Since its accession in 1957, the 'Warrior' vase ranks among the highlights of the collection. Glass making had been known in ancient China, but was only reintroduced to China during the reign of the emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) by Jesuit missionaries.1 The Beijing palace glassworks were remarkably successful during the following hundred years, and the brightness and perfection of its coloured glass often surpasses its model, the glass of Venice and central Europe.
Glass of the Qianlong period (1736-1795) was widely reproduced during the late nineteenth century, making it extremely difficult to distinguish early originals from later copies. However, the quality and design of the 'Warrior’ vase speaks strongly in favour of dating this outstanding piece to the mid-eighteenth century, the heyday of Chinese glass. It is unusually large, consisting of colourless glass, speckled with white 'snowflake' glass and covered with a layer of ruby red glass, which was subsequently cameo-carved.
Known from snuff bottles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this technique is very hard to accomplish on large objects. The execution of the engraving is exceptional and one detail is even disclosed from normal view: little, detached lotus %%seeds%% are carved into the wooden base, which only come to light when removing the vase from its stand.
As well as its technical brilliance, the vase also depicts a fascinating subject which has been identified only recently by Ping Ren, a Chinese student at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. The scene appears to show warriors racing past a temple bearing sticks with huge globular artefacts on their end. The strange weapons have now been identified as hammers, two of them swung by each of the four warriors, with the intention to overwhelm the single warrior in the centre of the scene. He defends himself with two spears, and the story goes that he resisted and survived this fearsome attack.
This episode is best known through a novel about the Song dynasty general, Yue Fei (1103-1141), entitled Shuo Yue quan zhuan (The complete biography of Yue Fei), which was written during the Kangxi or the Qianlong period. A dating symbol in its preface points either to the year 1684 or to 1744.2 The author names himself Qian Cai, but this may be a pseudonym, for reasons which we will see below. Some episodes of the legend were also well known through other sources, such as the classic Beijing opera and its provincial variations. The Beijing opera, Eight sledgehammers, derives from chapters fifty-five to fifty-seven of the said novel and narrates the same episode as is shown on the 'Warrior' vase.
The historical background of the novel is the conflict between the Chinese Song dynasty (960-1270) and the Jin dynasty, which had been founded in1115 in northeast China by the Juchen (or Jurchen), a Manchurian tribe. The Song general Yue Fei became famous because he is said not to have lost a single battle against the Juchen.
Yue Fei himself plays only a background role in the entirely legendary episode of the Eight sledgehammers. The warrior with two spears represents Lu Wenlong, a stepson of the king of the Jin dynasty. Even in a fight of four against one, Yue Fei's fighters, one of whom was his own son, were not able to overcome him. They were decent enough to not attack him all at once; their tactic was to exhaust their enemy by fighting one after another.
Following the battle, a former rebel and then loyal officer of Yue Fei, named Wang Zuo, discovered that Lu Wenlong was not only the stepson of the Jin dynasty king, but in fact the only son of another Song dynasty general. This general had been killed by the Jin, and Lu Wenlong, then still a baby, was adopted by the enemy king. Wang Zuo gained access to the Jin camp by amputating his left arm and pretending to be a war victim. In the camp, he met Lu Wenlong, told him the truth and won him over to the Song's side.
This scene is represented on the neck of the 'Warrior' vase. Wang Zuo and Lu Wenlong meet in a pavilion and point to an image of the decapitated general. Unlike Western works, the whole story is arranged vertically, not horizontally. On the lower part of the vase is the unsuccessful attack against the Jin warrior and on the upper part, his subsequent, successful persuasion. The composition is strictly centralised. The back of the vase is filled with a pine tree in front of rocky mountains.
The scene on the vase is not a literal copy of the novel's descriptions. According to the novel, the fourth Song warrior fights with a spear instead of hammers, and the meeting of Wang Zuo and Lu Wenlong takes place in a tent, not in an elaborate, temple-like structure on solid foundations as the one shown on the vase. Some of these alterations may derive from other sources, such as the Beijing opera. Already the title Eight sledgehammers insinuates that all four Song warriors fight Lu Wenlong with hammers. On the vase, it is not discernible whether one of the protagonists in the pavilion has only one arm. Chinese tradition considers such self-mutilation particularly atrocious because one's body is a gift of the parents and should not be deliberately harmed.
From the legend we return to history. Yue Fei won many battles, but he did not win the war. Qin Hui (1090-1155), chancellor of the Song emperor, is said to have ordered the execution of Yue Fei and his family and agreed, in 1138, to a peace treaty that obliged his country to pay tribute to the Jin. This resulted in the diminution of the Song's territory to the southern part of China. As a consequence, Yue Fei became one of the most venerated heroes of Chinese history, while Qin Hui ranks among its 'traitorous officials'.
It seems that the novel on the life of Yue Fei, written during the early years of the Qing dynasty, may have been deliberate as this was a time when China again was subjected to a foreign, this time Manchurian, power. The nationalistic content of the novel was enough of a threat to the Qing emperors that the novel was prohibited in the Qianlong era. However, the Beijing opera and the 'Warrior' vase would suggest that the sledgehammer episode nonetheless was tolerated.
Even today the history and legend of General Yue Fei is known by every Chinese and this major Chinese epos still awaits translation into a Western language.
Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk
This article originally appeared in World of Antiques & Art, Issue 70, and is reproduced here with the publication's permission.
I would like to thank Ping Ren, Villanova University, Pennsylvania, for his valuable suggestions and Dai Hui, at the University of Nanjing, China, for kindly providing me with important insights into the 'sledgehammers' episode.
1On the history of Qing dynasty glass, cf. Emily Byrne Curtis (ed.) Pure brightness shines everywhere. The glass of China (Hants: Ashgate, 2004); Claudia Brown and Donald Rabiner, The Robert H. Clague collection. Chinese glass of the Qing dynasty 1644-1911 (Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 1987); Claudia Brown, Clarence F Shangraw and Donald Rabiner; A chorus of colors. Chinese glass from three American collections (San Francisco: Asian Art Museum, 1995).
2Jochen Degkwitz, Yue Fe und sein Mythos. Die Entwicklung der Yue-Fei-Saga bis zum, Shuo Yue quan zhuan, Chinathemen 13, edited by Helmut Martin, Voiker Klopsch and Martin Krott (Bochum: N Brockmeyer, 1983).