Lot 60. A Very Rare And Magnificent Imperial Three-Colour Carved 'Nine Dragon' Lacquer Throne, Qianlong Period (1736-1795); 43 ¼ in. (111.1 cm.) high; 45 ½ in. (115.5 cm.) wide; 33 ¾ in. (85.7 cm.) deepEstimate GBP 800,000 - GBP 1,200,000 (USD 1,046,400 - USD 1,569,600). Price realised GBP 6,108,250. © Christie's Images Ltd 2019.

The throne is finely carved through the red lacquer to the ochre and dark green lacquer and has a stepped back separated into three vertical panels each containing dragons chasing flaming pearls amidst dense clouds. The two side railings are similarly carved in high-relief with dragons striding amidst bats in flight and dense scrolling clouds above a rectangular seat decorated with archaistic lotus scroll and a narrow waist with a shaped apron centred with a front-facing dragon. The back panel is carved with a bat suspending a chime and a double-fish. The whole is raised on thick rounded legs joined by rectangular base stretchers. 

Provenance: Private Asian Collection, acquired in Hong Kong in 1997.


Regal Encounters
A carved polychrome lacquer throne with cloud and dragon design
Zhang Rong, Shou’angong, Forbidden City

In terms of furniture classifcation, the category ‘thrones’ applies to a range of seat forms including throne chairs, beds or couches, or low-back daybeds. As to function, these not only served practical purposes, but were also unmistakable status symbols in imperial China, intended solely for the use of ruling emperors. They were often placed in the main audience chambers the emperor would visit, accompanied by throne screens and court fans, among other accessories, to emphasise imperial power and prestige. Apart from court fans, thrones in major halls on the central axis of the Forbidden City, such as the Hall of Supreme Harmony and Hall of Preserving Harmony, could also be fanked by vases and elephants (together the Chinese characters for “elephant” and “vase” form a rebus for the expression ‘May there be a peaceful reign’), luduan (a mythical creature), cranes, and parfumiers, all to underline the idea that the emperor was indeed an able ruler.

According to the records of the Zaobanchu (Board of Works), materials used for making thrones included zitan, huali, tree roots, deer horn and Chinese lacquer, with the latter including carved lacquer, painted lacquer, painted gold designs against a ground of black lacquer, flled-in lacquer, gilt lacquer, mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer, and gilt lacquer covered with a clear lacquer. The throne screen with pierced designs now on display in the Hall of Supreme Harmony of the Palace Museum, for instance, is a fne example of gilt lacquer covered with a clear lacquer. 

The item discussed here is a throne decorated in carved polychrome lacquer, with an overall height of 112.5 cm. and a seat measuring 53.6 cm. high, 104.8 cm. long and 74.5 cm. wide. It is a fve-panel throne, the stepped back of which is formed of a higher central panel fanked by lower ones on either side. The rectangular seat is raised on a waisted apron, and the structure is supported on four inward curving rounded legs terminating in scroll feet and joined by rectangular base stretchers. The seat is fnely painted in red and green lacquer against a red ground, and details of its foral designs are picked out in gold, adding to the textural complexity of the decoration. The entire throne is covered in carved polychrome lacquer, a fnish that would have required the lacquer to be applied in three colours (i.e. yellow, green and red), with each colour being applied in multiple layers before the next could be painted on top. While a yellow lacquer ground carved with lozenges represents water in the natural world, green lacquer is employed to contrast with the red clouds, and the central motif of dragons amidst clouds is carved in red. On the central panel of the backrest is a front-facing encircling dragon, which sports a freely fowing mane, fnely arched eyebrows, a powerful wide-eyed gaze, open jaws with tongue exposed, and a writhing sinuous body exuding both power and immense presence, all amidst a dense ground of swirling, ethereal clouds. Nine carved dragons decorate the front and back of the panels, and twelve additional dragons appear on the apron of the throne. The back of the panels is carved with bats amongst clouds, with one bat holding a suspended qing (chiming stone) and twin fsh. In traditional Chinese culture, bats indicate blessings and qing is a homophone of the Chinese character for celebrations, while fish are usually associated with wealth, so together they provide a rebus for the wish fuqing youyu, or ‘May there be a superabundance of auspicious happiness’. Synonymous with supreme imperial power, dragons were the most popular and extensively used primary imperial decoration, and remained one of the most exclusive status symbols associated with court wares. Throne screens also epitomised an emperor’s authority and ranked amongst the imperial articles outlined in the Qing statutes, and the fnest examples from the Qing dynasty are often celebrated for their exquisite dragon designs. 

