The production of animal sculptures in jade reached a new level during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when large sculptures of reclining horses and water buffalo were produced to decorate the Summer Palace in Beijing. With the rise of the Manchus and their establishment of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), a prodigious amount of new sculpture based on Ming prototypes was created, in part to permit the new rulers to assimilate the recognizable imperial symbols of their Ming predecessors.
This recumbent mare is carved out of grayish green nephrite and belongs to a small group of fairly large jade figural representations of buffalo and horses. They are thought to have been originally located in various buildings within the Forbidden City and were later removed to the Summer Palace under an edict issued by the Qianlong emperor (reigned 1736–1795). All these works of jade were taken from the Summer Palace during the xenophobic Boxer Uprising in 1910, and none from the original set remains in China today.
As a depiction of the native Chinese pony, the anatomy, musculature, and details of this composition are superbly and naturalistically worked. The animal is rendered lying down with limbs held close to the body, a popular convention throughout equine sculpture, the lines aided by the natural contours of the nephrite boulder. The entire sculpture is softly polished to impart a gentle glow to the stone, an effect that captures the animal’s gentle disposition.