QING ‘PRECIOUS’ BOW
Place of Origin: Beijing, China
Date: Early 19th century
Overall: 1114mm (44 inches)
The present object provides a unique opportunity for a connoisseur to acquire an extremely rare and fine Chinese bow of the highest order. The vibrant colours of this bow belie the quality of its design and function as a supreme hunting weapon. Such bows are often referred to as baogong (寶弓 or ‘precious bow’).
The main surface is carved from the horn of water buffalo – a variety typically used for more expensive bows – which has likely been glued to a wooden core. Short collars of green rayskin frame the central grip-section, below and above which appear longevity-symbols painted in red and white over Manchurian black peach bark. A stunning mosaic panel of red- and crème-coloured squares extends over the greater part of both arms. At the lower arm, a red-and-white infinity knot within a gourd-shaped frame sits just above an ogee panel of multi-coloured chevrons intricately applied to the surface of the bow (this pattern is commonly referred to by Chinese bowmakers as “pheasant’s neck” decoration, a name likely chosen on account of the palette used). Lastly, in keeping with the theme of longevity, a stylised swastika is painted in white at the end of either arm.
As is indicated above, the bow is replete with symbols that allude to themes of longevity and prosperity. The gourd is associated in Chinese visual arts with familial continuity and the birth of future generations, whilst the Chinese verbalisation of the svastika – wan (万) – puns on the number ten thousand, the highest number that can be expressed in a single character. In combination, these symbols express a wish for familial continuity equivalent to ten thousand future generations.
This bow forms a very small group of mosaic-patterned bows which take their distinctive design from Emperor Qianlong himself, he is seen with such bows in paintings by Giuseppe Castiglione. Later they were also produced for certain ranks of guards and princes. As the dynasty progressed, they became available for any who could afford them. An important distinction with the bow offered here and most other known mosaic bows, is that the ears are short, a deviation from Manchu archery traditions, which points at the fact this example was probably a special commission for somebody important, likely a Tibetan.
London art market
 Tan Danjiong's "Investigative Report on Bow and Arrow Manufacture in Chengdu" published in Academia Sinica Language and History Review, Taipei, 1951.
 Baogong attributed to the Qianlong emperor are published in: Illustrated History of the Qing, part 6; the Qianlong era, Xinhua University Press, Beijing 2002, p. 21. Another is published in: De Verboden Stad, Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam 1990, p. 238. A portrait of Qianlong holding such a bow is in the Palace Museum Collection, Beijing. It was published in Jean-Paul Desroches, Isabelle Leroy-Jay Lemaistre, et Guillaume Fonkenell
; La Cité interdite au Louvre, Coédition musée du Louvre / Somogy éditions d'Art, 2011. What appear to be woodblocks of early mosaic patterned bows can be found in Pu Jiang et al., eds., Huangchao Liqi Tushi (皇朝禮器圖式), or "Illustrated Regulations on the Ceremonial Paraphernalia of the Dynasty", Palace Edition of 1766 (British Library, 15300.e.1). This version is based on a manuscript of 1759.
 Personal communication with Peter Dekker