Carved lacquer is one of the most timeconsuming and challenging approaches to making lacquer wares. The application of each layer of lacquer requires a day or two before the next can be added on top, and a throne such as the current lot could have at least a hundred layers. All the carving would have had to be done before the lacquer dried out completely, so a single throne would have taken at least a year to make. This not only required outstanding workmanship acquired through painstaking efort to master the various techniques, but also considerable patience and attention to detail. Against an imperial backdrop, there was no room whatsoever for laxity or carelessness in making any court wares, let alone a throne meant for the emperor’s personal use. The development of carved lacquer reached its zenith during the Qianlong reign of the Qing dynasty, and the Zaobanchu, with the country’s most accomplished craftsmen at its disposal, spared no efort and money in its production. A great variety of lacquer wares were produced at the time. In addition to a diverse array of carved lacquer, monochrome lacquer, gilt-decorated polychrome lacquer, flledin lacquer, painted gold lacquer, lacquer painted with tung oil (or Chinese wood oil), lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlays and lacquer inlaid with hardstones, new varieties were also developed by incorporating jade and bamboo inlays, bringing the art form to new heights. Carved lacquers represent an important variety developed in the Qianlong reign, yet the Zaobanchu records suggest that contemporary carved lacquer wares were not produced at the palace lacquer workshop but by the Imperial Silk Manufactory at Suzhou as royal commissions. As to which lacquer wares were to be made and how, the Zaobanchu would issue specifc instructions and drawings to be followed by the Suzhou craftsmen. Like the porcelains made at the Jingdezhen imperial kilns, the fnished lacquer wares were sent to the Forbidden City from Suzhou. As to whether they should bear inscriptions, and if so what was to be inscribed, such matters were also determined by the Zaobanchu. 

By referring to the Palace Records of the Workshops of the Imperial Household Department (hereinafter referred to as “palace records”), the Archives of Imperial Display, and the Complete Collection of Porcelains in the Qing Palaces and Auditing Report on Palace Items, the current author has examined all relevant information and documents about the production of carved lacquer thrones, and about the carved lacquer thrones displayed in places such as the Forbidden City and the Yuanmingyuan, as well as those presented as tributes by local oficials. 

On the 21st day of the 10th month of the 7th year of the Yongzheng reign, an entry in the palace records notes that eunuchs Zhang Yuzhu and Wang Changgui presented one chenxiangmu carving of a double-gourd, one gilt lacquer table for the wanshou ding (literally ‘eternal longevity censer’), one fangyangqi (foreign style lacquer) folding screen depicting the theme of ‘Envoys from Vassal States and Foreign Countries Presenting Tributes to the Emperor’ and the shou-character, one carved lacquer fve-dragon throne (complete with a silk brocade seat cushion), a fangyangqi tianxiang (literally ‘flled-in with fragrant lacquer’) kang seat with a backre anfu youtong (a quote from the Book of Odes, meaning ‘May you have eternal blessings’) tianxiang kang table, one small incense stand to be placed on a tianxiang kang table, one tianxiang vase, and one palace incense dish (see illustration on page 22). All of these were presented by Sui Hede. And the Emperor decreed: ‘Have them sent to the chief eunuch at the Yuanmingyuan for safekeeping and present them for perusal when I next visit the Yuanmingyuan.’ On the 21st day of the same month, Hai Wang, a bureau director, and Man Pi, a director, handed these items to Bai Tang’a and Fo Bao, who would deliver them to the Palace Archive Ofice at the Yuanmingyuan for safekeeping by Bao De, the head of the imperial guards and bureau director. Sui Hede was a Manchurian appointed the superintendent of the Imperial Silk Manufactory at Jiangning in the 4th year of the Yongzheng reign. With regard to carved lacquer thrones, the one mentioned

above seems to be the only example documented throughout the Yongzheng reign. 

