A Jade ‘Twin Fish’ Washer Shows How the Qianlong Emperor Takes Pride in Himself

The Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799), the fourth emperor of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), reigned the country for over six decades from 1735-1796, one of the longest in Chinese history. Died at age of 87, he was one of the longest-living emperors.

Notable for his political and military achievements, the Qianlong emperor was also an avid art collector, poet and calligrapher. Sometimes, he infused his feelings and aspirations to the works of art he loved. Thus, looking at treasures from his collection allows us to see what’s inside the great mind of this emperor of China.

 An imperially inscribed greenish-white jade ''twin fish'' washer, Qianlong mark and periof|Christie's New York

An example from the late years of the Qianlong emperor – a greenish-white jade ‘twin fish’ washer incised with four-character mark and period and a forty-character imperial poem – shows us how the emperor took pride in himself. 

Next to the inscription are two square seals - one has the characters in gold on the pale jade ground and the other, in reverse, has the characters reserved against a gilt ground. The two seals may be read as: “Son of Heaven at Seventy” (古稀天子) and “Still Diligent Every Day” (猶日孜孜).

To celebrate his 70th birthday in 1780, the Qianlong emperor penned his thoughts about being a 70-year-old emperor in an essay entitled Rare since Antiquity" (古稀說, or more figuratively translated as "On Being Seventy"). By comparing himself with other emperors who lived into their seventies throughout the Chinese history, the Qianlong emperor boasted that his accomplishments far surpassed those of his predecessors and considered himself ‘the only wise emperor’ in the group.

The mark "Seal of the Son of Heaven, Rare since Antiquity". Collection of National Palace Museum 

Different marks of the Seal of the Son of Heaven that used by the Emperor Qianlong

Back to the jade washer, it is the largest of three known Qianlong jade washers of this form with two archaic-style fish carved on the interior. The current example is the largest with a diameter of 25.5 cm and five low, neatly carved feet. The fish carved on these washers have been deliberately rendered in archaistic style, with the two fish carved side by side in high relief, and slightly under-cut, in a more formal style than is commonly seen on other jade pieces.

A Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) bronze “twin fsh” washer documented in the catalogue of the Qianlong emperor’s bronze collection, Xiqing gujian, Shanghai, vol. 2, 2003, p. 694.

The choice of fish as the motif to decorate the current imperial jade washer would not simply have been a reference to ancient vessels, but also to the meaning behind the depiction of fish. A source for the link between fish and harmony can be found in philosophical Daoism, specifically in the Zhuangzi 莊子, attributed to Zhuangzi, or ‘Master Zhuang’ (369-298 BC), who was one of the earliest philosophers of what has become known as Daojia 道家, or the “School of the Way”.

'Twin Fish' Washer from the Han Dynasty. Collection of Shanghai Museum

The depiction of fish in water came to provide a rebus for yushui hexie 魚水和拹 “may you be as harmonious as fish and water”. When the fish in the bottom of the present jade washer were covered with water they would perfectly represent this wish for harmony.

On the base of the jade washer is a four-character Qianlong mark, encircled by a forty-character imperial poem, which is recorded in Complete Collection of the Imperial Poems of the Qing Emperor Gaozong (Qianlong) (Qing Gaozong (Qianlong) yuzhi shiwen quanji), Beijing, 1993, vol. 8, p. 713.

Poems can be translated as
“The pair of fish are in Han dynasty style,
The round washer differs from Zhou-dynasty bronzes.
Its colour is that of the stored water,
But not being metal it does not affect the taste.
Gradually returning to antiquity,
There is no need to hasten towards modernity.
If one were to open the Book of Changes,
One could understand the heart of a superior man.”

Perhaps when you look at this ‘twin-fish’ jade washer, you get a better understanding of the heart of the Qianlong Emperor, who considered himself a superior man and the Son of Heaven at Seventy.

An Important and Extremely Rare Imperially Inscribed Greenish-White Jade ''Twin Fish'' Washer
China, Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Incised Four-character Mark and of the Period, Dated by Inscription to the Cyclical Bingwu Year, Corresponding to 1786

Lot no.: 806
Diameter: 25.4cm

  • Sotheby Parke Bernet, Hong Kong, 28-29 November 1979, lot 405.
  • Ashkenazie & Co., San Francisco, 1982.
  • The Irving Collection, no. 392.

Estimate: US$1,000,000 - 1,500,000

Auction details

Auction house: Christie’s New York
Address: 20 Rockefeller Center, New York
Sale: Lacquer, Jade, Bronze, Ink: The Irving Collection Evening Sale
Auction date: 20 March 2019|
14 - 16 March 2019|
10am - 5pm
17 March 2019|
1pm - 5pm
18 - 19 March 2019|
10am - 5pm
20 March 2019|
10am - 2pm