Inaugural S. Bernstein On Line Auction Begins A new Era in our 28 Year history!

Think globally, not locally! On April 1, 2020, S. Bernstein will invite Collectors from around the world to bid on selected works of art in our collection. Our auction format will be a no reserve, no buyer’s premium for successful bids. (This is not an April Fools joke!).


Buyers from around the world will be able to bid anytime of the day during the 10 day inaugural auction. We are sure to encounter some “bugs” in the initial auction format which is custom designed for us, so bear with us. Enjoy!


Sam Bernstein

Update from S. Bernstein & Co.

During the COVID-19 emergency, Our gallery in the Fairmont
Hotel will be showing our works of art by appointment only.

To arrange a private viewing of our works of art,
we invite you to email us at
or call us at 415 299-1600.

Our web site, is open for business as usual
and we are available to conveniently appraise and valuate
your works of art from photography sent to our email address.

We are keenly interested in buying, selling and appraising
works of art in our field that you may have to offer.
Please send us photos to our email address,


Happy Lunar New Year of the Rat

All of us at S. Bernstein & Co., Jade & Oriental Art, Inc. extend our best wishes to you and your family in the Year of the Rat. May you be healthy and happy in the coming year.

Follow our web site as we constantly seek and acquire outstanding Oriental works of art for our discerning clientele. If you find the need to seek appraisal & valuation of your works of art, we stand ready to provide our knowledge & expertise and work hard for you.

The Love of Imperfection

Among the many visitors to the Fairmont Hotel for the Christmas Holidays, one guest asked me about the Ko-Bizen water Pot from the Muromachi Period of Japan.

“What is that pot? Why is it defective?” the Guest asked me.

I was taken aback by the question and the ignorance of the person asking the question. The Ko-Bizen pottery water pot is the very essence of the philosophy of Daoist imperfection and the finding of beauty therein. This concept of Wabi is central to the appeal of objects which get admirers adrenalin going! I patiently tried to explain this concept to the guest as best I could in my own manner. Later I came upon the following short video which succinctly explains in elegant language the history of this love of natural objects and their meaning on a wider scale. Here is the link for those of you who want to avail yourself ofviewing it:

One person’s “defectiveness is another person’s masterpiece!


This lack of awareness is apparent when exhibited by Chinese visitors to my gallery who are looking at our jades on offer. “This has a crack”, or I wish the piece was whiter, or I wish it had dragons carved on it, blah blah blah…

This kind of quantitative aesthetic approach shows a lack of understanding of the jade art form, and of the material itself. It is the use of the natural mineral by the artist that gives the object it’s value. I must confess that as I begin my 68th. year, I tire easily when confronted with such ignorance, and more importantly, lack of patience in the process by which knowledge is gained. To the serious collector and those who seek knowledge, I’ll take all day to explain it. Knowledge is power!



New, improved easier to use S. Bernstein & Co. Website

The new improved S. Bernstein & Co. web site is up and running like a dream! My sincere thanks to my staff, Natalie, my Gallery Director and to Carolyn, staff assistant. Photography has been improved and videos of important objects added. The look has been streamlined and categories combined to make it easier to use. Also, more importantly, our mobile app to view our web site on your cell phone has been vastly improved.  My thanks to Alexander Bernstein, my son who vociferously recommended doing this project. We even added a “hamburger” to the mobile app. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it.


My business remains the buying, selling and appraisal of museum quality Oriental Art. More selections from our large inventory have been added for viewing and my blog has articles relevant to collectors regarding the dating of jades, scientific testing and Imperial taste in collecting jades. Collectors will find this interesting.


In the coming year, I will work on adding Mandarin Chinese text to the web site to enable my Mainland Chinese clients to enjoy visits to the virtual S. Bernstein & Co.


It’s a brave new world, bubby!