On the 10th day of the 8th month in the 7th year of the Qianlong reign, the palace records further note that a eunuch, Lu Jinchao, reported that the chief eunuch, Kai Qili, had presented one carved lacquer throne, one polychrome golden dragon silk brocade seat cushion, a pair of polychrome golden dragon silk brocade wrist cushions, a fve-panel carved lacquer screen (accompanied by a raised throne platform), two carved lacquer altar tables, a pair of carved fushou (‘blessings and longevity’) dishes (accompanied by a pair of incense stands), a pair of carved lacquer incense censers (accompanied by a pair of incense stands), a pair of carved lacquer ram’s horn lanterns with stands (together with a base for each), and a pair of fangyangqi bookcases. And the Emperor decreed: ‘Have them delivered to the Chief Eunuch’s Bureau at the Yuanmingyuan.’ On the 11th day of the same month, Bai Tang’a and Qiang Yong delivered the aforementioned carved lacquer throne and the remaining items to the Chief Eunuch’s Bureau at the Yuanmingyuan. 

this is the earliest Qianlong entry identifed, but the palace records make no mention of where these carved lacquers had been produced or who had presented them, or if they were simply from the Imperial collection of the Qing court. Interestingly, a yangqi throne was presented on the 18th day of the 11th month in the same year (i.e. the 7th year of the Qianlong reign). It is noted in the palace records that on the 18th day of the 11th month in the 7th year of the Qianlong reign, Bai Shixiu, a warehouseman, reported that the chief eunuch, Kai Qili, had presented a yangqi (foreign lacquer’) throne, a pair of yangqi bookcases, an embroidered nine-panel screen, two pairs of yangqi incense stands, and two pairs of small incense stands. And the Emperor decreed: ‘Have them sent to the Chief Eunuch’s Bureau at the Yuanmingyuan.’ The records also say that all the aforementioned items were delivered by Bai Tang’a and Gao Wushi to the Chief Eunuch’s Bureau at the Yuanmingyuan on the 25th day of the same month (see illustration on page 24). 

Again, the entry does not indicate the source of the set of yangqi furniture. Judging by the Yongzheng emperor’s preference for yangqi, it seems probable that these items were inherited from his reign. But given the absence of records of carved lacquers being made during the Yongzheng reign, one cannot help but wonder where exactly these carved lacquer pieces mentioned in the 7th year of the Qianlong reign were from. In all likelihood they were contemporaneous pieces from the Qianlong reign. 

According to an entry about the palace sewing workshop on the 25th day of the 12th month in the 9th year of the Qianlong reign, Shixiu reported that eunuch Hu Shijie had presented a carved red lacquer dragon throne, which had a chip in one claw, cracks in the backrest and

under the armrest, and another chip on top. The Emperor decreed: ‘Have it ftted with a mink seat cushion and displayed with the lanternsand screen at the main audience chamber of the Yangxindian (Hall of Mental Cultivation).’ On the 21st day of the same month, Bai Shixiu, a warehouseman, reported that eunuch Hu Shijie had transmitted an edict, saying that the carved red lacquer throne was no longer required to be placed with the lanterns and screen, and that it should be displayed instead at the Chonghuagong (Palace of Cherished Glory) once the mink seat cushion became available. On the 26th day of the same month, De Fu, the deputy chief, broughtin a carved lacquer throne with a mink seat cushion and handed both to eunuch Hu Shijie for presentation.

The carved lacquer throne documented in the 9th year of the Qianlong reign is almost certainly not the one mentioned in the 7th year of the Qianlong reign, for the latter was delivered to the Yuanmingyuan and the former was sent to the Chonghua gong, the residence of the Qianlong emperor when he was still the heir apparent, for the emperor’s use during his occasional visits. 

There was a further entry in the palace records in the 31st year of the Qianlong reign. Accounts suggest that supervisor Si De and clerk Wu De reported on the 4th day of the 3rd month an edict transmitted by eunuch Hu Shijie. This edict ordered a pair of carved lacquer incense stands to be made in the style of the carved lacquer throne currently on display at the main hall of the Yulinglongguan (Exquisite Jade Studio). Drawings were to be submitted for inspection before being sent of in time to the Suzhou manufactory. On the 12th day of the same month, supervisor Si De and clerk Wu De set a wood specimen of the incense stands, which measured one foot three inches long, eight inches wide and five inches high and was painted with the carved lacquer designs, on the raised throne platform at the Yulinglongguan for imperial perusal. The specimen was approved by imperial command and dispatched to Suzhou to be made into a pair of carved lacquer incense stands. This entry therefore confrms that a pair of carved lacquer incense stands were ordered to be made in Suzhou in accordance with the style of an existing carved lacquer throne. 

