In Chinese culture, plant, animal and other symbols have been used for thousands of years to represent ideas, through the qualities they represent, or through their names sounding like other auspicious words.
The Gwenneth Haines Collection contains a number of beautiful Qing Dynasty jades whose sizes are small, but nevertheless are packed with propitious messages. This collection, including Chinese monochrome ceramics, will be offered within our Asian Works of Art auction on 24 May.
Finely carved as a laughing young boy holding a drum and striking it, with a bat hovering over his shoulder, the jade of whitish-grey hue with a russet streak.
A drum or a person drumming means strength or vigour, and a playing boy is a wish for a son. The word bat in Mandarin is fu, which has the same sound as the word for fortune or happiness. This jade therefore represents a wish for a strong and fortunate son.
Carved in the shape of a ruyi symbol, the underside delicately carved in low relief with a scene of a paradise flycatcher perched on a branch of blossoming plum, the jade of even pale-celadon hue.
The paradise flycatcher is a beautiful bird, however its symbolism comes from its name in Mandarin, shoudainiao. The word shou means longevity, and dai is a verb meaning “to bring along”, so its message is to bring long life. Plum also has multiple meanings, but here it probably is the very beginning of Spring. Ruyi literally translates to “as you wish”. Therefore, this jade represents a wish that Spring brings new vigour and long life, and would probably be used or given as a gift in Springtime.
Beautifully carved as a swimming goose holding a full lotus bloom and two leaves in its mouth, the jade of even pale-celadon colour.
Geese were seen to mate for life, and so the goose symbolises marital fidelity. The lotus has many meanings including purity and many offspring (due to its seeds). It also means “continuous”, through word sound similarities. So, this beautiful jade represents a wish for continuous marital fidelity.
Carved as a seated mother goat with baby, both carrying a lingzhi fungus in their mouths, within which is carved a taijitu symbol, the jade of greyish-white colour with some delicate striations.
The word for sheep is yang, which carries the same meaning as the word xiang, or auspiciousness. A mother and baby sheep also represents filial piety (the most important virtue in Chinese culture), as the baby was understood to always kneel in gratitude when feeding from the mother. Lingzhi represents longevity, while the Taoist taijitu symbol (yin-yang) means the ultimate reality, synonymous with immortality. This jade likely represents a wish for eternal filial piety and auspiciousness, or filial piety leading to immortality.
CARL WANTRUP / Asian Art Specialist