An extremely rare copper-red decorated ‘Nine Dragons’ moonflask, Qianlong six-character seal mark in underglaze blue and of the period (1736-1795). Estimate HK$30,000,000 – HK$50,000,000 ($3,887,109 – $6,478,515). Photo Christie’s Image Ltd 2014
The moonflask is delightfully painted in copper red of vivid strawberry tones on one side with a powerful leaping five-clawed dragon embracing a flaming pearl, flanked by four further five-clawed dragons amidst scrolling clouds and above crashing waves, the other side similarly rendered with four ferocious dragons contesting a flaming pearl. 11 3/8 in. (29 cm.) high, box
Provenance: Offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 1 May 2001, lot 538
An Extremely Rare Qianlong Nine-dragon Underglaze Red Moon Flask
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director Asian Art
This extremely rare Qianlong moon flask is a testament to imperial patronage – combining technical difficulty with the most powerful imperial symbol. The symbol of the emperor was the horned, five-clawed, long dragon, while nine was a number reserved for the emperor – being the largest single digit number. Dragons were often specifically associated with the number nine and it was believed that the dragon had nine attributes and also had nine sons. It was also thought that its body had 117 scales – a multiple of nine (9 x 13) of which 81 were yang scales (9 x 9) and 36 were yinscales (9 x 4). This ritual association between the imperial dragon and the number nine is at its most apparent on the elaborate nine-dragon robes made for the Qing imperial court, the wearing of which was controlled by strict regulation, but can be seen in a particularly rare form on the current vessel.
The production of important objects decorated with nine imperial dragons reached its height in the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. While the emperor would have been brought up to be fully cognisant of the relationship between imperial dragons and the number nine, it may be that the theme was focussed in his mind by his admiration for a Southern Song dynasty hand scroll. This hand scroll was painted by the poet, calligrapher and artist Chen Rong in AD 1244, and depicts nine powerful dragons soaring and swooping in and out of the waves, through clouds and over mountains. This theme has been hailed as emblematic of both the spirit and philosophy of Daoism, and was an important one which dates back to the I Ching. The painting bears two inscriptions by the artist and several colophons by prominent persons. Significantly one of those is the Qianlong Emperor himself, whose seals also appears on the hand scroll. Qianlong not only records his praise for the painting, but also ordered a Qing court artist to make a copy of the hand scroll.
As an indication of the Qianlong Emperor’s fondness for this important imperial motif, the nine dragon theme can be seen on a fine imperial carved lacquer portable chest in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (1), while a large three-coloured carved lacquer box with nine dragon decoration is in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (2). Interestingly, an identical three-coloured, nine dragon, box, which was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong in October 2003, lot 785, was inscribed on the inside of the cover with jiu long bao he – nine dragon treasure box. A Qianlong yellow silk imperial throne cushion cover embroidered with nine five-clawed dragons was sold by Christie’s New York in March 2012, lot 1622 (fig. 1).
Perhaps the most significant project indicating the Qianlong Emperor’s fondness for the nine dragon theme was the building in AD 1773 of the famous nine dragon screen in the Forbidden City within the Inner Court in front of the Ningshougong (Palace of Peaceful Old Age), the construction of which was begun in 1771 to provide a palace for the Qianlong Emperor in retirement. This huge tiled screen was 6 m. high and 31 m. long, and depicted nine powerful, multicoloured, five-clawed dragons rising from the waves into the clouds. The Forbidden City screen was inspired by two similar Ming dynasty screens. One of these was built during the Hongwu Emperor’s reign (1368-98) by his 13th son, Zhu Gui, at Datong in Shanxi province, where the Emperor had a temporary palace and where he sent his son to defend China’s northern borders against northern Mongol invasions, while the other was built in AD 1402 in Beihai Park in Beijing, prior to the move of the court to Beijing in 1406. Like the design of nine dragons above waves and amongst ruyi-shaped clouds on the current flask, the dragons on the screens emanate vitality and imperial power, and celebrated the dragons’ ability to control the seas and the rains.