The Qinggong ciqi dang’an quanji (Complete Records on Porcelain from the Qing Court) is not only a compendium of porcelain production, but also contains immensely valuable information on the tributes presented by certain local oficials. An entry on the 4th day of the 7th month in the 36th year of the Qianlong reign notes that Zhou Yuanli, governor of Shandong, humbly submitted a carved lacquer throne with an embroidered seat cushion and a stool, a carved lacquer altar table with an embroidered cover, a carved lacquer screen, a carved lacquer daybed with an embroidered wrist cushion, a pair of carved lacquer imperial fans, a pair of carved lacquer incense stands, a pair of carved lacquer bookcases, a pair of carved lacquer kang tables, and four pairs of carved lacquer garden stools with embroidered cushion covers. 

Accounts on the 1st day of the 8th month in the 46th year of the Qianlong reign suggest that Nong Qi, a humble servant and governor of Anhui, respectfully presented a jade fgure of Amitayus, a carved lacquer stupa and an imperial jade book of the sixteen Arhats, all of which were ordered to be delivered to the Yonghegong (Palace of Eternal Harmony) and properly placed for worship. Included in addition were a pair of jade-inset zitan table screens, a pair of jade-inset wanfu wanshou (literally ‘eternal blessings and longevity’) ruyi, a three-panel red carved lacquer screen, a pair of red carved lacquer imperial fans, a red carved lacquer throne, a large red carved lacquer altar table, a pair of red carved lacquer tianxiang incense stands, a pair of red carved lacquer qin tables, a pair of red carved lacquer kang tables, a pair of red carved lacquer bookcases, and two pairs of red carved lacquer square stools, all of which were to be delivered to Rehe. 

There is no mention of carved lacquer thrones being created in palace records and tribute archives. The two sources only contain accounts of matching carved lacquer incense stands being made for certain carved lacquer thrones. 

Excluding the carved lacquer throne with zitan inlays, there are currently four carved lacquer thrones in the Palace Museum collection, one originally from the Ruyiguan (Imperial Production Studios), one from either Shenyang or the Summer Palace, and a pair formerly in the collection of the Fuwangge (Belvedere of Viewing Achievements). Yet the carved red lacquer throne decorated with dragons amidst clouds from either the Shenyang Imperial Palace or the Summer Palace (fgs. 1-3) is the only example comparable in form and workmanship to the carved polychrome lacquer throne currently on ofer at Christie’s London. But how should we explain the absence of production records in relation to thrones with imperial forms and decorations? It is not surprising that this has proved a popular research subject, and many scholars have attempted to solve the puzzle, which often points them towards the interaction between court and local authorities. However, the lack of information makes it hard to say for sure why some tributes presented by local oficials are covered with imperial designs or even bear imperial poems. Could they be imperial commissions or simply tributes from oficials who were authorised to produce works with imperial designs for special occasions such as the Wanshou Festival (the emperor’s birthday) or Mid-Autumn Festival? 


Fig. 1: A carved lacquer throne with cloud and dragon design, mid Qing dynasty, 103.3 cm. long, 113 cm. high, originally collected in the Forbidden city, After The Complete Collection.


Fig. 2: A carved lacquer throne with cloud and dragon design, mid Qing dynasty, 103.3 cm. long, 113 cm. high, originally collected in the Forbidden city, After The Complete Collection of Ming and Qing Dynasty Furniture in the Palace Museum: Throne, vol. 1, Beijing, 2015, p. 301.


Fig. 3: A carved lacquer throne with cloud and dragon design, mid Qing dynasty, 103.3 cm. long, 113 cm. high, originally collected in the Forbidden city, After The Complete Collection of Ming and Qing Dynasty Furniture in the Palace Museum: Throne, vol. 1, Beijing, 2015, p. 291.

Be that as it may, there is no question at all that the current carved polychrome throne with dragon and cloud design is exemplary of its type and ranks amongst the fnest specimens of carved lacquer Qianlong furniture. 

1 Qinggong neiwufu zaobanchu dang’an zonghui 清宮內務府造辦處檔案總匯 (Complete Compilation of the Archives of the Qing Dynasty Imperial Workshops), Renmin chubanshe, 2005, vol. 4, pp.199-200.
2 Ibid., vol. 11, p. 147.
3 Ibid., vol. 11, p. 160.
4 Ibid., vol. 13, p. 39.
5 Ibid., vol. 30, p. 333.
6 The Qinggong ciqi dang’an quanji 清宮瓷器檔案全集 (Complete Records on Porcelain from the Qing Court), vol. 11, pp. 190-191.
7 Ibid., vol. 16, pp. 187-188.
8 Zhan Zhenpeng, ‘Imperial Imagery and Local Tributes: Research on Carved Lacquer Panels of the Taiwan Campaign during the Qianlong Reign 帝國紀勳與地方貢品:乾隆朝《平定臺灣得勝圖》雕漆掛屏考’, Taida Journal of Art History, no. 45.