Let’s take a moment to remember…

During this Holiday season when there are colorful lights, children excited to meet Santa and festivities planned I pause for a moment. This past year saw several of my longest and dearest friends depart this earth. Memories of Irene and of John remain vivid in my mind’s eye. Together we formed two great collections of Oriental Art. The dealer-collector relationship was mutually beneficial. Besides that, we had a hell of a blast doing it together and sharing the excitement of discovering treasures to add to their collections.


After 40 years of art dealing, I realize that these long time relationships are irreplaceable. Irene and John were like members of my close family. Their passing has created a void which can never be filled. Join with me in a celebration of their lives. Their Collections remain a testament to their love of Oriental Art. Godspeed to Irene & John. I will miss you.

Can Jade be scientifically dated?

“Is Scientific Testing of Jade the Answer?” – Article by Sam Bernstein

Published in Orientations Magazine, February 2000


The issue of scientific testing of jade to determine the age of the working of art objects is a central issue among jade collectors, academics and interested parties. Janet Douglas correctly points out in her well-argued essay “On the Authentication of Ancient Chinese Jades Using Scientific Methods” some of the limitations and pitfalls of applying scientific methods alone.

Recently a European auction house has mounted a sale in which it is claimed that “…a new scientific method to establish the authenticity of ancient jades has been developed.” The basis of this “new scientific method” consists of an examination of the tool markings present on the object and the analysis of the evidence of weathering. Weathering refers to the natural process of alteration to the surface of jade.

However, despite the claims of a new method to authenticate the date of manufacture of jade, the consensus of art historians and scientists that this author canvassed is that there is not, at the present time, a reliable scientific basis alone for the dating of a worked, or prehended jade object. I agree with Ms. Douglas that scientific analysis must go hand in hand with art historianship. The seeming verisimilitude of results from the testing procedures occurs when scientific testing alone is applied to the dating of jade. It is my opinion that while it is admirable to apply scientific testing techniques to jade, the observer must understand its’ limitations and place these procedures into an overall methodology of stylistic as well as physical review. Science must go hand in hand with art historianship.

The art historian has the visual ability to understand an object within its cultural and historical context. Scientific applications within this framework support the conclusions of the art historian, not vice versa. If the results of such testing do not support these assumptions, then further enquiry must be made to explain this discrepancy. In the auction catalogue mentioned, this key element of art historianship in setting the age parameters is missing. As Professor James Cahill remarked during the symposium Issues of Authenticity in Chinese Painting held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in December, 1999, that in addition to scientific measurement we should “ not forget to look at the painting itself ”.

Indeed, what is a scientist to test for if the object before him sits with no reference points in a historical context or archaeological background? Those individuals who produce fakes are amazingly proficient at adapting to the nuances of scientific testing [See the author’s essay “ Fishing in the Jade Pond” published in Orientations magazine, September 1995].

There are other concerns which Ms. Douglas’ essay does not address. For example, will collectors be convinced to rely upon scientific testing alone to attempt to authenticate their jades? Will unscrupulous individuals in Asia and the West make use of “scientific testing” to pass off their confections in a market place overwhelmed with fakes? Who speaks for the collector, the individual who propels the jade market forward?

Without the input of the art historian and archaeologist, it is far too easy for scientific testing results to be misinterpreted and abused. This does a disservice to both art historianship and scientific enquiry and adversely affects the jade market worldwide by creating the impression of scientific infallibility. Comparison with archaeologically derived examples remains our strongest and most potent analytical tool. Science alone does not provide a panacea for answering our questions about the absolute dating of jade works of art. As in all areas of collecting, the collector must rely upon his or her common sense in such matters. Collecting jade can and should be a pleasant and rewarding activity. As lovers of jade, we must resist attempts to take this pleasure away from us.

