Cranes appeared to prove their legendary auspicious powers in an auction at Dreweatts Donnington Priory last week, when a pair of cloisonné enamel double crane censers flew beyond their pre-sale estimate, selling for £124,000 to a bidder on the phone. They had been estimated at £6-8,000! Earlier in the sale, a Warring States-Western Han style, bronze model of a tiger also made an equally impressive £64,480 against an estimate of £3-5,000.
Early in the sale, Lot 8 offered was a Warring States-Western Han style, powerfully cast tiger, prowling forward with raised head, quasi-triangular ears, eyes alert and pug- nosed snout that enhances the visual effect of its wide open mouth, ferociously baring its teeth, in an aggressive attitude, inlaid with gold and silver designs of clouds, spirals, geometrical and fur-like patterns, all on a rich background of maroon-patinated bronze, the neck incised with two character inscription, 13.2cm long, with a19th century hardwood collector’s fitted box 仿战国西汉 错金银青铜石虎形. Dreweatt’s catalogue benefited from well referenced information on both the lots which scored high in the sale which was, surely, no coincidence.
‘TIGERS IN CHINESE ART The tiger is one of the oldest and most revered animals in Chinese history. According to Han mythology, the tiger was one of the Four symbols for the cardinal points, representing the seven constellations of the west and the autumn season. In conjunction with the Green Dragon of the West, the Vermillion Bird of the South and the Black Tortoise of the North, the tiger positioned the burial within the spatial-temporal features of the universe.
‘In literature, the Queen Mother of the Western paradise, one of the most important deities of the Han Daoist pantheon, is described as having tiger’s teeth and tail. In burials, the deity sat on a throne decorated with a tiger and a dragon, the opposing yin-yang forces moving the universe, which the Queen Mother transcended.
Also underscoring auspicious symbolism for peace, tigers were associated with a successful reign, and were highly regarded as protectors and guardians for their power, strength and courage.
‘The character hu , 虎 , for tiger, is in fact homophone with hu , 护 , meaning protection, which must have clearly been sought to protect the tomb occupants against the malign influences they may encounter in their afterlife. In conjunction with other real and imaginary creatures, tigers also decorated the base of Han miniaturised mountainous landscape, a visual metaphor for the barriers of human morality that must be crossed whilst transitioning to immortality.
“(..) Having transcended sacred mountains, one will gain supernatural powers, controlling the wind and rain, and finally reach to Heaven, the Abode of the Celestial Emperor,” mentioned the “Masters of Huainan”,Huainanzi , 淮南子 , a philosophical classic compiled in the second century BC, referring to the tortuous journey through a winding obstacle-laden landscape, which one must embark on, in search of the elixir of eternal life.
‘During the Han dynasty, the soul was expected to encounter many dangers on its journey to paradise, including malignant ghosts, spirits, and ferocious beasts. Mountains were highly praised in China for their high peaks, close connections with heaven, the ability to produce water, life-giving element, and their many cavities, where immortals were thought to inhabit. The Huainanzi , for instance, refers to the mountain as a Chilly Wind Peak climbed by people who achieved deathlessness and became gods.
‘Mountains were also conceptualised as treacherous realms for their inhabitants had unpredictable, supernatural, powers and were thus considered as potentially malignant. “If someone entered the mountain possessed of no magical arts, he will certainly suffer harm. Some will fall victim to acute diseases or be wounded by weapons (…) Sometimes the man will encounter tigers, wolves, and poisonous insects. One cannot enter the mountain lightly !” mentions the “Master embracing simplicity,”Baopuzi , 抱樸子 , compiled between the third and fourth century AD.
‘Clearly, in addition to serving as the gateways to the land of immortality, mountains were also considered as the borderlands through which the soul must pass after death. A comparable tiger was included in Eskenazi’s 1998 exhibition, published in Giuseppe Eskenazi, 1998, Animals and Animal Designs in Chinese Art , New York: catalogue no. 5, foldout cover of catalogue ; another example will be offered by Bonhams for sale in New York on 16th March 2015, estimated $200,00-300,000.
