A Pair of Chinese imperial blue glazed vases of square section (Chinese form known as "cong"), with handles in the shape of elephant heads retaining rings, the base bearing a six-character mark in kaishu "Da Qing Guangxu Nian zhi (" made under the reign of Guangxu of the Great Qing ") in underglaze blue, Guangxu period (1875-1908)
Despite their modern appearance, the shape of these vases is derived from small archaic ritual jades of quadrangular shape and circular internal diameter that were placed in the tombs of the deceased in Neolithic China as lucky charms or cosmic compasses to guide them to the next world. The edges of these jades were carved with notches which took up the trigram symbols relating to the 5 natural elements in Taoist philosophy, but the surface could also be left plain and without sculpture. In general, we know that Heaven had for the ancient Chinese a round shape and the Earth a square shape: these metaphysical jades , quadrangular on the outside and round on the inside, also symbolized this cosmic harmony of Earth and Heaven.
This eminently ritualistic form is first be transposed under the Song in the 11th / 12th centuries on small vases with celadon or crackled glaze, then we find it again at the beginning of the Manchurian Qing rulers on imperial marked monochrome vases of quite larger size this time under the reign of Emperor Yongzheng (1723-1735). The resumption of this archaic form is part of the vast movement impulsed by this scholar emperor to praise old chinese models in the ceramic art of the Qing.
There is hardly any form of vase in China that was not designed not to receive a lid, but for the Cong, the lids seem to be attested only for a derivative and bastardized form of late manufacture, whose mouth is also quadrangular and which has a square cover. On the opposite, the Cong vase in its canonical official ('guan") form, as illustrated by the present example, is therefore one of the few vases which never receive a lid. On the other hand, there is no vase in China which is not thought of as a container for flowers or water, and on this point it seems more than certain that the Cong vases were intended to receive flowers for the decoration in temples and palaces.
Under Yongheng emperor, the shape of the "Cong" vase is simply decorated with circular or flower-shaped rings, the elephant heads retaining rings for the handles being much more found and turning into a rule during the following reign under Qianlong emperor (1736-1795). This evolution would prove the increased intention to signify via the Cong shape stability of the Qing dynasty's authority, because the elephant was in ancient China - as in India, moreover, from which it was imported - a symbol of stable and everlasting imperial or royal power, at the same time as a reminder of Buddhism, since the mother of Buddha is reported to have dreamed of a white elephant just before the birth of his son.
These vases of square section with the heads of elephants are therefore a sort of religious syncretism all by themselves because they merge the Taoist and Buddhist tradition into a single object of perfect, almost mathematical appearance. Their shape, close to an absolute, was undoubtedly deciphered by the ancient Chinese as profoundly metaphysical since it embodies the Earth through its square exterior and the Heaven through its mouth and its round base.
These vases could therefore be perceived, and probably were by literate scholars and emperors, as miniature replicas of the cosmos, held in stable equilibrium between two elephants, symbols of the Qing emperor and the empress. Such a simple vase for a foreign point of view, but in the eyes of the Chinese elite a real transparent and powerful allegory of Chinese imperial power as being of divine essence.
These vases, even more rich in symbols than elegant, and whose production continued with tiny variations in quality until the end of the Qing (therefore with marks from different reign), were therefore items par excellence of the imperial decorum and they also exist with other glaze such as the famous and very imperial also tea-dust glaze. Obviously present to adorn the Palaces of the Qing emperors, however, they must have kept, by their origin and their form full of meaning, a use even more religious than decorative, because they were produced mainly in the color blue, this color also predisposing them to serve as flower vases in the Temples of Heaven because it was its eponymous color.
This pair was produced between 1875 and 1908 during the reign of Guangxu, at the end of the Qing dynasty, of which it bears the imperial marks traced with great certainty, and it is distinguished by the quality of its very uniform, thick and soft onctuous glaze of deep blue tone, slightly powdery or speckled on close examination. There are only two tiny enamel retractions at the corners of one of the vases and a slight enamel burr on the base of the other, small venial defects quite common, however, on imperial wares. This glaze is applied to a heavy and well balanced body.
Lastly, it should be noted that this model of vase with the Guangxu mark was copied extensively during the Republic period and beyond, which makes it all the more invaluable the fact of being in the presence not of one but of two authentic vases of that type.
For a similar pair, see Christie's Hong Kong, May 30, 2012, lot 4154