In view of the Qianlong Emperor’s appreciation of the nine dragon design it is perhaps not surprising that several particularly fine porcelain vessels with this decoration were made during his reign. The use of this motif was, of course not a Qing dynasty innovation and a pear-shaped vase decorated with underglaze blue five-clawed dragons was excavated in 1984 from the late Yongle stratum of the Imperial kiln site at Jingdezhen (3). While the dragons on the Yongle vase are powerful, vigorous creatures, like those on the current flask, their stances are not so varied, nor are all the dragons of equal size. The Yongle vase has a larger five-clawed dragon coiled around the shoulder and neck of the vase, while four slightly smaller five-clawed dragons, alternatively rising and descending, are depicted on the lower part of the body. However, like the current flask, the dragons on the Yongle vase are depicted amongst clouds and there is also a band of turbulent waves around the lower part of the body.
No other Qianlong flask bearing the same decoration as the current one appears to have been published, but among the extant Qianlong vessels decorated with nine dragons it is particularly interesting to note a large Qianlong blue and white nine dragon vase in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (4), which has five-clawed dragons painted in very similar style and in strikingly similar stances to those on the current underglaze red flask. The Beijing vase also depicts the dragons amongst clouds above a band of waves. A large globular vase decorated with nine overglaze iron-red dragons amongst underglaze blue waves, is also in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, and the dragons share some of the features of the current vase and the blue and white vase mentioned above, but are perhaps not quite so well painted and may date to the end of the reign (5). A Qianlong meiping also in the Qing court collection of the Palace Museum is decorated with nine overglaze rouge-coloured dragons amongst clouds and above waves painted in underglaze cobalt blue (6). These dragons are painted in a similar style to those on the current flask and the underglaze blue vase, but some of the stances are in mirror image to those on the other two vessels. A further Qianlong meiping decorated with nine iron-red five-clawed dragons set against underglaze blue waves is in the same collection (7).
There is a further vessel from the Qing court collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing that is particularly worth noting in the context of the current flask. This is a vase decorated in underglaze copper red with a five-clawed dragon amongst clouds and above waves (8). While this vase bears only a single dragon, it is nevertheless interesting since the style of the dragon is similar to that of the dragons on the current flask. A small Qianlong underglaze red decorated lidded jar from the Palace Museum is also decorated with a single dragon amongst clouds above waves (9), but the style of painting is more closely related to the so-called ‘pencil’ style than to the style of the current flask and the Beijing underglaze red vase. The pair of dragon-decorated underglaze red double-gourd vases displayed in the Suianshi (Quiet Room) of the Yangxindian (Hall of Mental Cultivation) in the Beijing Forbidden City are also painted in a different style, with the dragons appearing in roundels (10).
Very few moon flasks dating to the Qianlong reign with underglaze decoration have been published. A smaller flask from the Qing court collection, with underglaze red decoration depicting a bird and flower motif, copied from Yongle blue and white examples, is in the Palace Museum, Beijing (11), and a similar small flask was offered by Sotheby’s London in June 1983, lot 345. A third Qianlong copper red decorated flaks, also with bird and flower decoration in early Ming style is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (12). The current moon flask appears to be unique in its combination of this challenging decorative technique and powerful imperial symbolism.
(1) Illustrated in Carving the Subtle Radiance of Colors: Treasured Lacquerware in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2007, p. 147, no. 153.
(2) Illustrated in Carved Lacquer in the Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, 1985, pl. 316.
(3) Illustrated in Imperial Hongwu and Yongle Porcelain excavated at Jingdezhen, op. cit., p. 304, no. 122.
(4) Illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 36, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 132, no. 118.
(5) Illustrated ibid., p. 244, no. 222.
(6) Illustrated ibid., p. 252, no. 230.
(7) Illustrated in Kangxi Yongzheng Qianlong – Qing Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 327, no. 8.
(8) Illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), op. cit., p. 190, no. 174.
(9) Illustrated ibid., p. 194, no. 178.
(10) Illustrated by Wan Yi, Wang Shuqing and Lu Yanzhen in Daily Life in the Forbidden City: The Qing Dynasty, 1644-1912, Rosemary Scott and Erica Shipley trans., Harmondsworth, 1985, pl. 177.
(11) Illustrated in Blue and White Porcelain with Underglaze Red (III), op. cit., p. 193, no. 177.
(12) Ilustrated by Christiaan Jörg in Chinese Ceramics in the Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam – The Ming and Qing Dynasties, London 1997, p. 130, no. 136.
PROPERTY FROM THE LESHANTANG COLLECTION
Literature: The Leshantang Collection of Chinese Porcelain, Taipei, 2005, pl. 47
CHRISTIE’S. IMPORTANT CHINESE CERAMICS AND WORKS OF ART, 26 November 2014,Convention Hall