Dragon Throne for the Son of Heaven
Rosemary Scott, Senior Academic Consultant Asian Art

The primary decoration on this magnificent carved three-colour lacquer throne depicts nine five-clawed dragons amongst clouds. The link between dragons and Chinese emperors can be traced to legends associated with emperors of early China. One of these relates to the legendary first emperor of China, known as the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) whose dates are usually given as 2697–2597 BC. Among the myths associated with the Yellow Emperor it is stated that at his death he was transformed into a dragon and ascended to Heaven. This and other legends contributed to the adoption of the dragon as the symbol of imperial power – a symbolism which spread to other parts of Asia. The dragon is also one of the four celestial animals, which represent the four quarters – with the dragon representing the east.  

The imperial title Son of Heaven (Tianzi) for the Chinese Emperor also had its origins in antiquity - as far back as the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046-256 BC) - and was linked to the doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. The Zhou rulers claimed that Heaven had withdrawn its mandate from the previous Shang dynasty rulers (c. 1600-1046 BC), because of their corruption and failures in government, and had instead bestowed it on the Zhou, as being the most fit to rule. The Son of Heaven was seen as having the Mandate of Heaven to rule the Empire - tianxia, literally ‘land under Heaven’, and having personal responsibility for the prosperity and safety of his subjects. This responsibility for the welfare of their subjects is another reason for the link between emperors and dragons. In China the dragon was a beneficent creature, associated with water and specifically was seen as the bringer of the rain, which was required to water the crops and ensure a bountiful harvest. The dragon was believed to rise from beneath the waves at the spring equinox in order to bring this essential rain. 

On the current throne nine dragons are depicted. Nine was regarded as particularly auspicious and was also the imperial number. Traditionally in China odd numbers were regarded as masculine while even numbers were regarded as feminine. Nine was the highest single digit number and was therefore regarded as the ultimate masculine number - thus symbolising the supreme power of the emperor. Nine representations of auspicious emblems were therefore often depicted on decorative arts intended for the emperor – such as nine peaches painted on a porcelain vase (fig. 1). Even the large metal studs on the huge gates at the entrances to the Forbidden City were usually arranged in nine rows of nine studs – 81 in all. Nine and its multiples can frequently be seen in palace architecture and furniture – such as the current throne. Nine is also an important number for the attributes of dragons. A dragon was believed to have 117 scales, of which 81 were male (9 x 9) and 36 were female (9 x 4). There were believed to be nine different forms of dragon, and the dragon was supposed to have nine children. Two of the most well-known examples of imperial decoration featuring nine dragons are the magnificent ceramic nine-dragon screens, such as that in the Forbidden City Beijing – built in 1771, and the famous Qing dynasty nine-dragon imperial robes (fig. 2). 


Fig. 1: A famille rose `nine-peaches’ globular bottle vase, Qianlong six-character seal mark and of the period (1736-1795), 50 cm. high, sold Christie’s Hong Kong, 29 April 2002, lot 568.


Fig. 2: An important and very rare imperial yellow brocade dragon robe, jifu, Kangxi period (1677-1722), 135 cm. long, 204 cm. across, sold Christie’s Hong Kong, 27 May 2009, lot 1817.

The dragons on the current throne are depicted pursuing flaming pearls amongst dense and complex clouds, as is often the case on Chinese imperial decorative arts. The clouds themselves are auspicious symbols, in part because they provide a rebus for good fortune. It is also significant that clouds, such as the examples on this throne, are often shaped like lingzhi fungus of immortality, and so emphasise a wish for long life. Particularly in an imperial context, the clouds also recall the shape of the head of a ruyi sceptre, suggesting the hope for ‘everything as you wish it’. It is interesting to note that on this throne the clouds have subtle green highlights. Although the greatest proportion of the design appears in carved red lacquer against a yellow lacquer ground carved with lozenges, the majority of the clouds have small carved green lacquer extensions – either to the side or below the individual cloud forms. 

