The 'Moon and Mist' ring
the stone of a pure white 'mutton-fat' tone, very finely carved with a scene of a hermit fishing beneath jagged peaks, the latter carved from an attractive area of russet skin, inscribed with a poem ending with Qianlong bingshu (corresponding to 1766) above the rippling lines of waves
Inscribed with a four-line poem with seven characters to each line:
The jade craftsmen has painstakingly carved
The poem of Liu is most inspiring
The arrow hits the deer in Qilian
Just as a line hooks a fish from the East Sea.
Written by Emperor Qianlong in the year of bingshu (1766)
The 'Scroll-End' ring
of translucent white tone with deep brown inclusions, inscribed with a poem ending with Qianlong kuisi ji xia yue shang gan yuti (corresponding to 1773) between keyfret bands
Inscribed with an eight-line poem with five characters to each line:
There is an archaic jade object called die
The name has been known since antiquity
Now the name die is not used
Instead it is called an 'archer’s ring'
This name appropriately suggests shape and function
Now arrows are propped up like milestones*
And banquets are held to honour elders
Ancient songs (xingwei)** eulogize ancient dynasties.
Written by Emperor Qianlong in early summer of the year kuisi (1773).
The second half of the poem seems suddenly to deal with celebrations at the end of a battle
*The Qin Emperor marked roads with metal milestones
**The song Xingwei is from the Book of Odes
The 'Admonition' ring
the stone mottled white and brown in tone and of a translucent quality, inscribed with a poem ending with Qianlong jiachen qing he zhi yue yubi (corresponding to 1784) between keyfret bands
Inscribed with an eight-line with seven characters to each line:
Once I have written a poem about 'clearing doubts'
Since the solution I proposed was to trust in Providence, I call myself “the Master of Providence”
I have managed to overcome many difficulties
And many times have succeeded when on the verge of failure
Too many things have happened in past years and I try not recall them
Since the road ahead of us is still long, we have to be cautious and more diligent
We cannot rely on providence although even the common man had his wish granted
Yet I am so fortunate to be born to receive such blessings.
Written by the Master of Providence (Emperor Qianlong) as a self admonition in the 4th month of the year jiachen (1784).
This ring is another which probably has been carved from antique material.
After 1775, China became increasingly beset with internal rebellion. The poem’s ‘regrets’ may be a reference to the problems caused by the White lotus Sect which began in 1781 and was not suppressed until 1796.
The jadeite ring
of translucent brilliant green tone with darker mottling, inscribed with a poem ending with Qianlong yisi (corresponding to 1785) between keyfret bands
Inscribed with an eight-line poem with five characters to each line:
Green jade is rare and deep green jade is even rarer
It is the treasure among treasures
The archer’s ring carved from this jade is lovlier than green leeks
Its colour is as bright as bamboo shoots
This treasure should not only be used by the Song people*
Nor should it be the exclusive treasure of the Wei**
It is a pity that I am old and no longer able to draw the bow
I hold the ring in my hand and feel deeply melancholy.
Written by Emperor Qianlong in early Spring in the year of yisi (1785).
*Song people is a probable reference to the Song dynasty connoisseur Ou Yang Hsiu is reference to jadeite (feicui) in the Gutianlu
**Wei refers to the vassal state of the Eastern Zhou period who were known to have a state treasure made of green jade
The green jade ring
of translucent spinach-green tone with darker mottling, inscribed with a poem identical to that on the jadeite ring between keyfret bands
The '80th Birthday' ring
of green-grey tone enveloped in a deep brown skin with bright russet inclusions to one side, finely incised with four ogival cartouches cut into the skin to reveal the green-grey tone below, each cartouche with archaistic characters in relief, reading ba jing mao nian (the eight thoughts of a ninety year man)
It is said in the ancient Daoist text liezi that what a man near the end of his life thinks of when he is awake can be categorized into eight groups, the ba jing mao nian:
1. Things that happened in the past
2. Things happening now
3. Wishes that have been fulfilled
4. Wishes that have not been realized
5. Sadness brought about by disappointment
6. Happiness brought about by triumph
7. and 8. Life and Death.