Sam Bernstein

How to Spot a Fake

“Fishing in the Jade Pond” Article by Sam Bernstein

Published in Orientations, September 1995, page 110


One of the precise indicators of an upwardly mobile art market is an increase in spurious works of art. Fakers, above all, are denizens of the market place. It may truthfully be said that fakes delineate the evolution of taste and fads in collecting with surprising precision. Their creation is a response to demand which is an ever-changing reflection of human desires. Further, fakes provide an understanding of the people who make them and those for whom the fakes are made.

Chinese jade is at the present time experiencing an increase in demand and the attention of both beginning collectors and connoisseurs alike. Following each wave of archaeological discovery, spurious copies have entered the market place. A subtle difference however, has emerged which separates the present from past trends in fakery. An increase in technological sophistication has been brought to bear on the efforts of the fakers. Scholars in other disciplines, such as Chinese metalwork and porcelain, have bemoaned the fact that fakers are often one step ahead of the academics and dealers who catch on to them. It is a dubious tribute to the ingenuity of the human mind that enables the faker to simulate both the obvious and more subtle tell-tale signs of authenticity.

Sadly, each society and generation fakes the art it covets most. Roman copies of Greek sculpture kept generations of sculptors basically producing both imitations and copies. In our own lifetime, the works of Picasso, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, and Dali have been copied and imitated. Indeed, many paintings which Lord Joseph Duveen sold to American millionaires early in this century were copied so that the seller would have a replica to hang on the mantle. Fakers move quickly to take advantage of the high prices produced by a new collecting trend before their activities undermine the market altogether. Witness the strong auction record prices of white eighteenth century jades. This writer has begun to encounter an increasing number of spurious copies executed with amazing sophistication.

Consider for a moment what constitutes a fake. Aside from a question of interest on the part of the faker, there are copies, imitations, and replicas. Copies are executed based on an original work of art. Many fake jades in the market place today are copied from published examples of excavated artifacts. The copy at first appears enticing, but under close scrutiny is less than convincing. Once the spell is broken, the ugly and unsatisfying truth emerges. Imitations are simulations which mimic the attributes of the original. Again, the imitation is less than satisfying if viewed in the bright light of day. Replicas of art objects attempt with varying degrees of success to reproduce a work of art. The replica is a place holder, not meant to imitate or copy.

It is important to understand that a jade piece emulating a Han (206 BC-AD 220) jade done in the Song period (960-1279) is not the same thing as a fake. In Chinese art, the dominant mode of activity is a desire to maintain and rework traditional forms and subjects. Nostalgia for the past and emulation of its achievements is desirable. Emulation is good since it allows each period to interpret and modify traditional forms. Misrepresentation of an imitation as “the real thing,” however, is fakery.

Unfortunately, when a fake is discovered, it severs a direct link with the hand that made it. Even though the work remains the same, the aesthetic response to it is profoundly changed. If we are smart, we will learn from the experience and avoid making the same mistake twice. From experience, most buyers know that the price paid for a seeming bargain cannot be for the real thing. They are buying an illusion and delude themselves. This is the faker’s main weapon in perpetrating his fraud on the collector. If the work is too good to be true, then it usually is.

The buyer of the fake keeps the faker in business. The real loss resulting from the discovery of a fake is not only monetary. For the person cheated, it loosens the hold on our perception and understanding of the past. One of the strongest tools a collector possesses for uncovering fakes is the most obvious. This is simply the fact that a faker, whether he copies, imitates, or replicates, can never assume the mind-set of the artist of an original work and period. Fakers add flourishes and details without really understanding the symbolism and purpose behind the original concept. Familiarity with jades of a particular period enables the collector to understand why an artist used certain motifs as well as the stylistic and physical approach to the jade.

Finally, our concept of authenticity depends on the relationship between the work of art itself and the period to which it is attributed. Determination of authenticity requires a methodology counting on a consistency of both stylistic and physical analysis of the object. Looking at the work of art with a critical eye is the number one defense for detecting fakery. It is misleading to think that scientific advances and scholarly expertise alone can solve all problems. However, an open, questioning mind can eliminate many of the more obvious pitfalls. Ask yourself, is this work of art convincing? Is it stylistically and physically consistent? What is the artist trying to convey? Does the object exhibit logicality? Does it make sense? Be cautious, selective, and assume the work of art is guilty until proven correct. The thrill and passion of collecting outweighs its negative side. Never for a moment let the faker deny you the pleasure of collecting. We are all seekers of truth about works of art and the direct link with those who made them.