The nine dragons appear on the interior backrest and sides of the throne. There are additional small dragons on the apron and in-turned horse hoof shaped legs. On the exterior of the throne back bats are depicted amongst clouds. Bats provide a rebus for blessings – combining with the clouds representing good fortune. On the central panel of the back an upside-down bat holds a ribbon from which are suspended a qing chiming stone and a pair of fish. The fact of the bat being upside-down suggests the arrival of blessings as the word for upside (dao ) is a pun for (dao ) ‘arrive’ The qing chiming stone provides a rebus for congratulations or celebrations (qing ), while the paired fish are one of the Eight Buddhist Emblems, but in this context, they represent abundance and in combination with the chiming stone suggest the wish jiqing youyu ‘May there be a superabundance of auspicious happiness’. It should be noted that the symbols which would have been seen by those permitted to enter the emperor’s presence were the dragons of imperial power, while the more personal auspicious emblems were on the back of the throne and would have been largely obscured from view even by those standing to the side of the emperor since a large throne screen would have been placed behind the throne. Most of the minor bands on this throne are either filled with bats and clouds or with well-carved squared spirals. However, at the waist is a band of scrolling lotus and a petal panel band. The lotus provides both a link with Buddhism and a suggestion of purity. The uncarved seat of the throne is well painted with floral scrolling designs, but in use this would have been covered with a silk-covered seat cushion. 

The Imperial Household Department (Neiwufu) in the Ming dynasty had included some 24 departments and two of these – the Neiguanjian (Directorate of Palace Servants, responsible for all palace construction and repairs) and the Yuyongjian (Directorate of Imperial Accoutrements) - both produced lacquer wares and in the case of the Neiguanjian, these lacquer wares included furniture. There were further lacquer workshops elsewhere, run by local government agencies. However, the production of official Ming dynasty carved lacquer appears to have come to an end in 1610 and there seems to have been no official carved lacquer made in Beijing until the Qianlong reign. In 1739 an official lacquer workshop producing carved lacquer wares was established in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, where there was already an official textile and embroidery workshop, and as the Qianlong reign progressed, carved lacquer wares came to dominate the lacquers made for the court. Records suggest that the lacquer items made in the palace in the late 1730s and 1740s were not carved by craftsmen who restricted themselves to carving lacquer, but who were also skilled carvers of ivory, bamboo, rhinoceros’ horn and a range of other materials. It seems that even in the 1750s relatively few carved lacquer pieces were made in the Beijing palace workshops and that these were carved by craftsmen who specialised in carving, rather than simply lacquer carving. 

There has been a tendency amongst scholars to ascribe all fine Qing dynasty carved lacquer in the palace collections, which does not bear a reign mark, to the Qianlong reign. However more recent research by Chinese scholars such as Zhu Jiajin has shown that finely carved vermillion lacquer thrones decorated with dragons were in use in the Qing palaces prior to the Qianlong reign. Interestingly, the Yangxin dian Zaobanchu Gezuo Chengzuo Huoji Qingdang (Catalogue of Objects made in the Palace Workshops of the Hall of Cultivating the Mind), provides information that makes it clear that a wide range of lacquer wares – some 20 different types - are mentioned as being made in the palace workshops during the Yongzheng reign, including those covered with gold lacquer and those with painted gold lacquer, but does not mention any carved lacquer from the palace workshops in the Yongzheng reign. However, palace records of lacquer wares manufactured in provincial workshops and either specially ordered by the emperor or presented to the emperor do include items of carved lacquer. One of these is an unusually long red lacquer throne, carved with dragons amongst clouds and waves, in the collection of the Palace Museum Beijing (illustrated in Gugong shou cang - diaoqiPalace Museum Collection - Carved Lacquerwares, Beijing, 2008, p. 210, no. 140). Zhu Jiajin has discovered that this was in fact presented to the Yongzheng Emperor by Sui Hede of Jiangning on the 21st day of the 7th month of the 7th year of the Yongzheng reign [1729] (see Zhu Jiajin, ‘’Yongzheng Lacquerware in the Palace Museum, Beijing’, Orientations, March 1988, p. 36). On the same date several other lacquer wares from Sui Hede were also presented to the emperor, including pieces of yangqi(foreign style lacquer) and tianxiangqi (literally ‘filled-in with fragrance lacquer’) - see ibid. p. 38. It is possible that the carved red dragon throne presented by Sui Hede was the ‘carved lacquer five dragon throne’ mentioned in the palace archives as being one of the items sent on the Yongzheng Emperor’s orders to the Yuanming yuan in November 1729 (fig. 3). It is not surprising to note that the official who presented the throne to the emperor was Sui Hede, who was Superintendent of the Imperial Silk Manufactory at Nanjing in the Jiangnan region, where there were workshops making fine lacquer, from which the Yongzheng Emperor himself ordered special lacquer wares. Carved lacquer was popular in the Jiangnan region during the Yongzheng reign and pieces of very high quality were made there. 


