The Snowflake Warrior Vase: A glass object inspired by the Chinese Beijing Opera

美国康宁玻璃博物馆藏霏雪地套红“八大锤”雕刻玻璃大瓶

The history of Chinese glassmaking can be dated back to the Western Zhou period (1046-771 BCE) of the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BCE), but the glass of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) represents the highest level in terms of technology and aesthetics. The museum’s Snowflake Warrior Vase, named for the special background glass with white inclusions and air bubbles that resemble falling snow (this unique Chinese glass will be discussed in a later blog post). The battle scene depicted on its body is one of the masterpieces of the Qing dynasty Chinese glassmaking.

Snowflake warrior vase, possibly Beijing, China, about 1825-1875. Gift of Benjamin D. Bernstein. 57.6.10.
Click the image to view in 360°.

The Snowflake Warrior Vase is part of a group of cased and cameo-carved objects, all using a snowflake glass base and a very thick red glass overlay and all with a similar round bodied, long-necked shape. This technique showcases the craftsmanship and material knowledge of glassmakers in the Qing dynasty. In each case, the three-dimensional carving tells a story based on historical events with different, but related, stories on the body and the neck. Our vase is the largest of this group at nearly twice the size of similar objects found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery (U.K.), and elsewhere.

Although these snowflake vases have previously been attributed to the Imperial workshops of the Qianlong period (1736-1795) there is no concrete evidence for this. In fact, based on the carving style, the style of Chinese characters on some vases, lack of early literature references to snowflake glass, and the close relationship between the depicted scenes and the Beijing Opera (discussed below), a middle 19th-century date is more likely.

The stories on the Museum’s vase stem from the well-known “Eight Hammers” repertoire of the Beijing Opera. The story was drawn from the 55th and 56th chapters of a popular early Qing dynasty novel, Shuo Yue Quan Zhuan (The Complete Biography of General Yue), by Qian Cai. General Yue was a historical Chinese hero of the Song dynasty (960-1279), who fought against the neighboring Jin dynasty (1115-1234). The Opera consists of several scenes, two of which are represented on the Museum’s Snowflake Warrior Vase.

Jin warrior Lu Wenlong is identified by a pair of Chinese spears and two long pheasant tail feathers in his hat.

The body of the vase depicts the scene “Fighting in turns” in a performance demonstration, in which Lu Wenlong, a warrior for the Jin camp, fights four generals of the Yue camp. The generals took turns fighting Lu Wenlong, but Lu defeated them all. The warrior in the center is Lu Wenlong, identified by a pair of Chinese spears and two long pheasant tail feathers in his hat. The name Eight Hammers comes from the two huge hammers carried by each of the four generals from General Yue’s camp.

 

The four generals with the eight hammers are: first, General Yue Yun, the son of General Yue, with golden hammers (擂鼓瓮金锤); second, General He Yuanqing with silver hammers decorated with eight-facet plum blossoms (八棱梅花亮银锤); third, General Yan Chengfang with melon-shaped bronze hammers (青铜倭瓜锤); and fourth, General Di Lei with iron hammers (镔铁亚油锤).

 
General Yue Yun with golden hammers (擂鼓瓮金锤).
General He Yuanqing with silver hammers decorated with eight-facet plum blossoms (八棱梅花亮银锤).
General Yan Chengfang with melon-shaped bronze hammers (青铜倭瓜锤).
General Di Lei with iron hammers (镔铁亚油锤).
 
Story telling by Wang Zuo: Wang Zuo is on the left side of a pavilion pointing at a painting that he used to reveal the truth to Lu Wenlong, on the far right.

After the battle, Wang Zuo, a military counselor of General Yue, discovered that Lu Wenlong was not a part of the enemy Jin but was, in fact, the only son of a governor of the General Yue side. When Lu Wenlong was a baby, his birth parents died by suicide after being defeated by a Jin leader, who took Lu back to his camp and adopted him. Once Wang Zuo discovered this, he cut off his left arm in a ruse to win the trust of the Jin camp. Having gained access to move freely in the enemy’s camp, Wang Zuo approached Lu and told him the truth about his life. When Lu learned his true identity, he returned to his original homeland of General Yue’s side. The Opera scene called “Wang Zuo’s broken arm” is not represented on the vase, but the following scene, “Story telling by Wang Zuo,” is portrayed on the neck of the vase. Wang Zuo is shown on the left side of a pavilion pointing at a painting which he used to reveal the truth to Lu Wenlong, who is on the far right of the scene.

It is worth noting that Qian Cai’s novel was based on the historical events of a battle associated with the famous General Yue Fei in the Song dynasty (960-1270). However, according to the historical evidence, Lu Wenlong and Wang Zuo, as well as the scenes on the vase, are fictional.

The complex stories told on the Snowflake Warrior Vase and objects like it highlight the interesting dialogue between glassmaking, drama, and literature of the Qing dynasty. The use of snowflake glass with a challenging thick layer of red glass and sophisticated carving techniques on such a large scale foregrounds the importance of the story it tells.


Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Zhang Rong of the Palace Museum Beijing, my colleagues Astrid van Giffen, Dr. Christopher L. Maxwell, Stephen P. Koob, Lianne T. Uesato and Dr. Jane Cook of The Corning Museum of Glass, Dr. Gregory A. Merkel of Corning Incorporated, Zhang Weiyong and Sun Yuyi from Boshan, for their valuable suggestions and support during the research.

2 comments » Write a comment

  1. Thanks for the excellent interpretation of scenes on this magnificent vase. To the casual observer the vase is only an attractive “tour d force” of craftsmanship. This vase was obviously a special commission from a wealthy patron, certainly not made for the export market. I wonder if this vase was looted from the imperial palace after the Taiping Rebellion, like so many other objects in western museums ?

    • Hello – This is from the author of the post, Shelly Xue: Snowflake glass was very popular in 19th century China, especially for making snuff bottles. Carving on glass was normally done by jade workers, to achieve such a high level of craftsmanship. But, there is no evidence that this group of objects was made by imperial workshops. We don’t know how this Vase came to America; there is no relevant information about it.

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