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The raw material for the jade sculpture was produced in a mountain in Hetian, a county in Xinjiang Autonomous Region rich in jade. The jade is hard, dense, and light green in color. It is engraved with trees, caves, cliffs, and laborers who are working feverishly to cleave the mountain to prevent a flood.
The jade sculpture depicts an ancient tale of the legendary figure Yu the Great (ca. twenty-second century BCE), who was charged by the leader of his tribe to prevent flooding. Sage King Yu is considered a hero in ancient China who spent thirteen years on flood prevention. The most notable thing about him is that, according to legend, he was so devoted to his task that he passed near his home village three times without stopping. His success in controlling the floodwaters won the respect of the people as well as the trust of his lord. Thus as soon as his lord abdicated the throne, Yu succeeded. After Yu's death, his son was said to have killed the appointed successor and established the Xia dynasty-the first dynasty of China.
The Qianlong Emperor's seal, in seal script, is engraved in the middle of the front side of the jade sculpture. It reads: "A Family of Five Generations Enjoying Five Blessings, The Longevity of Seventy Years" (Wufu wudai tang, Guxi tianzi bao). [The Five Blessings are typically happiness, luck, longevity, convenience, and peace]
At the back of the jade mountain, another seal of the emperor, along with his poem, is engraved.
The poem is entitled "For the Jade Sculpture Sage King Yu Controlling the Flood (Ti Mileta shan da Yu zhishui tu) " The seal reads: Commemorating Eighty Years of Age (Bazheng maonian zhibao) The massive mountain-shaped copper stand is inlaid with gold threads.
Chinese researchers have estimated that two or three years would have been needed just to free such a large piece of jade rock from the mountainside, since severe climatic conditions limited the quarrying season to the summer months. Several months, if not years, would have been necessary to move it from the quarry in far western China to Beijing, a journey of more than three thousand miles made by a cart dragged by teams of horses and pushed by hundreds of men. The Qianlong Emperor approved a design rendered in wood. The boulder was then sent to Yangzhou, a city in south China's Jiangsu province, where it took six years just to carve it into a mountain. After the sculpture was finished, in 1788, the Qianlong Emperor asked Zhu Tai, a craftsman in the imperial workshop, to engrave his poem and two seals on the work of art.
Ever since its completion over 200 years ago, the jade sculpture has been housed in the Hall of Joyful Longevity (Leshou tang) in the Forbidden City.