Fig. 3: Excerpt from the palace archives noting that the Yongzheng Emperor ordered a carved red lacquer `fkve dragon’ throne to be sent to the Yuanming yuan in November 1729.

The palace archives note that in December of the ninth year of the Qianlong reign [1744] the Emperor ordered that a carved lacquer dragon throne should be placed in the Chonghua gong, the Palace of Doubled Glory (fig. 4). In March the following year the Qianlong Emperor ordered a matching throne screen to stand behind it, despite the fact that the throne was not in the best condition. The screen was to be decorated with the theme of yinghai fei long, dragons flying over the sea. The emperor’s fondness for the carved lacquer dragon throne is further suggested by the fact that he ordered incense stands to accompany the throne and screen, and these were delivered in December of the eleventh year of his reign [1746] (fig. 5).  


Fig. 4: Excerpt from the palace archives noting that in November of the ninth year of Qianlong (1744) the Emperor Qianlong ordered a carved lacquer dragon throne to be placed in the Chonghua gong, the Palace of Doubled Glory.


Fig. 5. Excerpt from the palace archives noting that the emperor ordered incense stands to accompany the throne and screen, which were delivered in December of the eleventh year of Qianlong (1746).

Thrones were of immense importance in emphasising imperial power and majesty. They, together with the throne screens that usually accompanied them, provided a setting by which the emperor’s person was rendered even more imposing, set apart from those who sought audience but the focus of attention for all. Thrones were undoubtedly the most important items of furniture in the palace in terms of reinforcing the position of the Son of Heaven. The thrones would always have faced south, so that those approaching the emperor faced north. They would have been required in all of the halls in which the emperor received officials and J.C. Ferguson in Survey of Chinese Art, Shanghai, 1940 noted that there would have been more than one hundred thrones in the palace. In Wan Yi, Wang Shuqing and Lu Yanzhen, Daily Life in the Forbidden City, translated by Rosemary Scott and Erica Shipley, Hong Kong, 1988, p. 144, plate caption 196, it is noted that early in his reign the Qianlong Emperor decreed that a throne and a throne screen should be placed in each of the 12 Eastern and Western Palaces. The emperor stated that these could not be changed, but in fact numerous alterations were made in succeeding reign periods. Thus, it was not only in the main audience chambers on the central axis of the Forbidden City where thrones would have been placed, but also in smaller halls, palaces and pavilions, where appropriate. The Chonghua gong, for example, where the Qianlong Emperor placed a carved lacquer dragon throne, throne screen and incense stands in the 1740s, was built in 1727 on the orders of the Yongzheng emperor for the use of the heir apparent Prince Hongli (the future Qianlong Emperor), and was part of the Inner Court in the rear, north, section of the Forbidden City. It was one of the palaces in which the Qianlong Emperor hosted tea parties during the Spring Festival, at which guests were required to compose poems in bailiang style, with seven characters to a line, each carrying the same rhyme. 

Although a significant number of thrones are preserved in the Palace Museum Beijing, very few of those are of carved red lacquer, despite the fact that thrones of this material, rather than hardwood, appear to have been favoured for the most important occasions. There is a set of carved red lacquer throne, throne screen and pair of incense stands illustrated in The Palace Museum Collection  A Treasury of Ming & Qing Dynasty Palace Furniture, volume 1, Beijing, 2006, p. 15, fig. 1, and in the same volume is illustrated an early Qing dynasty carved red lacquer throne with pierced back rest and sides (ibid. p. 76, fig. 50). A zitan and carved red lacquer throne and throne screen from the Yongshou gong (Palace of Eternal Longevity) is illustrated in The Palace Museum Collection  A Treasury of Ming & Qing Dynasty Palace Furniture, volume 2, Beijing, 2006, p. 689, fig. 787.

