Entitled “Beauty and Beyond: Women in Chinese Art,” the 64-lot auction held by Bonhams last week was the first of its kind in Hong Kong, to shed light on the beauty of women across the traditional and modern art history of Chinese culture.
Each of the artworks encompassing different art forms pays tribute to the diversity and representation of femininity. Two of the star lots included a 16th/17 century Guanyin figure, as well as a stunning jade pavilion inspired by renowned Chinese play “Romance of the Western Chamber.”
Quite a number of the lots attracted fierce bidding among interested collectors, with a handful of hair accessories sold well above their presale estimates.
Lot 27 | Silver-inlaid bronze figure of Guanyin, 16th/17th century
Height: 63 cm
- An Asian private collection
Estimate: HK$3,500,000 - 4,500,000
Price realized: HK$4,377,500
Traditional Chinese ideals of female beauty evolved from the preference for plump and voluptuous figures in the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1127) to a more slender look in the subsequent era. Nonetheless, old-time women’s physique is largely retained in religious figures, which are often the manifestations of different cultural values too.
One example would be figures of Guanyin that date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1912). Guanyin is the Chinese interpretation of the Southern Indian masculine bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. Yet according to the “Lotus Sutra” - one of the foremost sacred scriptures of Buddhism, Guanyin embodies the limitless nature of the bodhisattva and could appear in both male and female form, to transcend beyond gender.
Rear of the present bronze figure of Guanyin
The Ming and Qing examples often present Guanyin as a feminine deity, the present lot that dates back to the late-Ming dynasty, for example, captures the goddess’ radiating grace and poise, which can be seen through the facial features and elegantly raised fingers that form the mudras signifying charity and reassurance. The fuller face retained in the present lot also resembles the stylistic preferences of Guanyin figures from the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).
Lot 46 | Pale green jade “Romance of the Western Chamber” openwork boulder, Qianlong period (1735- 1796)
- Sotheby's Hong Kong, April 8, 2007, lot 828
Estimate upon request
Price realized: HK$3,502,500
The first runner-up of the sale was the present jade carving that dates back to the 18th century. Emperor Qianlong (r.1735-1796) was known to be a jade fanatic in Chinese history. Thanks to an influx of massive jade boulders from Xinjiang to China during his reign, jade carvings from Emperor Qianlong’s time were some of the most keenly sought-after pieces in the market.
The present lot is believed to be inspired by scenes from the renowned Chinese play Xixiang Ji, or “Romance of the Western Chamber” written by Yuan-dynasty playwright Wang Shifu. The play is based on the tragic love affairs between Cui Yingying, the daughter of a high-ranking minister, and her young scholar lover named Zhang Sheng.
Closer looks at the present lot
Carved in a three-dimensional architectural form with naturalistic execution to details, the jade openwork boulder depicts the scene where the female protagonist Cui Yingying is seated in a pavilion and looking out from a circular window awaiting her lover. The pictorial quality, which was favored by Emperor Qianlong, makes it such an exceedingly rare piece.
The present jade carving last appeared at auction in 2007, after 14 years, it fetched HK$3.5m (US$451,400) and is going into the collection of Hong Kong-based prominent art dealer and collector Robert Chang.
Lot 52 | A jadeite, pearl and gemstone-inset headdress and necklace set, 19th century
- Headdress: 19 cm wide
- Necklace: 58 cm long
Estimate: HK$600,000 - 800,000
Price realized: HK$940,000
The present headdress and necklace set dates back to the 19th century. The headdress is elaborately adorned with delicate spring-mounted blossoming sprigs with jadeite, pearl, tourmaline, sapphire, and other semi-precious materials, all within the beaded pearl border and decorated with a temple pendant on each side.
Emerald-green jadeites are cut into slices of decorative ornaments, which lay flat against the arched frame of the headdress. The technique is called guangpian, literally translated as "Guangdong slice," a technique likely originated in Guangdong province, southern China.
Closer look at the guangpian jadeite ornaments
Lot 30 | A kingfisher feather jewel-encrusted headdress, dianzi, 19th century
Height: 18 cm
Estimate: HK$180,000 - 220,000
Price realized: HK$877,500
A dianzi, or a “hat ring,” was a type of headdress usually worn by Manchu noble women for special occasions. During the late Qing dynasty (1644-1911), dianzi’s were also worn by Chinese imperial consorts.
The base of a dianzi is usually made of metal wires wrapped with black silk, before a variety of embellishments was applied to it.
The present headdress is elaborately decorated with jadeite, tourmaline, pearl, quartz, coral, among other semi-precious stones. The way how the gemstones and pearls are fixed onto the base of the hat in different auspicious motifs, as well as the “double-happiness” pendants suspended on the forehead of the piece, suggest that the present headdress may had been used for weddings.
Other highlights of the sale:
Lot 1 | A gold repoussé “phoenix” panel
Width: 32.5 cm
Estimate: HK$150,000 - 180,000
Price realized: HK$377,500
Lot 42 | A famille rose “magpies and prunus” plaque, Republic period
Dimensions: 60 x 38 cm
Estimate: HK$50,000 - 80,000
Price realized: HK$227,500
Lot 32 | A kingfisher pearl and ruby-inset headdress, 19th century
Width: 18 cm
Estimate: HK$40,000 - 60,000
Price realized: HK$202,500
Lot 64 | Canton embroidered “officials and ladies” shawl, late 19th/ early 20th century
Dimensions: 149 x 159 cm
Estimate: HK$30,000 - 40,000
Price realized: HK$102,000
Auction house: Bonhams Hong Kong
Sale: Beauty and Beyond: Women in Chinese Art
Date: May 27, 2021