An extremely rare and brilliantly enamelled famille-rose 'lingzhi' wall vase, Seal mark and period of Qianlong

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Lot 3609. An extremely rare and brilliantly enamelled famille-rose 'lingzhi' wall vase, Seal mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795);  23.5 cm., 9 1/4  inEstimate 8,000,000 — 12,000,000 HKD (933,753 - 1,400,630 EUR). Lot sold 13,880,000 (1,595,588 EUR). Photo Sotheby's.

superbly and dramatically modelled in the shape of a lingzhi stem, the main branch curving to the right and sweeping up to a flaring mouth, its sides spreading widely with an undulating edge furling beneath corpulent layers of overlapping spores, vividly enamelled with a kaleidoscopic blend of green, blue and pink glazes, the depth skilfully rendered with shadowing in the recessed areas, covered to the underside in a thick pale apple-green moss running down and pooling at the edges around the stem, the base issuing a branch dividing into two gnarled arms each terminating in a smaller lingzhi, one similarly enamelled and the other a natural freshlingzhi colour, the base sprouting three more lingzhi, the stem painted in varying tones of brown in small dynamic brushstrokes and inscribed on the back with a six-character seal mark in underglaze blue below two connected apertures, wood stand.

ProvenanceA private American collection, by repute.

Divine Fungus for Emperor and Buddha
Baoping Li

Lingzhi or ‘divine fungus’ is amongst the most revered and interesting plants in China. Also called ‘Auspicious Plant’ or ‘Immorality Plant’, lingzhi is believed to be a magical substance and Daoist alchemists claimed that by taking lingzhi man could attain immortality and even a dead person could come to life again. Lingzhi has been a popular motif in Chinese art for two thousand years. Many imperial porcelains of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties are painted with thelingzhi design, often in a stylised or simplified form. It is extremely rare, however, to find a porcelain lingzhi modelled in its naturalistic form like the present piece, which may be unique as no similar porcelain model of a lingzhi appears to be recorded. This gorgeous and attractive lingzhi may have been used as a wall vase and wall decoration or a free-standing model by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95), who is famous for his love of outstanding objects that give a brilliant, imposing and opulent look. 

Two court paintings demonstrate how the Qing emperors favoured the lingzhi motif. One is Pines and Fungi Presentation to Yongzheng by the court painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) (fig. 1), the other titled Birthday Celebration by Immortals(fig. 2).

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Giuseppe Castiglione, Scroll Painting of Pines and Fungi Presentation to Yongzheng (details), colour on silk, Collection of Palace Museum, Beijing. After: Collection of Paintings of Guiseppe Castiglione, Tianjin, 1998, pl.3.

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Zhang Weibang, Lingzhi, album leaf, colour on silk, Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, included in Ding Guanpeng and Chen Mei et al, Immortals Offering Birthday Congratulations, album, 12 leaves, Collection of Long Museum, Shanghai. Courtesy of Long Museum

The present lingzhi was made for the Qianlong Emperor, one of the greatest patrons of the arts in China. Court records demonstrate that the Emperor commissioned porcelain lingzhi to be made, and the difficulties in their successful firing. In the 9th month of the 9th year of the Qianlong period (1744), the Emperor instructed Tang Ying to make three sets of blue and white altar garnitures for a Tibetan Buddhist shrine in the Forbidden City, which consisted of an incense burner, two vases and two candlesticks each, as well as with porcelain lingzhi to be put into the vases as offerings to Buddha. Because of the cold weather, Tang Ying, supervisor of the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen and the most innovative and talented spirit of China’s porcelain industry, could not finish the porcelains until the 4th month of the following year, when he fired two types of lingzhi, one in underglaze blue and the other in polychrome overglaze enamels, see Zhang Faying, Tang Ying du tao wendang [Archive on Tang Ying’s supervision of the imperial kilns], Beijing, 2012, pp. 72 and 163. The Qing emperors are well known for their interest in Tibetan Buddhism, and the order of porcelain lingzhi for Buddha, an object closely related to Taoism and folk relief of China, provides an interesting insight into the religious life of the Qing court and the religious interactions and harmony China is well known for. For a picture photographed in 1900 with lingzhi offered in metal vases in front of a Buddha in the Zhongzheng Hall of the Forbidden City, see Shan Jixiang, The Photographic Collection of the Palace Museum Imperial Buildings through Western Camera, Beijing, 2014, p. 211, fig. 4 (fig. 3). 

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Lingzhi offered in metal altar vases in Zhongzheng Hall, Forbidden City, photographed in 1900. After: Shan Jixiang, The Photographic Collection of the Palace Museum Imperial Buildings through Western Camera, Beijing, 2014, p. 211.

The appreciation of lingzhi by the Qianlong Emperor may also be demonstrated in a small waterpot of Qianlong mark and period, modelled in the shape of a celadon-glazed lingzhi, with three smaller lingzhi and stems in enamels attached to the side, included in Edward T. Chow and Helen D. Ling, Collection of Chinese Ceramics from the Pavilion of Ephemeral Attainment, Hong Kong, 1950, vol. IV, pl. 186, and the exhibition catalogue Qing Imperial Monochromes. The Zande Lou Collection, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2005, cat. no. 46 (fig. 4). A Qianlong-marked vase of lingzhi form covered with a Ru-type glaze, the foot dressed in brown, was included in the exhibition Qing Mark and Period Monochrome and Two-Coloured Wares, S. Marchant & Son, London, 1992, cat. no. 34, and cover. 

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Celadon-glazed and famille-rose lingzhi-shaped waterpot, seal mark and period of Qianlong, the Zande Lou Collection Courtesy of Zande Lou, After: Qing Imperial Monochromes. The Zande Lou Collection, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, 2005, cat. no. 46.

Compare also an imperial porcelain model of gnarled branches of lingzhi covered with a guan-type glaze, with a four-character seal-script mark of the Yongzheng period (1723-35), sold twice in our London rooms, 12th December 1972, lot 169, and 29th November 1990, lot 211. For a Qing period vase of lingzhi form made in Guangdong, see Christie's New York, 23rd March 2012, lot 2059.

Examples of imperial porcelains painted with the lingzhi design are numerous; see, for example, a blue and white meipingvase of the Yongle period (1403-24) with a band of lingzhi near the foot and a peach-and-bamboo motif around the body, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in the Museum’s latest exhibition and illustrated in Wang Guangyao and Jiang Jianxin eds., Imperial Porcelains from the Reigns of Hongwu and Yongle in the Ming Dynasty, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2015, cat. no. 105. See also a large blue-and-white dish of Xuande mark and period (1426-35) with lingzhi on the exterior and a peach-and-parrot motif on the interior, illustrated in Wang Guangyao and Jiang Jianxin eds., Imperial Porcelains from the Reign of Xuande in the Ming Dynasty, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2015, cat. no. 15.

Sotheby's. Important Chinese Art, Hong Kong, 07 oct. 2015, 02:30 PM