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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part X  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 1 June 2015: Lot 92 

Lot 92

Lot 92
Treasury 4, no. 577 (‘Ma Shaoxuan’s Boundless Joy’)

Crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding flat foot rim; painted on one main side with six butterflies of various species on and above flowering plants, inscribed in regular script with the title Huangtian xidi 歡天喜地 (‘Boundless Joy’), followed by Jiwei dongri, Shaoxuan 己未冬日少宣 (‘[Executed] on a winter day in the year jiwei by Shaoxuan’), followed by one seal of the artist, Shao, in negative seal script, and inscribed on the other main side with a poetic inscription preceded by its title Ti baidie tu 題百蝶圖 (‘Inscribed on a Picture of One Hundred Butterflies’) and followed by Ma Shaoxuan, with one seal of the artist, Shaoxuan, in negative seal script
Bottle: 1750–1895
Painting: Ma Shaoxuan, Ox Street district, Beijing, winter 1895
Height: 5.68 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.45/1.55 cm
Stopper: jadeite; silver collar

Illustration: watercolour by Peter Suart

Emily Byrne Curtis
Sotheby’s, London, 2 July 1984, lot 296

Stevens 1976, no. 851
Kleiner 1987, no. 282
Ma Zengshan 1997, p. 30, fig. 4 and p. 133, fig. 101
Treasury 4, no. 577

Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993
Christie’s, London, 1999

The earliest recorded subject of Ma’s popular butterflies and flowers was done in 1894 and, although the month is not specified, the quality of calligraphic control suggests it was from quite late in the year (Hugh Moss Records). It is a subject he repeated many times over the years, particularly in his early career, and one where his repetitive tendencies are quickly demonstrated. The usual composition is this one, with a single large butterfly dominating the subject in precisely this position and a series of smaller ones and flowers set below it. The details of the lesser butterflies may vary slightly from painting to painting, as do the inscriptions and their positions, but it was clearly a pattern-book design that was repeated time and time again, as were so many of Ma’s subjects

In 1896 there are six examples of this subject by Ma Shaoxuan. Five of them are very similar, while one is quite different, much more pedestrian and stiff, although the long calligraphic inscription is standard for Ma. It seems inconceivable that Ma should suddenly and temporarily have lost his artistic talent in mid-spring of the year, particularly when another version is also dated to the same period and is of the usual high standard as the others.

It looks as if another artist has painted the butterflies here and Ma has inscribed the bottle. This seems confirmed by Sale 9, lot 176, also of butterflies, which seems to be by another hand.

Ma’s biography mentions two older brothers who took up the art form at the same time as he did (Ma Zengshan 1997, p. 24). Although their names are not given, other sources give Ma Guangyu 馬光宇 as one. Ma Guangyu was the father of Ma Shaoxian 馬紹先 (represented in this auction by lot 57). Ma Shaoxian painted very much in Ma Shaoxuan’s style, including emulating his calligraphy. Despite some gaps in his known output, there is no noticeable decline in quality; it is likely that during the years when he produced nothing under his own name he was painting bottles under his uncle’s name. It is unlikely to be coincidence that after a career producing so little, he suddenly bursts into individual artistic activity again just after Ma Shaoxuan retires.

We are still not yet clear on just how many other artists may have been involved in the family workshop, or for what periods of time, but we are drawn to the inevitable conclusion, given the circumstantial evidence, that Ma Shaoxuan had a good deal of help in turning out his more decorative range of bottles over the years, while he concentrated on the masterpieces for which he is justly famous. It is likely that he himself inscribed most of the works by those of his family who were not as accomplished at calligraphy, although Ma Shaoxian could easily have done inscriptions for his uncle without any loss of credibility.

The poem:


So many sorts of energy, so many sorts of spring;
This hidden place in a small garden, peaceful, free from worldly dust.
Blossoms at the tip of his brush, the artist captured the natural flavour;
He was not that ordinary man in the dream.

Our interpretation differs somewhat from the ones offered in Treasury 4 and Ma Zengshan 1998, pp. 112 – 113, both of which understand the poet to be talking about his own art. The Treasury translation has the artist modestly admitting he is still not on the level of Zhuangzi (the philosopher who famously dreamed he was a butterfly but awoke wondering if he was not actually a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi); the Ma Zengshan interpretation is that Ma Shaoxuan did achieve the level of identification with his subject that justified equating himself with Zhuangzi and that when he says he is not Zhuangzi it shows that he was actually thinking of a comparison between himself and Zhuangzi, suggesting that he is on a level with the great philosopher. (Poets often mean the opposite of what they say, Ma claims.)

Both interpretations make the poet more boastful of his own art than one would expect in a Chinese colophon. It seems culturally more appropriate to see Ma Shaoxuan’s poem as an inscription on a real or imagined painting by someone else. For one thing, the painting on the other side of the bottle is appropriate to the theme but makes no attempt to actually bea painting of a myriad butterflies. The title of the poem seems to point to a different work of art that is only suggested by Ma’s small painting.

We concede that there are other versions of this bottle in which the poem is not given a title and thus seems to have no referent other than the painting on the other side. But even if the artist were praising his own work, we think the other interpretations of the last line miss the point that the artist really is superior to Zhuangzi: the great philosopher and writer was merely an ‘ordinary’ fellow because he lacked the wondrous skill of this artist.

The last line, in our reading, fits nicely into a Chinese poetic tradition of belittling some cultural icon for rhetorical or humorous effect. Perhaps it is not crucial to decide whether the poet is talking about his own painting or some possible painting we might imagine on the basis of this one; the wit of the poem turns on pointing out that a modern artist can exceed Zhuangzi’s ancient anecdote.


This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s


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