Sam Bernstein is director of S. Bernstein & Co., a gallery specializing in Chinese jade works of art in San Francisco
© 1995 S. Bernstein & Co.

How the Qianlong Emperor Collected Jades

“In the Emperor’s Own Words” - Article by Sam Bernstein

Published by Chinese Art News Magazine, April 2001


The art of working jade achieved its most glorious age during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and stands without comparison in the long history of China. Hongli, who ruled as the Qianlong Emperor, reigned from 1736 to 1795. He deliberately chose not to exceed the time span of the reign of his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor. The Qianlong Emperor’s impact and importance to the Chinese monarchy is comparable to that of Queen Victoria’s importance to the British royalty.


Throughout the course of his life, the Qianlong Emperor was a grand patron of the cultural arts. The imperial collection at the time of Hongli’s death in 1799 contained more than one million items. As such, with the resources of the treasury and the imperial bureaucracy to draw upon, he exerted dramatic influence on the design, style and marketplace for jade works of art. The Qianlong style, as expressed in the arts, is remarkably recognizable and consistent; daring new forms were combines with a respect for antiquity.


This article examines five surviving examples of jade works that were previously in the Imperial Collection. All but one are distinguished by inscriptions executed in an adopted and descriptive style of palace court calligraphy. These inscriptions were added to each piece as a thoughtful observation and commentary at the order of Hongli himself. His words, as we shall see, provide a valuable insight into the mind of the man who as Emperor, was one of the greatest art aficionados in history.


The Warring States bi disc illustrated in Figure 1 bears a poetic inscription composed by the Qianlong Emperor in 1789, which suggests a profound reverence for ancient works of art. By requesting that this impressive example be inscribed with his own poetic reflection, Hongli effectively marries the past and present, expressing his love of ancient forms with his own poetic ability. The poem, as recorded in the Imperial Archive reads:



Ah, the substance of the earth, I love your generosity of spirit

Bi, carved with ten thousand grains and extensive sentiment,

How well you serve as the emblem of the luminous court

Of which family’s cemetery were you the deep treasure?

The proportion of disc joined to hole is well done,

Like clouds caging the moon, but not obstructing its glow.

And the glow, from this concealment, does not make a garish display.

I hold in a sigh, thinking of what is ancient, yet still noble-minded.

Figure 1

In praising its form, workmanship and emblematic qualities, it becomes apparent from the poem that Hongli admires the ancient age of the disc and the refined “noble-minded” culture that produced it. It is this sentiment which is at the center of the concept of the literati or gentleman scholar’s pursuit of artistic refinement and connoisseurship.


The jade material of this bi disc is of a transparent yellow-gray coloration with rich streaks of dark brown running through it. The face of the piece is covered with an ordered array of raised modeled spirals which are enhanced with incised lines. This pattern is referred to as the sprouting grain pattern, which was developed in the Eastern Zhou period. According to Geoffrey Wills, author of Jade of the East, the grain pattern found on bi discs is thought of as “formal representations of neatly arranged rows of seeds. The curled variety is presumed to show the seeds sprouting through the earth, and thus to symbolize fertility.” According to Cheng Chia-hua of the National Palace Museum, one theory holds that the precursor to the bi disc was “a kind of stone spinning-wheel or (symbolic) jade millstone . . . . Such an agricultural origin is more strongly hinted at in the gu-bi (grain pattern disc) with its grain pattern décor.” The outer edge of the disc and the center perforation are framed by a flat, thin and raised border. The overall polish of the piece is smooth and matte, with some surface alteration which is evidence of prolonged burial.

