Published Apr 3 2013, by

Tribute gift


A major concern of the Qing-dynasty (1644–1911) government was the efficient and expedient management of tax revenue collection from its many provinces. Frequently, depending upon the specific nature of the province, special accords could be arranged with the imperial court. In the case of the southern province of Guangdong, a special accord was reached in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to exclude it from certain taxes in exchange for annual tribute gifts to the emperor. To this day, the majority of these often ornate trib-ute gifts remain within the confines of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

This boat—with its two figures, pagoda, and peach tree—is one such trib-ute gift from the city of Canton (modern Guangzhou) to the imperial court. Its composite form is a master juxtaposition of differing artistic traditions. The hull of the boat, shaped like a gnarled tree trunk, displays the enameling techniques for which the city of Canton was famous. The two figures on its deck—a seated man and a standing woman combing her hair—are carefully carved from white ivory, as is the base of stylized waves, which was then dyed a vibrant green. The pagoda on the deck is wrought using the cloisonné tech­niques so favored in Beijing. The trunk of the peach tree, which emerges from the bow, and the branches have been solidly cast in bronze and subse­quently gilded. The leaves of the tree are individually carved from pieces of dark green nephrite, and the fruit is shaped from carnelian, agate, rose quartz, and hardstone. The skillful unification of these different techniques is emblematic of the mercantile power that the city of Canton commanded during the Qing dynasty.

The central focus of this work was particularly fitting as a tribute to the imperial court. The lavish attention paid to the peach tree, a traditional sym-bol of longevity in China, would have found special favor with the imperial Manchu ruler on a spiritual level. The scale and the craftsmanship innately allude to the popular legend of the sacred peach tree that grows in the garden of Xi Wang Mu (the Queen Mother of the West) on Kunlun Mountain in west­ern China. This tree bears only once every thousand years, and those who eat the fruit are assured of immortality. For ambitious sovereigns wishing to leave their mark on China’s history, there was perhaps no more appropriate a sentiment.