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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part X  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 1 June 2015: Lot 18 

Lot 18

Lot 18
Treasury 4, no. 453 (‘Celestial Mirror’)

Flawless crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a concave lip and protruding concave foot surrounded by a flat, rounded rectangular foot rim; painted on one main side with a meandering river valley surrounded by peaks and cliffs with two scholars sitting beneath pines on a rocky ledge chatting near a country retreat, the upper left-hand corner inscribed with the signature Gan Xuan 甘烜, with one token seal of the artist, and on the other main side with a poetic inscription in clerical script followed by the title Zhongqiu wanyue 中秋玩月(‘Enjoying the Moon at the Mid-autumn [Moon Festival])’, with three further token seals of the artist, one preceding the text and two following the title
Gan Xuanwen 甘烜文, Lingnan, 1810–1825
Height: 6.11 cm                               
Mouth/lip: 0.60/1.69 cm
Stopper: glass; vinyl collar

Hugh M. Moss Ltd (1989)

Treasury 4, no. 453

Christie’s, London, 1999

Of the same basic form as Sale 1, lot 34, where the shape is discussed, this is a typical Gan Xuanwen scene. Other than the series of Buddhist lions of Sale 8, lot 1069, the rare port scene of Sale 7, lot 26, and his small group of portrait bottles represented by lot 4 in this auction and possibly Sale 9, lot 3 as well, Gan’s subject matter was predominantly of this sort of scene. They all illustrate idyllic rustic delight where one or more scholars, away from the cares of the dusty world in their country retreats or living like hermits in the mountains, delight in the joys of nature or the companionship of like-minds.

A poetic inscription usually completes this literati image, turning each bottle into the equivalent of an album-leaf landscape with a facing page of poetry. Here it reads


From my lofty perch I recall when purple clouds revolved,
The Jade Hall of the heavens was clear, and the palace in the moon opened.
I am in the moon-mirror, and the sky is in the water;
The fragrance of the cassia tree floats out of the crystal [lake].

The poem is a bit confusing, as the first line places the speaker of the poem in a high place and the third line places him on a lake. Apparently he fancies himself an immortal with memories of the crystal palace and the cassia tree in the moon, so a certain amount of incoherence is understandable.

The interesting thing about the third line is that it appears verbatim in the same position in a four-line poem by the great-great-grandfather of Zhou Enlai, Zhou Yuantang 周元棠 (1791 – 1851); titled Jianhu gui zhao 鑒湖歸棹 (‘Homebound Oar on Mirror Lake’), Zhou’s poem also ends with confusion between the lake and the moon that turns on a plant: 山陰道上賀家湖。一幅王維舊畫圖。人在鏡中天在水,菱花飛處落紅鋪。 ‘In Shanyin Circuit, the He Family Lake: / An old painting by [the Tang painter and poet] Wang Wei! / I am in the moon-mirror, and the sky is in the water; / where water-chestnut blossoms fly, they fall in a carpet of pink.’

Water chestnuts were a significant crop in Mirror Lake (also called He Family Lake, near Zhou’s native Shaoxing), but the water chestnut was also associated with ancient bronze mirrors of hexagonal shape or with the water-chestnut designs often seen on their backs. Thus, Zhou Yuantang is very subtly continuing the mirror – lake – moon association into his last line, just as Gan Xuanwen did with his blending of the scent from the lunar cassia tree and the crystalline lake (or moon palace?).

Zhou Yuantang was quite a bit younger than Gan Xuanwen. If the shared third line in these two poems indicates a borrowing, it must be Zhou who borrowed from Gan.

Could Zhou Yuantang have written his poem without having seen or heard of Gan Xuanwen’s poem? Theoretically, yes. From at least the Tang dynasty on down, it was routine to compare the moon to a mirror, to liken smooth water to a mirror, and to discover the sky ‘beneath’ one’s boat on a placid lake; moreover, these conceits are often expressed in the phrases we translate ‘I am in the mirror’ and ‘the sky is in the water’. However, we have not found any other instances where these phrases are combined exactly as they are in the third line of these two poems, which appears to be unique.

Does that mean this bottle was once owned by the great-great-grandfather of Premier Zhou Enlai?

Since, to our knowledge, Gan’s works did not circulate in printed form; it is at least plausible that Zhou Yuantang got the poem through the medium of this snuff bottle: he recognized the crisp elegance of the third line of the inscribed poem, understood what Gan was trying to do with the scent of the lunar tree coming from the crystalline lake in the last line, and used this as the kernel for his own poem. But whether he owned the bottle, simply saw the bottle, or learned of its inscription from someone else, we cannot tell.

Here, as with so much of Gan’s work, the scene is a little faded but undamaged. There are none of the disfiguring scratches from the movement of the spoon to interfere with the reading of the painting and calligraphy that one so frequently gets on inside-painted bottles, and particularly on those that have been around for two centuries. A good idea of the degree of fading can be had from a comparison with Sale 3, lot 18, which is one of those from the Bloch collection in studio condition. It appears to have been done with the same palette, and we can see that although the colours were never strong and were always used with restraint, there used to be more distinction between them than there is now.

Apart from that, it is one of the most delightful of Gan’s works, with a charming subject faultlessly executed with remarkably restrained brushwork. All of Gan’s works are worthy of close inspection.


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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