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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part II  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 23 November 2010: Lot 89 

Lot 89

Lot 89
Treasury 1, no. 110

The ‘Red Cliff’ Imperial Jade

Nephrite; very well hollowed with a recessed foot; incised on each side with an inscription, one followed by ‘Former Rhapsody on Red Cliff’, the other by ‘Inscribed by imperial [command of the] Qianlong [emperor]’
Height: 5.22 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.65/1.32 and 1.29 cm (oval)
Imperial, attributed to the palace workshops, Beijing, 1736–1799
Stopper: nephrite, with integral finial and collar; original

Lot 89 Provenance:
Robert Hall

Kleiner 1995, no. 44
Treasury 1, no. 110

British Museum, June–October 1995

Lot 89 Commentary
This is one of the finest snuff bottles known bearing inscriptions selected by the Qianlong emperor. The material is of lovely, even colour and lacks the pronounced dark, almost black flecking characterizing the material that appears to have arrived in bulk after the occupation of Chinese Turkestan in 1757–1759 and was extensively used at court in the latter part of his reign. The bottle is of perfect formal integrity, elegantly flattened and balanced by its flared neck, and very well hollowed. Although it does not have the common heavy foot of some other jade snuff bottles attributable to the palace workshops, it does have the typical Beijing stopper, which is matching and original, suggesting that it may have been made at court.

The famous and immensely influential Song literatus, Su Shi (1037–1101), better known as Su Dongpo, wrote two rhapsodies inspired by visits to the Red Cliff near his place of exile in 1080–1084, at Huangzhou on the Yangzi River. The first, from which this rather truncated extract comes, was written in 1082:

Moreover, everything between heaven and earth has an owner. If a certain thing does not belong to me, I can never take away even a speck of it. Yet when it comes to the clear breeze over the river and the bright moon between the mountains, [one reaches my ears and becomes sound, the other encounters my eyes and becomes something seen, and I can partake of them without restriction and make use of them without exhaustion].

The excerpt on the other side of the bottle reads as follows:

As to the balmy days in spring when the view is clear, the gentle ripples [of the Dongting Lake] sparkle with the light that shimmers down from the sky, turning into a limitless blue-green expanse. The seagulls glide about, alighting [for a rest from time to time]. Fish with golden scales swim by. The irises along the bank and the orchids that thrive on the shoals are lush.

This passage comes from ‘An Account of the Yueyang Tower’, written by the Northern Song reformer Fan Zhongyan (989–1052) in 1046. Fan considers that this place is associated with both beauty (as evoked in the passage quoted) and sadness, the latter because many writers of the past visited it only as a result of banishment. Yet the humane ancients were not pleased by the beauty of their surroundings, nor were they saddened by their own fates; rather, they worried about the state of the people when they were in comfortable circumstances and about their ruler when they were exiled to distant places like this. If they always worried, were they never happy? Yes, but they worried about things before everyone else worried, and they were happy only after everyone else was happy. This concept was behind the name of the Korakuen (‘Garden of Happiness After’) constructed in Tokyo just about the time the Qing dynasty was being founded on the continent, and it certainly would have appealed to the Qianlong emperor as an expression of good Confucian values for the ruling class, making this bottle an excellent gift to a high official—though it must be noted that both inscriptions actually focus on the simple enjoyment of nature.


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Hugh Moss |