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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IV  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 November 2011: Lot 39 

Lot 39


Lot 39
Treasury 1, no. 90 (‘Xiaocun’s Fenghuang’)

A white nephrite 'phoenix' snuff bottle

Nephrite of pebble material with small areas of skin; well hollowed, with a recessed foot; carved with an identical design on each side of two formalized, archaistic fenghuang facing each other, their tails and the edges of one wing of each joined, with two raised bosses between them, the foot inscribed in relief seal script Xiaocun shi zhi (‘Made by/for Mr. Xiaocun’)
Possibly imperial; possibly carved in Suzhou, 1736–1880
Height: 7.4 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.5/1.61 cm
Stopper: coral; pearl finial; vinyl collar

Robert Hall (1985)

Treasury 1, no. 90

Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1997

When viewing this snuff bottle, one may well ask, is why so little of the skin was left visible, since a reduction in the thickness of the bottle of less than a millimetre would have eliminated it entirely? Or, if a skin relief had been intended, why not leave more and make it visually more impressive? The thinness of the few patches of remaining skin seems to rule out the possibility that the artist was merely caught by surprise at the depth of the skin and was unable to remove all of it. What remains sits so shallowly on the surface that a very small amount of extra polishing would have eliminated it so it must have been intentional, in which case we are faced with the opposite conclusion: that far from wanting to remove it, it was essential that at least some skin remain to indicate the pebble origin of the material.

The value of pebble material is well known and its popularity at the Qing court is proven by the high proportion of bottles in the imperial collection in Taipei that are either natural pebble material or white nephrite stained to resemble it. Bottles apparently stained are published in Chang Lin-sheng 1991, nos. 113–115, 129, 159, 161, 164, 165, 206, 207, 209, and 216, some of which have only minimal, token staining, suggesting that a hint was sufficient to convey the spirit of pebble material and, therefore, to some extent, of ancient material.

The choice made with regard to the skin material on this bottle, then, is very much in tune with imperial aesthetics. The archaistic design is also suggestive of courtly origins. As Yang Boda 1992 shows, the Qianlong emperor explicitly and actively promoted the production of imitations of ancient jades that involved heating the replicas to alter their colour and engraving them with fake carver or collector signatures. As early as the first month of the eighth year of his reign (1743), he decreed as follows:

Give the two volumes of Kaogu tu to An Ning and Tu La and inform them to reproduce the selected jade items including two pieces of bixie, one piece each of the horse in red jade, horse in black jade, tiger and immortal. Select some eminent carvers to reproduce one piece each of them as close to the recorded measurements as possible. Inscribe the names of the carvers and the collectors of the original pieces onto the reproductions wherever appropriate. Also keep a detailed record of their designs and measurements.

The Kaogu tu (‘Illustrations for the Study of Antiques’) was a regular source-book of ancient design at the Qing court. An Ning and Tu La served at the imperial Silk Manufactory at Suzhou, through which locally-made jade carvings were ordered for the court. The pixie is a class of mythical animal sometimes translated into English as a chimera. Eleven months later, three of the pieces ordered were presented to the emperor for his approval. His further instructions were noted:

Bake the white jade immortal and horse to create some stains so they look like the Han jades and make an elegant stand for each of them.

Yang Boda also records that the next day he further decreed that all future productions of white jade immortals and horses should be antique-finished to the colour recorded in the Kaogu tu. The reference to baking refers to the process of staining jade, apparently undertaken with a mixture of pigment and heat.

From these records we learn that the Qianlong emperor was so fond of ancient materials that he went to the trouble of staining white jade to simulate it, and that he also approved the addition of false marks.

Throughout his life, the Qianlong emperor was almost obsessively interested in the art of jade carving. He is on record as having personally examined every single item of jade either made to his order or presented to him, which apparently ran into the tens of thousands (about twenty thousand of which remain in the Palace Museum in Beijing, according to Yang Boda, quite apart from those in Taipei). He exerted enormous influence over the jade-carving industry of China during the eighteenth century, an influence that Yang believes created a Qianlong style that persisted into the twentieth century.

We have suggested the possibility of a Suzhou provenance, albeit very tentatively, for reasons other than the fact that An Ning and Tu La were based in Suzhou. The style of the signature is typical of Suzhou both in the relief, the choice of script and its formalization. Very few Suzhou carvers signed their works but, as far as we know, none from Beijing did so during the Qing period. Another Suzhou carver who signed his name was the Kangxi carver Zhiting (see Watt 1980, nos. 216 and 217, and here, discussion under no. 122).

In Treasury 1, we revealed some uneasiness with the name on the bottom, for shi is ordinarily used with a family name, and Xiaocun is not a Chinese family name. But in fact, shi can be used with a sobriquet as well, and there are several Qing-dynasty figures who called themselves Xiaocun. We shall mention the two most socially prominent of them, on the theory that they would be able to tap into the network that supplied imperial snuff bottles. The first is Zhou Ming’en (1799 --?), a jinshi of 1832. He apparently was awarded the jinshi degree as a native of Dantu (Zhenjiang, across the Yangzi from Yangzhou), but he is generally listed as a native of Daxing (now part of Beijing). We do not have extensive details about his career, but his posts included junior compiler in the Hanlin Academy, assistant examining official, and censor. The second is Shao Youlian (d. 1901), who had served with the Qing mission that went to Russia in 1878 to negotiate Russian withdrawal from the parts of Chinese Turkestan it had occupied in 1871; in 1882—1886, he was in charge of the circuit that included Suzhou, Songjiang, and Shanghai. Herbert Giles (1845 – 1935) stated in his Biographical Dictionary (1898), ‘As taot’ai at Shanghai he proved himself an obstructive of the worst type, and in spite of his European experiences an inveterate enemy to the foreigner’; but then, Giles (as British vice consul at Shanghai) and Shao had taken opposite positions in a protracted legal battle. Between Zhou Ming-en and Shao Youlian, we would have to favour Zhou as living at a time when a snuff bottle of this style was more likely to have been carved, even though Shao probably spent far more time in the Suzhou area. It is also possible that Shao added his name to an older bottle.

As a work of art this bottle flies in the face of the established wisdom that the snuff bottle is better viewed in the hand. Up close, the marginally less than perfect finish leaves an undulating ground with some carving marks still showing that become slightly confused with the archaistic detail on the relief design. From a distance of a foot or more, however, it suddenly comes into its own, with the relief design visually separating from the ground plane and becoming far more powerful.


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Hugh Moss |