The Emperor Qianlong adopted this motto on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1790, using it until his death in 1799 at the age of 89.
The "Bixie" ring
of even pure white tone with a small patch of bright russet skin, finely carved with a continuous design of leiwen
Inscribed to the base of the box with an eight-line poem with five characters to each line:
The date of this jade scroll-end is unknown
It has been carved into an archer’s ring
With the ring’s help the archer can shoot down “three preys” (wild duck, wild goose and pheasant) for sacrificial use
It is not meant to parade the archer’s ability in being able to draw such a heavy bow
Though the archer’s ring is transformed from some material
The idea of this poem is a fresh one
This reminds me of the famous dragon’s tail ink stone of the Song poet Su Dongpo
My accomplishment in writing poetry is obviously much inferior to his. Written by the Emperor Qianlong in the year of dingchou (1757)
Inscribed to the cover of the box with an eight-line poem with five characters to each line:
This piece of jade is hard and unyielding
It is smooth, lustrous and exhibits the best of the contemporary workmanship
It is designed to be worn around the thumb
And to remind one of the art of archery, rules set down by the ancient masters have to be followed
It is not just for shooting down birds
I have repeatedly read the poem about hunting recorded in the Book of Odes
The words of the poem are simple but the meaning behind them is profound.
Written by the Emperor Qianlong in the year of jimao (1759)
Inscribed to the top of the cover of the liner with an eight-line poem with five characters in each line:
How beautiful this piece of jade is!
It is carved into an archer’s ring in the shape of bixie
With the ring’s help the heavy imperial bow can be drawn
To shoot forth an arrow fletched with red feathers
The archer’s total attention has to be on concentrating to shoot the target.
Through a martial activity, archery involves intellectual wisdom
Seeing that a bronze mirror should constantly be polished with abrasives to maintain its brightness
We come to realize that opposing things can result in mutual benefit. Written by the Emperor Qianlong
Inscribed to the interior of the cover of the liner with an eight-line poem with seven characters to each line:
A white and lustrous jade carved round into an archer’s ring
The workmanship is very satisfactory
It helps to draw the heavy bow
To shoot forth the arrow without hesitation.
The legend of Zhang* is famous
The art of archery should be passed down to a virtuous person as with Genggongzhishi
The ring around the thumb glitters like a silver moon
Its colour is as fascinating as mists emanating from Nanshan* Written by the Emperor Qianlong
*Zhang is reference to Zhangyi the legendary archer who shot down the nine out of the ten suns.
* Nanshan is one of the five sacred mountains.
Inscribed to the base of the tray with an eight-line poem with seven characters in each line:
Fifty thousand steps are needed to scale the Kunlun mountains*
Jade is found from the streams here
The jade stones are carved into fine objects and sent to the Court as tributes
Some are made into archer’s rings to help draw the bow
With bows and arrows, it is unnecessary to be afraid of the enemies like the Han Emperor Guangwu
Battles can be won as with the case of the ancient personage Shusun
They also help conquer the Barbarians outside the country
Their significance will always to be remembered.
Written by Emperor Qianlong in the year of xinsi (1761)
* The Kunlun mountains lie on the Northern Flanks of the Himalayas, sloping towards Khotan which is the principal source of Chinese jade. This poem was written just after his successful Central Asian campaign’s against the Muslims (1755-59) which secured a constant supply of jade for the court.
Qianlong’s Imperial Jade Archer’s Rings
Associate Researcher, Department of Palace History
The Palace Museum, Beijing The present set of Imperial jade archer’s rings is among the rarest works of art pieces offered at auction and is well worth a close examination. Due to its importance and the fact that very few people have any knowledge about archer’s rings, I will try to make a short introduction.
