Lot 3009. A fine and rare spinach jade bowl with an imperial poem, carved seal mark and period of Qianlong (1736-1795), dated to the bingyin year (1746); 13 cm., 5 1/8 in. Estimation 1,000,000 — 1,500,000 HKD. Lot sold 1,960,000 HKD. Photo: Sotheby's 2013
finely carved with rounded sides rising to a slightly everted rim, carved on the exterior with an Imperial poem Sanqing Cha ('Three Purity Tea') picked out with gold, dated to the bingyin year of the Qianlong reign corresponding to 1746, followed by two seals, the base carved with a six-character reign mark, the greenish black stone mottled with lighter translucent speckles.
Note: The poem can be translated as follows:
'Three Purities Tea', dated to 13th November-22nd December 1746
Yuzhi shiji ('The Anthology od Imperial Qianlong Poems'), Chuji ('First Collection'), (Siku quanshu ed.), 36:17a-17b.
Though the colour of plum blossoms charms not,
The finger citron, really fragrant,
And taste of pine nuts, fresh and rich,
Give this three-flavour tea a purity unique.
Simmered in a shallow pan with a broken leg
And steeped in snow brought in a basket,
The heat and time just right to distinguish fish from crab,
Vapour off the cauldron appearing and vanishing,
Then into a Yue kiln cup the milk of immortality is poured.
My felt yurt is just right for the joy of mystic trance,
And with the five aggregates mostly purified
Enlightenment might happen but never be explained.
Richly fragrant, sweet floss spreading,
Filled with vital energy, a cloud of nectar seeping in,
It's a worthy beverage for Wu Chuan,
And in appreciation Lin Pu would judge it special.
But I'm reluctant to be a Zhaozhou and offer it around,
And rather scorn the oddities of a Jade River,
So, night cold, listening to the clepsydra drip,
Ancient moon, looking like a jade thumb ring, hanging in the sky,
I drink my fill using up what's left
And polish up the lines of this poem.
1. The emperor adds the note: 'Snow water in which plum blossoms, pine nuts, and fingered citron ['Buddha's Hand'] have been steeped to drink is called 'Three Purities' tea.
2. lines 7-8: The heat and timing are adjusted to brew the perfect tea, which preserves the three distinct flavours, just as when preparing seafood broth, the distinct flavours of fish and crab are preserved by careful adjustment of fire and length of cooking time; cooking too much would blend the flavours into one taste. The heat is adjusted to a perfect delicate simmer so that the liquid barely steams.
3. Yue kiln cup: famous ware made during the Tang dynasty, the kiln located in Zhejiang.
4. Five aggregates: the five skandhas, compositional elements of existence, form, feeling, perception, impulse, consciousness.
5. Felt yurt: the emperor is away from the Forbidden City. Pages nearby in the poetry collection contains poems he composed while on the road through Dingxing, not far southwest of Beijing in Hebei, and then farther south to Zhaozhou.
6. Wu Quan, a legendary immortal of remote antiquity, is said, significant here, to have subsisted entirely on pine nuts. Lin Pu (967-1028), poet and calligrapher, was also famous, equally significant, for growing plum trees.
7. Zhaozhou: The Tang dynasty eminent monk Congnian taught most of his career at the Guanyin Temple in Zhaozhou, Hebei. The Buddhist context suggest that the emperor not only has the place Zhaozhou in mind but also this eminent monk.
8. 'Jade River' is the name of a well in Jiyuan, Henan, whose water was favoured by the poet Lu Tong (795-835) to brew tea, so Lu got the sobriquet Yuchuan zi ('Master Jade River'). Lu composed wild and weird poetry, difficult to interpret and full of bizarre diction, none of which pleased the emperor.
Qianlong wrote this poem in the binyin year (corresponding to 1746) on the occasion of his 36th birthday while sipping tea in his studio on a cold winter day and reflecting on his love of tea as well as the virtues of tea making. The poem is included in the Qianlong Emperor's Yuzhi shi chuji ('The Anthology of Imperial Qianlong Poems), juan 36. Every New Year the emperor held a tea drinking banquet in the Chonghua Gong ('Palace of Cherished Glory') in the Forbidden City, where he asked his guests to compose poetry. As a token of his appreciation he rewarded the best poet with a Sanqing cha ('Three Purities Tea') bowl.
Jade tea bowls inscribed with the Sanqing cha ('Three Purities Tea') poem are rare and are more commonly found in porcelain, decorated either in iron-red or blue and white, as well as in lacquer. A nearly identical bowl was sold three times in auctions, Christie's New York, 6th June 1985, lot 375, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2nd May 2000, lot 585, and recently Christie's Hong Kong, 30th November 2011, lot 2964. A slightly smaller tea bowl of this form and inscription, but with a cover and carved from white jade, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 29th November 2005, lot 1648; and another white jade example, but with a slightly incurved rim, was sold in these rooms, 2nd May 2005, lot 526.
A porcelain bowl inscribed with this poem in underglaze blue was included in the Special exhibition of K'ang-hsi, Yung-cheng and Ch'ien-lung Porcelain Ware from the Ch'ing Dynasty in the National Palace Museum, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1986, cat. no. 142; and two iron-red examples were included in the exhibition Late Chinese Imperial Porcelain, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1980, cat. no. 1. For an example in lacquer, see a bowl in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, illustrated in Sir Harry M. Garner, Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, pl. 93; and a pair of bowls from the Tianjin Municipal Art Museum, published in Zhongguo qiqi quanji, vol. 6, Fuzhou, 1993, pl. 211.