A rare Imperial white jade archaistic ‘hinge fitting’
Qianlong six-character fang gu mark and of the period
The pure white stone of exceptional clarity, unusually carved with two rectangular hollowed tubes, each of the wider sides carved in mirror image to suggest an archaistic taotie mask above further archaistic scrolling when the tubes are closed together, the narrower sides similarly carved with archaistic scrolls, each tube terminating in circular discs fitted by a pin to a central fitting with a rectangular opening through which the tubes could be locked to remain extended in a single straight line, the straight edge of the central incised with the six-character mark, box.
The present lot embodies many of the artistic and historical preoccupations of the Qianlong period. Carved from exceptionally fine and lustrous white stone, with even the minor flaws most cleverly incorporated into the scrollwork, the thinly hollowed supremely challenging yet technically flawless piece is representative of the highest skill of the 18th century craftsman. Furthermore it falls into a group of jade pieces carved with the Qianlong fanggu mark, specifically carved with archaistic designs inspired by archaic bronzes to reflect the concerns of the Qianlong Emperor with drawing moral strength and righteousness from the examples of the ancients.
A few examples of jade pieces designed to the same specifications as the present lot are preserved in the most prestigious museum collections, including a white jade piece in the Palace Museum Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Jadeware (III), Hong Kong, 1995, no.54, another white jade example in the Tianjin Museum, illustrated by Bai Wenyuan, ed., Tianjin Museum, London, 2012, pl.43, and a spinach jade piece in the Victoria and Albert Museum, illustrated by M.Wilson, Chinese Jades, London, 2004, no.104 and 106.
Finally, the design has been and remains, to scholars, collectors and curators, a most intriguing puzzle. The form has ancient origins, and its ancient bronze prototype can be found in the 西清古鑑 Xiqing Gujian, or Catalogue of Xiqing Antiquities, which was an illustrated catalogue of ancient bronzes in the Imperial Collection, completed in 1751. However as M.Wilson notes in Chinese Jades, London, 2004, p.107, even the cataloguers of the Xiqing Gujian could not describe the bronze prototype other than as a ‘Han dynasty ornament’ and to state that the two tubes are movable.
The terms used to describe these pieces by the Palace Museum, Beijing, and the Tianjin Museum, give another suggestion as to their purpose. These are 規矩首 gui ju shou and 潔矩 jie ju, respectively, both of which can be translated as ‘symbol of restrained obedience’.
The idea that the jade could act as a measuring tool to provide moral guidance is echoed in an Imperial poem inscribed on another similar piece exhibited by R.Keverne and M.Gillingham, Chinese Works of Art: Traditions of Collecting, pp.48-9, no.66. The poem appears to refer to the jade piece as a ‘ruler’ to be used to ‘compare lengths’ with ‘precisely fitting workmanship’. This preoccupation with the idea of measuring is also connected to the idea of the benevolent ruler, who is guided well, in contrast to a reference to Yang Huo, an unscrupulous king who sought the advice of Confucius.
The precisely-fitting elements of this jade perhaps could then serve to remind the Emperor of his duty to be scrupulous and precise in his own rule.