While the carved lacquer dragon throne presented to the Yongzheng Emperor has an undulating back, the current throne is a so-called ‘five-panel’ throne in which the backrest is formed of a higher central panel with a lower panel on either side. A carved red lacquer dragon throne of similar form in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing is illustrated in Lacquer Wares of the Qing Dynasty, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 6, no. 4, where it is dated to the Kangxi reign. The Kangxi throne is also decorated with dragons amongst clouds, and also has in-turned horse hoof feet. A very similarly-shaped Kangxi throne decorated with tianqi and qiangjin lacquer was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong on 29 May 2000, lot 1395 (fig. 6). The proportions of both of these thrones as slightly different from those of the current throne. There is less difference in height between the central back panel and the panels on either side, and the legs of the thrones are longer and thinner. The proportions of the current throne are closer to those of another carved red lacquer dragon throne in the collection of the Palace Museum Beijing, which is illustrated by C. Ho and B. Bronson in Splendors of Chinas Forbidden City, London and New York, 2004, p. 251, no. 321. This latter throne dates to the Qianlong reign and is also decorated with dragons amongst clouds. The back of this throne is decorated with bats, clouds and a qing chiming stone, similarly to the back of the current throne, although the back of the Beijing throne is painted in gold on yellow, rather than carved in red lacquer. The shape of the apron of the Beijing Qianlong throne is somewhat more exaggerated than that of the current throne. 


Fig. 6: An important imperial gilt-incised lacquer throne, baozuo, Kangxi period (1662-1722), 104.9 x125.9 x 81.3 cm., Sold for 13,760,000 HKD at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29 May 2007, lot 1395.

Another carved lacquer throne decorated with dragons amongst clouds, but with an additional panel inset into the backrest depicting figures in landscape, is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (discussed by Craig Clunas in ‘Whose Throne Is It Anyway? The Qianlong Throne in the T.T. Tsui Gallery’, Orientations, July 1991, pp. 44-50) (fig. 7). The Victoria and Albert Museum throne is a much heavier piece of furniture with very elaborate carved decoration including raised ruyi-shaped strips and the raised panel depicting figures in landscape, mentioned above. From its overall style it would appear to date to later in the Qianlong reign. While the current magnificent throne has immense presence, its less exaggerated form and more restrained decoration suggest that it probably dates to the early part of the Qianlong period, or even to the Yongzheng reign. For either emperor, this rare three-colour carved lacquer throne with its decoration of nine dragons would have been a precious and treasured reflection of supreme imperial authority. 












Fig. 7: Chinese Imperial throne, carved lacquer on wood depicting five clawed dragons, Qing dynasty, 1775-1780, Qianlong period, 119.3 cm. high,  125.7 cm. wide, in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum, W.399:1, 2-1922, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

This throne was almost certainly commissioned in the late 1780s for the Tuanhe Travelling Palace, one of several temporary abodes of the emperors of the Qing dynasty in the Nan Haizi ('southern ponds') hunting park immediately south of Beijing. This park formed the setting for a number of military reviews celebrating the apogee of Manchu power in Asia, but was neglected in the nineteenth century and gradually fell into decay. The Nan Haizi park was looted by Russian troops in 1900-01, in the aftermath of the occupation of Beijing by troops of the eight allied powers (including the United States and Great Britain) that invaded China, ostensibly to suppress the so-called Boxer Uprising. The czarist Russian ambassador Mikhail N. Girs acquired the throne in China and brought it to Britain following the Soviet Revolution of 1917.

There is no firm evidence as to which of the Nan Yuan 'travelling palaces' the throne and its attendant screen were taken from. It can be assumed that some form of 'throne' was present in the main halls of all four. If it was taken from the Tuan He Travelling Palace, as being the most desirable object of looting, then that would suggest a date of 1775-1780, which is acceptable stylistically.

The throne was displayed by the dealer Spink & Son at its St. James's premises and bought from the firm on behalf of the Museum by George Swift, a major figure in the wholesale potato industry in Britain and, during World War I, a colleague of Edward Fairbrother Strange, the V&A's furniture curator.

The throne has a companion screen (museum number 71.233) in the Museum Fur Volkerkunde, Vienna. The main subject there is the Pan Tao Feast, birthday of Xi Wang Mu, which runs across all three leaves. The screen was in the Austrian embassy, Beijing by October 1900, and relatively full documentation survives concerning its acquisition by the Museum.

Originally the hard surface of the throne would have been padded with cushions. 

Christie's. Dragon Throne For The Son of Heaven, London, 14 May 2019