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The first day of the first lunar month is known in Chinese as suizhao (lit. “Day of the Year” or “Dawn of the Year”). Traditional celebrations for the lunar New Year include displaying seasonal paintings called suizhao tu (often translated as New Year’s paintings), which are typically designed in a still life genre known as “elegant offering” (qinggong, originally an aesthetically pleasing arrangement presented as sacrifice). The arrangements contain natural elements such as flowers, fruit, or animals or antiquities such as works of calligraphy, paintings, inscriptions on bronze or stone, or potted landscapes. During the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), seasonal paintings of all kinds were enjoyed by the imperial family and nobility and among commoners. Artistically trained emperors, princes, members of the imperial family, and court officials would paint these still lifes and hang them throughout the palace to usher in the new year.
The title of this work in Chinese is Chunzao, which represents a splendid scene (zao) on a spring (chun) day. The arrangement features a bronze vase, which is shaped as an inverted chunyu drum. Ancient Chinese armies used inverted bronze or copper chunyu drums to represent the cessation of warfare. The ruyi scepters made of tree roots and the auspicious plants in the scene symbolize “personally planted by the imperial ancestor” (huangzu shouzhi) and suggest the Qianlong Emperor’s (r. 1736–1795) resolve to continue in the way of his grandfather, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1662–1722). An agricultural product from the western region of Xinjiang, the melon in the dish represents the expansive territory of the Qianlong reign.
Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying