Imperial Chinese jar recalling 'Emperor's adopted 100th son' sells at Bonhams

A beautiful blue and white jar decorated with boys at play that tells a very human story with links to royalty, is estimated to sell for £300,000 to £500,000 at Bonhams' sale of fine Chinese Art on November 10 in New Bond Street, London.

This magnificent large 'boys' jar, with a six-character mark of the Jiajing period is superbly painted in vivid blue on a white background. Its decorations show a continuous scene of sixteen boys engaged in various leisurely pursuits.

Among the images is a boy impersonating a school master seated before a screen painting with a boy seated at a table before him reading a book, another boy holds a large lotus leaf above the head of his companion who is riding a hobby-horse, another boy rides in a cart towed by a friend and three boys gathered around a table look intensely at fighting crickets.

The auspicious design of boys represents the theme of welcoming sons. The design also relates to the 'hundred boys' decoration, symbolising the sons of the founder of the Zhou Dynasty, Zhou Wenwang, who was blessed with ninety-nine sons from his twenty-four wives and adopted an orphaned boy to accomplish the even one-hundred.

The Jiajing period jar, decorated with boys at play (estimated at £500,000)

Perhaps more than the former two symbols, boys at play represent the blessing for abundance of male descendants ensuring the continuation of the family line and performance of filial duties, a wish which would have been further amplified for the continuation of the Ming Dynasty.

This jar is extremely rare, although other extant examples can be found in important museums and private collections. It was made in the Jiajing period. The Jiajing Emperor (1507-1567) was the 11th Ming Emperor who ruled from 1522 to 1566.

His name means 'admirable tranquility'. But the Jiajing Emperor was known to be a cruel and self-aggrandizing emperor and he also chose to reside outside the Forbidden City in Beijing so he could live in isolation.

Jiajing's ruthlessness also led to an internal plot by his concubines to assassinate him in October, 1542 by strangling him while he slept.

But the plot failed and on the orders of the empress, all of the girls involved, including the emperor's favourite concubine and another concubine, underwent execution by the slow slicing method and their families were killed.

He employed Daoist priests to collect rare minerals from all over the country to create elixirs, including elixirs containing mercury which inevitably posed health problems at high doses. After 45 years on the throne (the second longest reign in the Ming dynasty), the Jiajing Emperor died in 1566 - possibly due to mercury overdose believing to be the Elixer of Life.

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