Figure 2

True to the heritage and distinction of a gentleman scholar, Hongli practiced the arts of calligraphy, poetry and painting. The emperor was a connoisseur and truly appreciated the great artists and works of the past. His artistic talents were cultivated with reverence and enthusiasm. Hongli was particularly fascinated with the medium of jade, and it inspired him to write many impassioned poems. The large (26.35 cm), covered archaistic vase illustrated in Figure 2 is one such example. This case is one of the few imperial jades that may be traced from its humble beginning as a tribute-gift of a raw boulder in the eighteenth century to the present day. It has passed from the Imperial Collection of the Summer Palace to the Prentice, Lady Yule, Spink & Son, Ltd., S.M. Spalding and Salman collections during the past two centuries.

The verse worked onto this piece begins with a reverential line directed toward a jade boulder the Emperor received as tribute from the Khotan region. The Chinese conquest of Xinjiang in 1790 opened up relations between the far western region and China, and allowed for an exchange of ideas which would influence the art of both cultures. The poem continues with the Emperor’s determination to study the classics:


A much treasured tribute from Khotan

Its form copied from the Bogutu (Illustrated Catalog of Collected Antiquities)

With pierced connecting rings on its sides

 And a body covered with dense patterns.

One must be diligent in reading the Xiaoya (Discourse on Ordinary Refinement) 

With proper lessons for instructing a gentleman.

During my travels I ponder over it again and again

Each time, shamed and inspired by its words.


The Qianlong Emeror, Spring of Yiwei (1775)



The vase has strong archaistic references, namely in the shape. Archaistic jades drew inspiration most heavily from the Bronze Age, which began around the sixteenth century, B.C. Bronze forms and decorative motifs of the Zhou period (1100-220B.C.) were of particular interest to many jade artists, as this was one of the most prolific bronze producing periods. The form of this vase is derived from an ancient hu vessel, a ritualistic wine container, and it also possesses pendant rings first seen in archaistic bronzes. This vase is documented in the year 1776 in Qing Gaozong Yuzhi Shiwen Quanji (A Complete Collection of Documented Literary Writings and Poems for the Personal Use of the Gaozong Emperor, i.e. The Qianlong Emperor), and is an excellent example of the superior jades once held in the Emperor’s personal collection.


The tradition of archaisms and archaistic styles in art began in the Song Dynasty (960-1279), and continued into later centuries, becoming particularly strong during the art of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912). The poem makes reference to the Bogutu, a Song text that cataloged bronzes from imperial and other important collections. Because artists and scholars rarely had access to original archaic pieces, catalogs such as the Bogutu were essential references. Rather than merely imitate or copy the style of an earlier period, the jade artist most often attempted to create an archaistic work utilizing forms, styles, and motifs from the past to express a contemporary artistic ideal. In this piece, for example, both the fret pattern which marks the meeting of the cover and body of the vase, as well as the stylized dragon design which adorns its lower and upper sections are inspired by Shang and Zhou bronze motifs.



The magnificent imperial white jade screen pictured in Figure 3 embodies the artistic and scholarly work of several centuries. In incorporating various poetic texts with calligraphy and images from the Qianlong Emperor’s own hand (1711-1799), the work stands as a monument to achievements of previous scholars and the refinement of the emperor.

Figure 3

In 1754, the Qianlong Emperor made a calligraphic copy of a scroll by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), a famous Yuan painter and calligrapher. Thirty years later, in 1784, this work of calligraphy was incorporated onto the screen and marked with the large, circular, imperial seal.


The Emperor was very much inspired by Zhao Mengfu’s calligraphy and a poem by Su Dongpo (1037-1101) was inscribed onto this screen utilizing Su’s calligraphic style. The inscription in running script on the front of the this screen narrates the succession of the poem from the eleventh century to the eighteenth century and serves as an introduction to the piece.


