The Qianlong Emperor declared that the water from Jade Spring Hill, west of Beijing, was the finest on Earth — he insisted on having it brought daily to his palace in Beijing, as well as transported to him whenever and wherever he was on hunts or tours.
‘It is not an exaggeration to say that Jade Spring Hill was a source of life for the imperial family,’ says Chi Fan Tsang, Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art at Christie’s. Indeed, the rice grown on Jade Spring Hill was deemed to be of such high quality that it was reserved solely for royal consumption.
This extremely rare yangcai vase, depicting the verdant Jade Spring Hill landscape, was almost certainly a special commission for the Qianlong Emperor (1711-99). Too valuable for everyday use, the vase, which is being offered in Hong Kong on 28 November, was one of a small, exclusive group of yangcai porcelain made in the early years of the Qianlong reign.
Porcelains of this calibre were not intended to be made for everyday use, nor as Imperial gifts, but were made to be included in the Emperor’s art collection, alongside his other favourite antiques and jade pieces.
‘What strikes is the brilliant enamelling,’ says Tsang. ‘It draws the viewer immediately into the mountain scene. This type of enamel is known as yangcai [literally translated as ‘foreign colours’], which was an innovation that had recently been introduced from Europe.
‘The result is just like an oil painting, but on a curved porcelain surface rather than a canvas. As one rotates the vase, the effect is very much like unrolling a handscroll painting. The viewer can admire a richly colourful, idyllic landscape on a three-dimensional vessel.’
While Jade Spring Hill had been the site of royal pavilions and gardens for centuries, among all of China’s rulers it was probably Qianlong who cherished Jade Spring Hill the most. The vase features a calligraphic excerpt from a poem he wrote, as a young prince in 1729, called In Celebration of Autumn Harvest When Travelling to the Jade Spring Mountain. In it, Qianlong declares how joyful it is to encounter the sights, sounds and smells of the area in autumn.
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‘The rolling mountains are rendered in the classical Chinese “blue-green” style,’ notes Tsang. There is, however, also a clear Western influence on this vase. Not only in the enamelling, but also in the depiction of grandiose, architectural complexes incorporating a linear perspective: a technique introduced to court by European Jesuits. ‘The overall composition is a masterfully balanced fusion,’ says the specialist.
Even after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912, Jade Spring Hill remained an important location. It was reserved exclusively for the residences and offices of high-ranking officials and military personnel. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, for example, both lived there at some point.
‘Jade Spring Hill has played a notable role in the history of the nation,’ observes Tsang. ‘This vase earned the admiration of the Qianlong Emperor almost three centuries ago, and it continues to impress connoisseurs today.’