianlong and kept today in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan. The cup has a very close parent in a shell-shaped dish in Taiwan, which has an acanthus flower instead of a gardenia forming the foot and lacks the Imperial poem (Taipei, 1983, op.cit., pl.37). The strong similarity in shape and carving style suggests that both pieces must have been carved in the same workshop, if not by the same craftsman.

In terms of shape, the cup represents a floral digression from a thinly carved Mughal piece in Taiwan (op.cit., Taipei, 1983, pl.36) which takes literally the form of a shell. In that sense, the present cup and the example illustrated here from the National Palace Museum are both closely related to gourd-shaped cups which are similarly raised on a flower-shaped foot, but ending in a curled stalk. Of four such gourd-shaped cups two are in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, (Taipei, 1983, op.cit., pls.23 and 24), one is in the Palace Museum, Beijing, (Zhongguo yuqi quanji, vol.6, Shijiazhuang, 1993, pl.293), and one is in the collection of John Woolf, London (S. Howard Hansford, Chinese Carved Jades, London, 1968, pl.92). The second of the Taipei cups is inscribed with a poem by the Qianlong Emperor and a date corresponding to AD 1773 (Taipei 1983, op.cit., fig.40); the cup from the Woolf collection bears a Qianlong poem dated in accordance with AD 1775 (ibid., figs.25a and b).

The poem inscribed on the present cup was composed by Emperor Qianlong in the mid-autumn of the jiawu year (AD1774) which ¡V judging from other inscribed Mughal pieces in the Palace, many dated to the early to mid-1770s ¡V seems to have been the peak period for the appreciation and production of Mughal wares at the Chinese court. In the poem entitled 'In Praise of a Hindustan Jade Drinking Vessel', the Emperor expresses his pride in the ownership of this piece, while showing off his connoisseurship. It translates as follows:

Jade from Western Kun is matchless for its skilled craftsmanship.
Water mills grinding the jade as thin as paper,
Making drinking vessels and bowls for the officials,
Differing in form from what craftsmen have recorded in the Zhouli.
Half a bulging caltrop, turned-over lotus leaf,
A kind of gardenia supporting the base.
Or one could compare it to an opened oyster shell,
Like a bright moon clearly reflected in water.
The hand finds no marks, but the eye finds hints
Of how was it conceived and how executed.
The tools handled with clever contrivance and clear determination.
I simply cannot keep myself from gazing at it again and again.

Imperial inscription from the first decade of the second month of spring, in the year jiawu of the Qianlong period (AD1774)

Emperor Qianlong identifies the piece as 'jade from Western Kun' (xikun yu) ¡V that is, south-western Xinjiang ¡V and praises it for being 'matchless for its skilled craftsmanship' (gong qiao wu bi). Qianlong then mentions that it was 'water abraded' (shui mo) to carve it as thin as paper, a term he uses frequently when discussing Mughal jades. James Watt (Chinese Jades from the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, 1989, p.112) understands this hearsay term as an indication that Mughal jade carvers used water with powdered abrasives for working the stone. Then follows a very precise observation of the cup as 'half a bulging water caltrop, turned-over lotus leaf, a kind of gardenia supporting the base' (ban kuang ji he ye fan shang, yiduo zhanbo hua cheng di), which leaves no doubt as to the identity of the piece. The poem finally reaches a passionate conclusion, as Qianlong, exalted by the beauty of the cup, declares 'I cannot keep myself from gazing at it again and again' (xu guan you fu fu ren er). The Emperor's affection for this particular piece could not be stated more clearly.