Also inscribed on the screen is Dong Qichang’s (1555-1636) notation from the end of Zhao Mengfu’s scroll. The commentary dates back to the seventeenth century when Dong Qichang wrote that the scroll should be considered a masterpiece.


The inscription on the front ends with, “Summer of the Year Jiaxu (1754),” with imperial copy, and a small Qianlong seal. In ordering that the text be done in the emperor’s own calligraphic rendition and marked with the imperial seal, the Qianlong Emperor established himself both as a scholar and one who was able to appreciate the work of talented poets and calligraphers. In this way, he places himself in the tradition of scholars who, like Dong Qichang, eulogize the work of earlier intellectuals.


The calligraphy and seals are adorned with the original eighteenth century gold that has naturally altered with age. The reddish tone may be due to the presence of copper or lacquer in the gold itself. Fine relief below the calligraphy depicts blooming orchids with elegant leaves that bend in the breeze while a fantastic rock stands in the foreground. The softly polished screen is a semi-translucent, greenish-white coloration with subtle, darker inclusions. The piece is fitted with an original jade stand of a contrasting, spinach green coloration.


The reverse has two seals of the Qianlong Emperor, one circular and one square. A calligraphic piece by courtier Zhang Zhao (1691-1745) is incorporated onto the screen and inscribed with this commentary by the Emperor:


Fine jade from (Khotan) is made into this screen;

I also painted the lonely orchid on it, and fragrance fills the air.

My imitation of Zhao’s calligraphy that I have saved is now used for inscription.

Reading Su’s poetry is even better than sharpening (one’s mind) with a whetstone.

In this old age I do not write small characters anymore;

Remembering old times, (I had) the Waijing text carved instead.

Thirty years disappeared in the twinkling of an eye.

How can (my) calligraphy stand up to comparison?


For the inscription on this jade screen with a lonely orchid, I ordered the carving of my calligraphic copy of Mengfu’s calligraphy of a poem by Su Dongpo (Su Shi), which I did in the Year Jiaxu (1754), and the Huangting waijing jing poem as written by Zhang Zhao to commemorate this event.

The text for Zhang Zhao’s calligraphy is the famous Daoist text on the preservation of one’s health and is followed by, the Huangting text, humbly copied by courtier Zhang Zhao, together with Zhang Zhao’s seal.


The Qianlong Emperor had considerable training in calligraphy and a strong interest in collecting both old and new paintings. In 1744, he commissioned the first catalogs of ancient and modern calligraphies and paintings in the imperial collection (Shichu baoji). Cataloging was placed under the supervision of Zhang Zhao, but the Qianlong Emperor took a personal interest in the process. Inspired by his participation in the review of the palace collection, the Emperor began to enthusiastically pursue painting in the manner of the ancients. Song compositions of birds and flowers or Yuan paintings of dry tree and rock or bamboo compositions served as an inspiration for him. It is likely that one reason for the Emperor’s compelling urge to paint stemmed from his desire to be documented as an emperor-artist. By emulating the works of Song or Yuan artists, the emperor continued the tradition of classical painting and demonstrated his ability in another pursuit of the gentleman scholar.


This scholar’s screen is documented in Qing Gaozong Yuzhi Shiwen Quanji (A Complete Collection of Documented Literary Writings and Poems for the Personal Use of the Gaozong Emperor, i.e. The Qianlong Emperor), and is an excellent example of the superior jades once held in the Emperor’s personal collection. The integration of jades, painting, and calligraphy stands testimony to the emperor’s personal artistic passion.

Figure 4

The powerfully rendered jade seal, Figure 4, of Sanxitang, or Hall of Three Rarities within the Forbidden City, dated 1745, underscores Hongli’s commitment to collecting and treasuring works of art.


