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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part I  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2010: Lot 28 

Lot 28

   

Lot 28
Treasury 3, no. 395
HK$168,000

The Zhuozhai Lanting Preface Inkstone

Shale (Duan stone); reasonably well hollowed, with a flat lip and protruding flat foot; incised in regular script with the entire text of Wang Xizhi’s Lanting Preface, the foot inscribed ‘Weng Tanxi copied the Lanting Preface in reduced scale in the year gengyin of the Guangxu era. Zhuozhai (Unsophisticated Studio) modelled after that’
Zhuozhai (Probably Xu Qichou), 1890
Height: 5.62 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.51/1.50 cm

Lot 28 Provenance:
Hugh Moss
Paula J. Hallett
Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1986)

Published:
Snuff Bottles of the Ch’ing Dynasty, no. 130
Jutheau 1980, p. 119, fig. 3
Kleiner 1987, no. 179
Arts of Asia, September–October 1990, p. 95
Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 251
Treasury 3, no. 395
Exhibited:
Hong Kong Museum of Art, October–December 1978
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993
Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995

Lot 28 Commentary
The Lanting Preface, the single most influential piece of calligraphy in the entire culture, was written by Wang Xizhi in 353 when forty-two scholars were invited to the Orchid Pavilion (Lanting) near Shanyin, in Zhejiang province for the Spring Purification Festival. It was composed towards the end of this rather drunken party as a preface to a series of poems written by the assembled scholars in a game of drinking and poetry and so encapsulated the pleasantly melancholic, mystical spirit of so much Chinese poetry that it became instantly recognized as a literary treasure. Being by Wang, it was also superbly written. He himself is said to have tried to rewrite it several times thereafter but was unable to recapture the same sense of magic. It is considered to have summed up both poetically and calligraphically that magical moment of creativity that hovers on the cusp between the reality of the senses and the transcendent realm of the spirit, where all great art first emerges.

As translated by Lin Yutang in The Importance of Living, it reads:

Here are gathered all the illustrious persons and assembled both the old and the young. Here are tall mountains and majestic peaks, trees with thick foliage and tall bamboos. Here are also clear streams and gurgling rapids, catching one’s eye from the right and left. We group ourselves in order, sitting by the water-side, and drink in succession from a cup floating down the curving stream; and although there is no music from string and woodwind instruments, yet with alternate singing and drinking we are well disposed to thoroughly enjoy a quiet, intimate conversation. Today the sky is clear, the air is fresh and the kind breeze is mild. Truly enjoyable it is to watch the immense universe above and the myriad things below, travelling over the entire landscape with our eyes and allowing our sentiments to roam about at will, thus exhausting the pleasures of the eye and ear. Now when people gather together to surmise life itself, some sit and talk and unburden their thoughts in the intimacy of a room, and some, overcome by a sentiment, soar forth into a world beyond bodily realities. Although we select our pleasures according to our inclinations–some noisy and rowdy, and others quiet and sedate–yet when we have found that which pleases us we are all happy and contented, to the extent of forgetting that we are growing old. And then, when satiety follows satisfaction, and with the change of circumstances change also our whims and desires, there then arises a feeling of poignant regret. In the twinkling of an eye, the objects of our former pleasures have become things of the past, still compelling in us moods of regretful memory. Furthermore, although our lives may be long or short, eventually we all end in nothingness. Great indeed are life and death, said the ancients. Ah! What sadness. I often study the joys and regrets of ancient people, and as I lean over their writings and see that they were moved exactly as ourselves, I am often overcome by a feeling of sadness and compassion, and would like to make those things clear to myself. Well I know it is a lie to say that life and death are the same thing, and that longevity and early death make no difference! Alas! As we of the present look upon those of the past, so will posterity look upon our present selves. Therefore I have put down a sketch of these contemporaries and their sayings at this feast, and although time and circumstances may change, the way they will evoke our moods of happiness and regret will remain the same. What will future readers feel when they cast their eyes upon this writing?

