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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part V  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 27 May 2012: Lot 83 

Lot 83


Lot 83
Treasury 2, no. 350 (‘Boating on an Autumn Night’)

A chalcedony ‘Boating on an Autumn Night’ snuff bottle

Chalcedony and gold pigment; well hollowed, with a concave lip and recessed, very slightly convex foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim; inscribed in regular script with the text, divided onto the two main sides, of Liu Fangping’s ‘Boating on an Autumn Night,’ the characters filled with gold pigment
Probably Imperial, attributable to the palace workshops, Beijing 1740–1820
Height: 5.68 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.62/1.55 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; jadeite finial; turquoise collar

Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (1995)

Treasury 2, no. 350

Yellow chalcedony would have had particular appeal at court on the grounds of being a naturally yellowish colour, which was reserved for Imperial use. It is not, of course, the brilliant yellow of the typical Imperial colour found on court robes and glass snuff bottles, but then neither is any of the so-called ‘yellow’ jade that was obviously so highly valued. It was probably sufficient for a natural material to do no more than appear yellowish to qualify for Imperial symbolism, which brings us neatly to one of our main reasons for an attribution to the palace workshops.

The inscription on this bottle presents a fascinating mystery. For one thing, the same poem, by the eighth-century poet Liu Fangping, is inscribed on Treasury 7, no. 1581, a brilliant yellow amber bottle, in exactly the same style of calligraphy, which seems patterned after northern styles on steles of the fourth and fifth centuries. That two bottles in such dissimilar materials should have the same inscription in the same style suggests, as we said in our commentary in Treasury 2, that they were both done in the palace workshops. But even more remarkably, the poem as copied contains a glaring error: the second line does not rhyme, as it must in this genre of poetry. Our translation of the inscription is as follows, with the rhymes marked:

One night on a woodsy pond I float my boat (zhou);
A lone goose—cold and desolate (qiqi).
The myriad shadows move with the moon;
The thousand sounds belong to autumn (qiu).
Another year has approached its end;
Thoughts of home are unbearably sad (chou),
Beyond the drifting clouds in the northwest,
Where does the Yi River flow (liu)?

(The Yi River flows into the Lo River at Loyang, which was the poet’s native district, so he is expressing his homesickness.) The second line here looks unremarkable to anyone who has read a fair amount of Chinese poetry, although we have not found it in any other poem, let alone in any version of Liu Fangping’s poem. But, as we said, it does not rhyme, and there is no way it could replace the second line of the received text of his poem: ‘Insects echo, and the reeds sigh mournfully (sousou)’.

The Qianlong emperor, during whose reign this bottle was probably commissioned, would have been familiar with ancient literature and would have been as likely as any other scholar to order a bottle with such a poem as this. The question is why, on not one but two bottles, such a puzzling error was tolerated. We have no answer at the present time. (Some astute readers may try to solve the problem by switching the first and second lines, since first-line rhyme is optional in this type of poetry, but there are metrical reasons why ‘One night on a woodsy pond I float my boat’ cannot adjoin ‘The myriad shadows move with the moon’ in a regulated verse, of which this poem is an example.)

The inscription was obviously filled with gold pigment at some time, probably gold-leaf applied to the roughened cut surface of the stone where the calligraphic strokes were carved, but much of it has since worn away. We cannot be certain, of course, that the gold pigment was the original intention of the artist. It could have been added at any time after it was finished.


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Hugh Moss |