‘A pair of mat or “sleeve weights” cast in form of gold and silver inlaid tigers, were included in Christian Deydier’s exhibition at the XXVIII Biennale Des Antiquaries, Paris, September 2014, published in Christian Deydier, 2014, Ancient Chinese Bronzes , Paris, catalogue n. 9, p. 49. For additional references see Shawn Eichman, 2000, Taoism and the arts of China , Chicago, p. 129; Lukas Nickel, 2000, Some Han dynasty paintings in the British Museum , vol. 60, n. 1, p. 59-78; Wu Hung, 2010, The Art of the Yellow Springs, Understanding Chinese tombs, Honolulu. ‘
Within half an hour, the sale saw another remarkable result when Lot 27, a pair of cloisonné crane censers, came up for sale. They were catalogued as A pair of cloisonné enamel double crane censers, each group finely modelled as a large crane and young standing on an elaborate champlevé and cloisonné enamel rockwork- shaped pedestals interspersed with blooming flowers, standing on tall legs detailed with cylindrical bands, the smaller crane with one leg slightly bent, their long necks naturalistically curved, the taller crane grasping a double-peach sprig in its pointed beak, the bodies and feathers realistically detailed in black and white enamels within gilded borders, with the red crests wings covering the hollow body, 150cm high
Again, Dreweatts showed the advantage of real cataloguing as a result of diligent research, ‘Cranes are an important component of the Chinese decorative system which is based on the use of images whose auspicious symbolism was conveyed by their intrinsic qualities and the homophonic nature of the Chinese language. The underlying principle to such a system was the belief that all natural phenomena and things on Earth were an expression of Heaven’s will towards the human conduct. Auspicious events, therefore, were reproduced in writing or images in China and believed to function just like their physical counterpart and thus perpetuate their benign effects. In this way, buildings, tombs, gardens, paintings, ceramic, lacquer, metal wares and textiles were decorated with flowers, birds, animals and other auspicious symbols.
‘Cranes have a long-lived tradition of connection with immortality beliefs in China. As birds with a long life span, they were associated with longevity, immortality and wisdom, especially following the rise of Daoism from the Han dynasty. We may recall the flying cranes appearing on the domed ceiling of the tomb of Wang Chuzhi of the Five Dynasties and the high-ranking tombs of the Liao, and the frequent occurrence of cranes in relation to the miraculous rebirth as immortal beings in vernacular literature dating from the 12th century.
‘Cranes were also praised for their ability to dance to music and described in the Ruiying tu of the sixth century BC as gathering around the legendary Yellow Emperor as he practiced music on Kunlun mountains, accompanying scholars as they played music in Tang and Song paintings and appearing in official celebrations and gatherings. Accompanying the rites, music provided a moral and physical definition to a dynastic rule. In this context, therefore, cranes were interpreted as heavenly indicators of the emperor’s benevolence and sage governance. It may not be incidental that the word for crane is in fact homophone with the Chinese word for harmony he.
‘Cranes became even more closely related to a successful reign/emperor during the prosperous period of Northern Song Emperor Huizong (r. AD 1100-1126) as the search for auspicious images increased and the Xuanhe ruilan ce, comprising some thousand volumes recording auspicious sightings, was compiled. During this time, cranes appeared as pennants and employed as part of the imperial regalia that accompanied many official affairs on the court. Cranes also appeared in many Song court paintings. Cranes above Kaifeng, in particular, has been attributed to or commissioned by Emperor Huizong. The work depicts twenty cranes appearing in flight above the Golden Gate to the Imperial Palace on the 3rd day of the Lantern Festival – believed to be 26th February 1126) as if sent by Heaven to sanction and celebrate one of the most glorious days of Huizong’s reign when the court was at its highest splendour and the emperor was united with his subjects as they wished him longevity for the year to come.
It may therefore be little surprising that cranes were also ubiquitously found at the court of the Qing emperors, especially that of Qianlong (AD 1735-1795), emperor known for his virtuousness and appreciation of antiquity. In this instance, cranes not only appeared in paintings but even three-dimensionally as components of miniaturised immortal palaces made of jades, agate and other precious stones and in greater size flanking the imperial throne, such as the one presented here. Standing on an elaborate cloisonné stand, not only does this creature serve a highly visual appealing purpose, but in much the same way as the glorious emperors of the past, was surely employed by the Imperial House of the Qing as a powerful symbol embodying the contemporary brilliance of the Chinese Empire.
‘For the occurrence of cranes in the arts of the Qing dynasty see Pine, plum and cranes painted by Shen Quan (AD 1682-1760), Cranes against Sky and Waters by Yu Xing (AD 1692-after 1767), and the miniature landscape representing the immortal island of Penglai in gold, pearls and precious stones, all part of the Imperial Collection at the Palace Museum in Beijing and illustrated in the Royal Academy catalogue China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, 2005, figs 268-269.
For an account on the interpretation of auspicious images see Jessica Rawson, The power of images: the model universe of the First Emperor and its legacy, in Historical Research 75, May 2002, p.123-154 and The Auspicious Universe, by the same author, in China. The Three Emperors 1662-1795, Royal Academy, 2005, p. 270-305.
For an account on the interpretation of cranes at the court of Huizong see Peter Sturman, Cranes above Kaifeng: The Auspicious Image at the Court of Huizong, in Ars Orientalis, 1990, p. 33-68.
For the occurrence of cranes during the Han dynasty see Anna Seidel, Post-Mortem Immortality or The Taoist Resurrection of the Body, 1987.’