This authentication seal is an official seal of the Sanxitang, the Hall of Three Rarities. This hall is located inside the Forbidden Palace within the Hall of Mental Cultivation and so named because it was where Hongli originally kept the manuscripts of three famous fourth century calligraphers, Wang Xizhi, Wang Xianzhi, and Wang Xun. The following excerpt is from Wan Go Weng and Yang Boda’s The Palace Museum Peking: Treasures of the Forbidden City:

The west wing of the Hall of Cultivating Mind consists of several small rooms, partitioned during the Qianlong reign to suit the emperor’s taste and comfort. This section, completely shielded by an outer screen, was the most protected core in the entire City. A miniature hall within a hall, its own throne room is hung with imperial mottos in many forms. A horizontal tablet with four characters admonishes, “Be diligent in state affairs and close to the able and worthy.”


A vertical couplet reminds the ruler, “Though one person rules the world, the world provides not only for one.” The central rectangular frame contains a long poem composed and written by the prolific Qianlong poet-calligrapher-emperor himself, listing ten Confucian precepts for the monarch. Unfortunately, these high-minded sentiments, more often than not, remained mere decoration.


The Qianlong Emperor enjoyed a sixty-year reign at the peak of Qing dynasty’s peace and prosperity. During that time, he initiated large-scale construction both inside and outside the Forbidden City. However, the place that really gave Hongli endless pleasure was a small den at the southwest corner of this hall, an inner sanctum within the inner sanctum of the city. This is the famous Room of the Three Rarities, also known as the Hall of Three Rarities, so named for three rare pieces of ancient calligraphy, the last of which he acquired for his collection in 1746. Including the entrance area, the corner den affords a space only about 86 square feet in all. The silk painting on the right wall near the entrance, a joint effort of the Italian Jesuit painter Castiglione (known as Lang Xining) and his Chinese colleague Jin Tingbiao, done in the Western trompe l’oeil style, creates an illusion of depth by extending the interior tiled floor and ceiling woodwork into the picture.


Here, Hongli, after laboring over his “ten thousand cares,” would plunge into his fondest hobbies of connoisseurship, painting, calligraphy, and poetry, defacing selected painting and calligraphy from his vast collection with encomiums in mediocre verses of his own composing, inscribed in highly polished but ordinary handwriting. Extremely proud of his literary and artistic accomplishments, the emperor personally wrote the name of this room on the horizontal tablet and added a couplet under it: “Observing the ancient and the modern with all-encompassing attitude; relying on brush and paper to express the deepest thoughts.”


Calligraphy, which is devoid of pictorial content, is capable of sheer abstract beauty; taken together with the textual content, it can express and evoke intense feelings. Boyuan tie, or Letter to Boyuan by Wang Xun (350-401) is an extremely rare authenticated calligraphy by a master of the Jin period. When Hongli acquired this treasure in 



1746, the Qianlong emperor named his favorite small den in the Hall of Cultivating Mind Sanxitang, or the Room of Three Rarities. The other two rarities, already in his possession, were a letter by Wang Xizhi (321-379) called Kuai xue shi qing tie, or Timely Clearing After Snow, and a letter Wang’s seventh son, Wang Xianzhi (344-388), called Zhong qiu tie, or Mid-Autumn Letter. Unlike the Letter to Boyuan, these two works are not in the calligraphy of their authors, but are later copies.


The beauty of Wang Xun’s letter so elated the emperor that a year after naming his inner sanctum he launched the monumental project of printing all the choicest calligraphy in the imperial collection. More than 340 pieces by 135 major calligraphers from the third to the seventeenth century are included in this collection, which is entitled Sanxitang fa tie (Calligraphic Masterpieces from the Room of Three Rarities). The best printing technique available in eighteenth century China for such undertakings was the painstaking method of ink rubbing from stone engravings. This involved tracing the original in ink onto paper soaked in oil and thoroughly dried to make it translucent. The tracing was then reproduced on the back of the paper in cinnabar ink and the cinnabar tracing transferred onto a finely polished stone following the cinnabar tracings; next, paper was laid over the stone, dampened, and pressed carefully into the engraved lines. Finally, ink was patted over the surface of the paper but did not reach the paper pressed into the intaglio-carved characters, which appear white against black on the printed sheet.