A Short History of the Archer's Rings
In ancient times rings of this type were called she. They were worn on the right thumb to protect it from the bow string when the archer discharged the arrow. In the Han dynasty, Xu Shen interpreted the word she in his work Shuo wen jie zi as follows: 'When pulling the bow the string gets caught. She is used to protect the thumb from the string. It is made of elephant bone and is worn on the right hand thumb.' The Shijin Wei Feng mentions that the Wei Lan boys wore she. This is from the Shang and Zhou periods when young riders wore she. She or archer’s rings were widely used at the time. For laymen, archer’s rings were made of hide although very few examples have survived to the present day. Archer’s rings made of jade, worn by military commanders, are extremely rare but some have been excavated from archaeological sites.
The earliest archaeological finding of an archer’s ring was in Fu Hao’s tomb in Henan Province. This archer’s ring is of dark brown color with few dark spots on it. It looks like a cylinder and can be worn by an adult. The upper end of the front is longer than the back while the other end is even. The surface is incised with the motif of an animal mask, and under the eyes of the animal, there are two tiny holes with thin strings thread through. This ring was possibly used on daily basis. Two further rings were found in Guo Ji’s tomb, from the West Zhou period, in the Sanmen gorge of Henan Province. The shape of these two rings is similar to that found in Fu Hao’s Tomb.
Later the function of archer's rings changed from being a purely practical object. It also became a decorative showpiece. However, with time, archers played a less important role in the battle fields changing the function of these rings. They became sought after for their decorative value among the Manchu aristocracy of the Qing dynasty.
The Manchu came into power by means of horse riding and archery. Therefore, rulers of the Qing dynasty deemed it extremely important to continue practicing the art of archery. The young men of the Eight Banners were obliged to practice archery in the 'archer’s house' of their respective Banners. Beginners used arches with 'one draw strength' (approximately 1000g drawing power), and gradually raising the strength to 20 and 30. When drawing the bow, the archer had to wear a she to protect his thumb. Every young man of the Eight Banners had a ring which gradually became a traditional item to wear. Meanwhile the name she was changed into 'archer’s ring' for ease of comprehension.
Following the consolidation of the Qing dynasty, young men of the Eight Banners slowly neglected the practice, but the habit of wearing the archer’s ring remained, and it became a fashionable piece of decoration. Rings of this type were also worn by the Emperor, imperial family members and high ranking officials and rich merchants. They were made of hide, ox horn, camel bone, ivory, crystal, jade, porcelain and emerald. Their value rose substantially. Li Baojia, of the late Qing period, in his work Guan chang xianxing ji notes that a gentleman called Wen Qi bought a jade archer’s ring for 900 ounces of silver. This was indeed a very high price that surprised everyone.
Qianlong and the archer’s ring
The Qianlong emperor was a very cultivated monarch. He was versed in playing the qin, Chinese chess, calligraphy and painting, as well as horse riding and archery. Usually when he rode and practiced archery, his archer’s ring was made of animal horn and teeth. This is proved by the paintings kept in the Palace Museum, Beijing, such as the painting of the 'Army Review by Qianlong' and the painting of 'Deer Hunting'. Qianlong showed great interest towards archer’s rings made of precious materials, especially jade, and made them into showpieces with high artistic value.
In the 17th year of the Qianlong reign (equivalent to 1752 A.D.), the emperor was presented with an archer’s ring made of jade. The ring was made of a lustrous jade with very fine workmanship. The emperor liked the ring so much that he wrote a poem with the title 'In Praise of the Jade Archer’s Ring'. In the poem, he compares archer’s rings made of elephant bone, after archaic examples, and those made of jade as ’fine, virtuos, beautiful and trustworthy’. This poem was the first one written by the emperor on the subject of archer’s rings and is included in the 32nd juan of the Yuzhi shi er juan. Possibly due to the deep impression the ring had on the emperor, a few months later, Qianlong in another poem further explored the meaning of archer’s rings and wrote: 'One should not forget to be virtuous, and make empty talk when wearing the ring. The surface of the ring is clear as crystal, with each breath there are ten thousand reasons.'
For the emperor the small archer’s ring represented a profound source of knowledge. In the next 45 years he wrote over fifth poems on the rings. This shows his concern and affection for this small piece of works of art.
