Nobility and Longevity: Symbolism of a Chinese Bronze

On 24 March 2021, by Claire Papon

Deer are a recurring theme in Chinese art. This bronze stands out for its size and quality chasing.

China, Qianlong period (1736-1795). Bronze deer with traces of gilding, standing with its right leg bent, spotted coat, 73 x 67 cm (28.75 x 26.38 in).
Estimate: €80,000/120,000

Sale expert Alice Jossaume says she has never seen a sculpture of a deer this size. She is also struck by its grace, elegant posture, patina, fine execution, delicate folds at the base of the neck and spotted coat. Such artistry seems too precious for a garden of the Summer Palace. Five times larger than the Forbidden City, the 3.5-square-kilometer (1.35-square-mile) gardens featured pavilions, temples, galleries, lakes and artworks. It seems more likely that the bronze was intended for an indoor setting.

From the Han Dynasty to the present, deer can be found in many materials and media—rock crystal, nephrite, ink on paper, porcelain, cloisonné enamel, jade, bamboo root, textile, bronze, etc.—alone or in groups, among trees and rocks and in various positions. They appear on everyday objects, from boxes to incense burners, incense holders, lamps, mirror holders and the droppers scholars used when they wrote. There is nothing surprising in all this. A symbol of longevity and grace in Chinese mythology, the word deer is pronounced lu, a homonym for emoluments—favors granted to officials. They therefore represent wealth, nobility and success in imperial examinations (civil service exams for selecting candidates for the state bureaucracy in Imperial China).

Deer were the faithful companions of Shu Lao, the god of longevity, and the goddess Magu. They were reputed to live long and to be the only creature able to find the mushroom of immortality, linghzhi. Although its spots are different, deer are sometimes confused or associated with stags, a Manchu hunting trophy whose antlers served to make prestigious furniture. Our bronze was purchased from a major Paris dealer in the 1950s and has been in his family ever since. It remains to be seen where the female that accompanied this imposing, attractive male can be found.

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