As the number of craftsmen skilled enough to do such work was very limited, it took six years to complete the collection. Although there are some imperfections – such as the inclusion of calligraphies of doubtful authenticity, as well as an occasional respacing of characters that marred the original compositions – the reproductions preserve in amazing fidelity many precious items from the Qianlong emperor’s collection that have since been lost or destroyed.

The fifth and final jade work of art which we shall examine is not inscribed, however the unusual subject matter and historical context provide a backdrop for understanding the cross cultural influence expressed in the art and architecture of China which Hongli encouraged and patronized. The highly unusual jade vase shown in Figure 5 suggests a strong European influence at the Imperial Court. The winged cherubs known as “miraculous messengers of momentous news” may possibly be a reference to Jesuit court artists who introduced religious subject matter in subtle ways on non-secular works of art at court. This was a conscious attempt to blend religious elements with the perceived taste of the court to bring attention to Western religious thought. Also, the shape of the acanthus leaf shown on this vase is of European origin and of a type not seen on Chinese jade works of art prior to the Qing dynasty.

Figure 5

The Jesuit priest Giuseppe Castiglione was presented at court in 1715. As an artist and architect, he was instrumental in the introduction and development of Western design in China. His Italian design of the western façade of the Palace of the Calm Sea brought classical Western concepts of design to Chinese artists. A well-known piece created by this artist during his stay in China depicts European-style cherubs (putti in Italian) very similar to those seen on this vase. Castiglione was also responsible for the overall botanical style present in the Yuanmingyuan (Summer Palace), the Chinese version of Versailles.


This vase was formerly in the collection of Bluett and Son, London, in 1940, and then entered the F.N. Volkert collection in Chicago. During Mr. Volkert’s lifetime, it was exhibited in The Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina. It later entered the J.M. Holland collection in California. It is appropriate that this historical vase now resides in a collection in Asia.


That Hongli, the Qianlong Emperor, was an ardent collector of art as well as a connoisseur is beyond question. It is through an examination of his calligraphic work applied to jade works of art that we glimpse his real love for antiquity and excellence in the arts of China. It is fitting that these remarkable objects have survived during the past two centuries and are studied and enjoyed to this day.



Sam Bernstein 



For further reading:


Qing Gaozong Yuzhi Shiwen Quanji (A Complete Collection of Documented Literary Writings and Poems of the Qianlong Emperor). Taipei: National Palace Museum, 1976. Volume 7.


Zhongguo Meishu Fenlei Quanji: Zhongguo Yuqi Quanji 6, Qing (Chinese Art Series: Chinese Jades, Volume 6, Qing). Li Jiufeng, ed. Shijiazhuang: Hebei Art Publishing, 1991.


Ming Qing Dihou Baoxi (Precious Seals of the Emperors and Empresses of the Ming and Qing Dynasties). Beijing: Palace Museum, 1996.


The Refined Taste of the Emperor: Special Exhibition of Archaic and Pictorial Jades of the Ch’ing Court. Chang Li-tuan. Taipei: The National Palace Museum, 1997.


The Palace Museum Peking: Treasures of the Forbidden City. Wan Go Weng and Yang Boda. New York: Henry N. Adams, Inc., 1982.


Fabulous Beasts! The Animal in Chinese Jade

Saturday, October 19, 2019 I will present my slide illustrated lecture on Animals depicted in Chinese Jade from the Neolithic Period to today. The images will be from the archive of S. Bernstein & Co. many of which have not been previously published. Lunch in the Fairmont Hotel’s Lobby restaurant the Laurel Court (no host bar) is included in the $145 cost.  Attendance is limited to 10 participants. I urge you to sign up early to be sure to have a seat. For more details and registration see the events page on this web site.  Thanks! It will be FUN!