Emperor Qianlong, whose six-decade reign in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was the longest in Chinese history, loved flowers in daily life, which was reflected in his gardens, poems, paintings and the decoration of the items he used in his bedrooms.
A series of rare antiques, paintings and even jewelry to go under the hammer at China Guardian's spring auction this week offers a glimpse into the emperor's deep passion for flowers, especially his favorite blooms such as wintersweet, chrysanthemum and peach blossom.
The highlight of the spring auction is a blue-and-white vase with a painting of the utopian world from ancient poet Tao Yuanming's fable The Story of Peach Blossom Spring, in which people live in harmony with nature and forget the outside world.
The vase was recorded in ceramic expert Geng Baochang's book on ceramic antiques as a typical vase that represented the best technique and craftsmanship of emperor Qianglong's era. The ruler was a passionate patron of the arts.
Yu Daming, general manager of the ceramics and works of the art department with China Guardian, says Qianlong wrote a poem to express his love for the utopian world in Tao's fable, which was also the dream of many intellectuals in Chinese history.
Through the vase, the emperor could obtain a travel-like experience by enjoying the landscape where lots of peach blossoms scatter around the mountains and along a river.
"In terms of skills, colors and painting techniques, the vase was the highest quality of its time," says Yu, who estimates that it will fetch in tens of millions of yuan.
Another art book up for auction focuses on 12 kinds of flowers painted by Qian Weicheng-a top official who was in charge of penalties and justice for Qianlong-and was treasured by the emperor. He wrote poems for every flower depicted in the art book. On the painting of a branch of wintersweet, Qianlong wrote that the flower enjoys the qualities of purity and elegance.
In the Forbidden City, where the emperor used to live, he personally planted lots of plum trees around his living room. On his table stands a screen with a jade board engraved with his poems, recording his journey to a plum tree garden in the suburb of Suzhou in Jiangsu province, a city known for its gardens.
Qianlong was so fond of the plum tree garden that he visited it six times. The jade board of the table screen to be auctioned has a trio of poems related to three of the emperor's visits there.
Also on the docket is a ring worn by the ruler, with the pattern of a chrysanthemum engraved on the gem.
He not only used these items, with their floral elements, but also painted them in ink.
A painting in China Guardian's spring sale, produced by Qianlong, depicts a vase with lotus flowers and a pot of daisies.
"Qianlong's love for flowers is akin to that of his father, emperor Yongzheng, who is known for his simplicity of artistic taste," explains Yu.
In fact, one of the lots is a very rare enamel bowl made for emperor Yongzheng. The bowl was painted with lots of colorful flowers in red, green and yellow. According to Yu, there are four bowls of this kind in existence. One is stored in the Palace Museum and another is owned by a collector in Hong Kong.
A well-known painting series, Twelve Beauties, used by Yongzheng on the screens in his study at the Summer Palace reveals his fondness for flowers.
"Emperors are also like ordinary people," concludes Yu. "They love nature and especially favor flowers."