Dreweatts sale reminds us of the role of the crane in Chinese art

465845-13  A fine looking pair of very large crane censers come up at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury’s Asian Sale at Donnington Priory on May 19. The auctioneers have catalogued these items particularly well and are, rather modestly, estimating them at £6-8,000. They seem sure to do rather better than that.

‘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 清 御制掐丝珐琅双鹤香炉一对 成交价

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.’

There is said to be slight wear to the cloisonne enamels and gilding but otherwise they are in good condition. They seem bound to occasion substantial interest.