The pair of ducks pictured in the scroll painting by Li Yuankai belong to an ancient breed of domestic duck, "Black beak white-crowned duck" (Wuzhui baiyu fengtouya 乌嘴白羽凤头鸭). Historically, the white-crowned duck was bred in China for viewing and eating, as recorded in medical treatises and gardening manuals during the last two dynasties. The last extant textual record was from the early eighteenth century by Gao Shiqi 高士奇(1644-1703), an official at the Kangxi emperor’s court, who described the white-crowned ducks that he observed in the imperial palace garden. The breed was then "extinct" in China for three hundred years: it disappeared.
In 2005, agronomist and breeder Shen Xiaokun occasionally ran across a crested duck in Danyang, Jiangsu Province. He then began to work on bringing back the extinct white-crowned duck. In 2013, Shen and his team from the Zhenjiang Tiancheng Livestock Ltd. successfully bred the Black beak white-crowned duck and published their research in agricultural journals. Today there are around a hundred of the white-crowned ducks in the farm.
The curatorial team got in touch with Mr. Shen with the question about the duck species depicted in Li Yuankai’s painting. Mr. Shen confirmed with us that the ducks pictured in the Li Yuankai painting are the extinct ancient breed that they have been working on, and Li’s painting painting from the Mactaggart Art Collection would perhaps be the only extant painting documenting the existence of this breed during the late imperial period in China.