This Qianlong moonflask draws on ancient traditions to celebrate the power of the Emperor of China.
China, Qianlong period (1736-1795), "bianhu" flask in white porcelain with blue underglaze decoration, showing a dragon among the clouds seeking the sacred pearl above foaming waves, with ten bats, the handles forming archaic-style moving qilongs, blue underglaze six-character Qianlong mark in zhuanshu, h. 50.3 cm.
With staring eyes beneath fearsome frowning eyebrows, a yawning mouth, wide-spread legs and threatening claws, this highly expressive dragon is about to swoop onto the sacred pearl that grants wishes. Its frontal position, known as "zheng mian long", which appeared in the mid-16th century and was often found during Qianlong's reign, gives the distinct impression that it might pounce on us... Fortunately, there is no danger, as the supernatural beast was considered lucky in China, unlike its Western cousin. In seizing the pearl (created when thunder fertilised a shell), this master of sky and water ensures the balance of the cosmos by achieving the symbiosis of the elements. The mythical animal here represents another son of heaven: the emperor himself, described as the "true dragon" or "son of the dragon", whose united empire is thus metaphorically evoked. This dragon's five claws bear witness to its special status as the exclusive attribute of the sovereign family, whereas those associated with dignitaries had only three or four. The object's remarkable size brilliantly shows off the virtuosic painted decoration, which is echoed in the remarkably crafted qilong-shaped handles. Imperial in every way, the model of this moonflask inspired the 18th century porcelains known as doucai (with "contrasting colours"), showing how porcelain found new life by drawing on older traditions. Each dynasty was keen to maintain these in order to establish its legitimacy. This "bianhu" vase is a fine example: it evokes the leather flasks of the Tang pilgrims, while drawing inspiration from blue and white Ming pieces. Such pieces were often made in pairs during the second half of Qianlong's reign – so this cobalt dragon could well have a counterpart somewhere...