Why did the Qianlong emperor have such a deep interest in archer’s rings? His poems give us the answer. Firstly, the emperor saw the importance of safeguarding traditional Manchu culture and heritage. Archery was regarded as the basic weaponry of the Manchu nation with the archer’s ring the indispensable tool. In one of his poems Qianlong wrote that although scholars look down on archery, to maintain a harmonious dynasty it is essential that one does not neglect the ’family law’ and diligently continues practicing hunting and archery. Through writing about archer’s rings, Qianlong expressed his feelings of the urgency to safeguard and maintain the ’family law’. Secondly, the making of archer’s rings followed strict regulations and quality control. Qianlong did not appreciate jade simply as a precious material. He was deeply influenced by the traditional concept of jade being a material as 'clear as the virtue of a gentleman'. Thirdly, inspite of its small size, the making of archer’s rings involved high level of crafsmanship, especially those painted or incised. The overwhelming majority of imperial jade archer’s rings were incised with illustrations, imperial poems and other motifs. Archer’s rings can be found painted with hunting scenes of deer, rabbit, tiger and with designs of pine trees and deer, fishing scenes, peach blooms, birds and others. Designs found on archer’s rings in the Palace Museum collection display a wide range of subject matter. The carving is meticulous and fine, showing the very high level of carfsmanship achieved by artisans at the time. It is no wonder that the emperor found them most enjoyable and bestowed them with imperial poems and writings.
During the Qianlong period, a large number of archer’s rings were made with the majority of rings presented as tributary items to the emperor by officials throughout the country. For example, in the Spring of the 41th year of Qianlong’s reign (equivalent to 1776 A.D.), the Supervisor of Jiujiang, Quan Dejin presented twenty cloisonne archer’s rings; the Governor of Guangdong, Li Shiyao presented fifty archer’s rings made of hide with flower design and fifty ivory archer’s rings. On the ninth day of the first month of the 57th year of the Qianlong reign, Zhen Rui presented four white jade archer’s rings, along with rings made of green jade.
Archer's rings worn by the Emperor were made on imperial command. A record from the 52nd year of Qianlong’s reign notes, 'on the 13th day of the sixth month, Tai Jian handed in two pieces of green jade for making archer’s rings. By imperial command two archer’s rings are to be made following the same pattern as last time. When completed they are to be sent with the report'. The pattern mentioned possibly included drawings of the shape of the ring, its dimentions, size and thickness. It was made to specific measurements for the emperor. Qianlong supervised every step of the making of the rings, and gave instructions to the carvers. Carving was done in the Palace Workshop, conveniently located so that the Emperor could supervise to the smallest details. Imperial records from the 22nd day of the first month of the 47th year of Qianlong’s reign show that in the Ruyi guan four jade pieces were selected from the thirtyone pieces sent in for the making of archer’s rings. The weight of one of the jade was 8 liang and 1 qian, from which two archer’s ring were made; one incised with a poem on the sound of autumn and the other with a poem of a rooster crowing. On the 26th day of the first month, the designs were sent to the emperor for his approval. The emperor then instructed that 'two pieces of archer’s rings are to be made, one with a poem on the sound of autumn together with a figure scene'. Letters dated to the 47th year of the Qianlong reign, kept in the summer residence at Rehe, mention the making of a ring in the Ruyi Dian while the emperor was at Rehe.
From these records we can see the complex work involved in the making of archer’s rings for the emperor. It is safe to say that the rings were made with the joint effort of the emperor and cratsmen working in the Palace Workshop.
The Present Set of Archer’s Rings
The present set of imperial archer’s rings comprises of seven rings which are exquisitely crafted and can be found in a fine packaging. The set is a typical example of an imperial article used in the palace during the Qianlong period.
Among the seven rings, two are of white jade, two of light green jade, one of archaic Han jade, one of green jade and one of 'red skin' green jade. They are of identical size and shape. The four green jade rings and the Han jade ring are incised with the Qianlong Emperor’s poems in the emperor’s calligraphy, and follow the pattern mentioned earlier. The poems found on the two light green jade rings are included in the 40th juan of the Gaozong yuzhi shi si ji; the poem found on the Han jade ring is included in the 15th juan of the same collection; and the poem on the green jade ring is in the 9th juan of the Gaozong yuzhi shi wu ji.