Despite his artistic confidence that his works would be read by later generations, Wang Xizhi cannot have envisaged the extent to which his finest moment of creativity would affect his culture or, that nearly sixteen centuries later its inscription on a snuff bottle would lead to a whole new audience around the world becoming familiar with his text. For further discussion on the Preface, its fate in the physical sense and a rubbing of a pictorial record of the event dating to the late sixteenth century, see Arts from the Scholar’s Studio, no. 28.

By the late nineteenth century the Preface had been embedded in calligraphic consciousness to such an extent that no serious calligrapher would have been unaware of it, in its many copies after copies after copies, and rubbings taken from versions carved into stone, although the original had long since been lost, and most would have written it out for themselves, following as a rule, Wang’s style of calligraphy to some extent. The version copied here is by Weng Fanggang (1733–1818), who went under the sobriquet Tanxi, a scholar-official, calligrapher, epigrapher and connoisseur, well respected in mid-Qing literary circles. Obviously a version of the Preface in small characters by him was extant in the late nineteenth century and was seen by whoever followed it, inscribing this bottle. Possibly it was the reduced-size version he referred to in the title to a poem from 1804, ‘Inscribed on my own reduced copy of the “Orchid Pavilion”' (see Shen Jin 2002, p. 428).

The name Zhuozhai could be a studio name, ‘The Unsophisticated Studio,’ but such studio names were also adopted as personal names, particularly two-character studio names ending in zhai (see also discussion under Treasury 3, no. 387) which would be more in keeping with the usage here, implying that Zhuozhai modelled (the terminal character mo) his version after that of Weng Tanxi. An inanimate studio would not be referred to as modelling, or following something in this way.

Several recorded scholars adopted the studio name Zhuozhai, and three are recorded as having used Zhuozhai as a hao, or assumed artistic name. One of these is ruled out immediately, having died in 1718, far too early to have been involved in this late Qing work of art. Another is listed as Qing but without precise dates. He is Du Hou, a Guangdong seal carver who lived at Suzhou and is recorded as a powerful calligrapher, although specializing in Han calligraphy and culture, while the third may be the most likely. He is Xu Qichou, a successful examination candidate of the Tongzhi period, which would place him as a relatively young man in the 1860s and a likely candidate to have acquired the calligraphic and carving skills to do this sort of work by 1890. In the absence of any period for Du Hou and his recorded specialization in the calligraphic style of a century or two before Wang Xizhi’s time, we have attributed this bottle to Xu.

The calligraphy here is the work of an excellent calligrapher with obvious mastery of the iron-brush of the seal carver. The compelling script is exquisitely spread around the four sides of the bottle with absolute confidence and continuous energy, unbroken by hesitation or error. The composition of the characters is also sublime, mastering the three major concerns of balance in the high art of calligraphy: the balance of the strokes in the individual character, the balance between immediately related characters and the overall balance of the entire work (here broken down into four panels which cannot be viewed individually unless a rubbing is taken and they are laid out as a single image). Cementing all these together is the overall energy of the piece which runs unbroken from start to finish. The inspiration of Wang Xizhi lives on.

Although in theory this inscription could have been added to an existing, undecorated bottle, in practice this is highly unlikely. The flat-sided and flat-footed bottle are so ideally suited to the texts added to them, and the form so unusual for a plain Duanstone bottle that we can safely assume that the inscriber commissioned the bottle with this text in mind. Endorsing this belief is the rather basic form and workmanship of the bottle itself; made to be inscribed, there was no need for independent artistic flourishes in the bottle itself. It is one of the great masterpieces of the genre and a delightful scholar’s bottle in every sense of the word. It is also hardly surprising to find it dated to the late nineteenth century, by which time it had become customary for scholars to decorate their own bottles, incorporating the arts of the snuff bottle into the arts of the influential minority directly.

 

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