Regarding the two white jade archer’s rings, one is decorated with the cloud design and the other is incised with an imperial poem in the emperor’s calligraphy, together with a painting about the poem. An old man is depicted wearing a cap made of bamboo strips and a rain coat made of grass sitting on a rock along a riverbank watching his fishing rod in the water. Beside the old man, the mountain is of red colour with a narrow path winding along the mountain side, aged old pine trees can be found amidst the rocks - it is a meaningful scenery. The ring is incised with Qianlong’s poem titled ’Jade Archer’s Ring Incised with the Imperial Poem of Fishing Alone at Hanjiang River’. The poem is compiled in the 62nd juan of the Gaozong yuzhi shi san ji. This poem was possibly composed for the ring as the illustration and the calligraphy are in complete harmony. The 'red skin' surfaced green jade archer’s ring in incised with the clouds and with the four characters that can be translated as 'in the memory of the elderly man who fought in eight battles'. The making of this ring is recorded in a letter by Fu Qing written on the 22nd day of the twelfth month of the 54th year of the Qianlong reign. The letter notes that on the 17th day of the twelfth month Tai Jian handed in an old piece of jade decorated with a hornless dragon and tiger, an old diamond heart shaped jade, and a red jade archer’s ring with deer design. On the 15th day of the fifth month of the 55th year of Qianlong’s reign, an archer’s ring was presented to the emperor. The color, calligraphy, decoration and shape of the ring match that of the present 'red skin' green jade ring.
The round lacquer box that holds the rings is made of two parts, a lid and a container. It is carved with the design of three fish amongst flower scroll. The carving is deep and natural. The inside of the box is incised with Qianlong’s poem titled 'Song of the Jade Archer’s Rings’. The base of the box has a four-character Qianlong reign mark. The box is finely carved in the Ming style after Jiaqing and Wanli lacquer carvings. It was made by bamboo and ivory carvers at the Palace Workshops who applied their high level of technical expertise to lacquer. This box is finely incised and can be compared to a circular red lacquer box carved with the design of mythical animals and a tiered red lacquer box carved with the design of fish in water, made in the Qianlong period and now in the Palace Museum collection. It is possible that the above mentioned three boxes were made by the same master carver. The box is lined with a thin zitan liner which is inscribed with the imperial poems titled 'Song of the Jade Archer’s Rings' and 'The Purple Jade Archer’s Ring'. The base of the box is incised in kaishu with the title ’The Hetian Archer’s Ring’. The interior of the box is divided into compartments for each ring to avoid them rubbing against each other. Each ring is kept in a yellow silk liner. This type of packaging is recorded in the Qing archives. 'On the 17th day of the eight month of the 55th year of the Qianlong reign, Tai Jian handed in a piece of gilded lacquer box containing a white jade archer’s ring. By Imperial command: the box is to be lined with sandalwood, and compartments are to be made for the interior of the box. On the 21st day of the eight month a piece of jade archer’s ring was placed in a gilded lacquer box with mounting and was sent to the palace.'
The present set of Imperial archer’s rings is carefully designed and meticulously carved with great attention paid to the finest detail. The packaging is perfectly suited reflecting the very high quality of the seven archer's rings.
12 cm., 4 ¾ in. The zitan liner: comprising two parts, the tray masterfully carved from a single trunk of zitan with straight sides and an everted rim, fitted with six zitan pegs, inscribed to the base in gilt with a seven-column inscription ending with Qianlong xinsi yuti (corresponding to 1761), the cover delicately carved as a flat disc, inscribed to both sides in gilt with an inscription ending with Qianlong yuti The rings: each varying only slightly in size, with one rounded and one chamfered edge Diameter 3 cm., 1 1/8 in. Height 2.2 cm., 7/8 in.
Reputedly removed from the Summer Palace and thence by descent in the collection of a French family since the 19th century.
Christie’s Hong Kong, 27th April 1997, lot 94.