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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 43 

Lot 43


Lot 43
Treasury 3, no. 380

Listen to Your Mother

Soapstone, adequately but not extensively hollowed, with flat lip and deep convex foot surrounded by a flat footrim; incised on each main side with an admonition from a grandmother to her grandson in regular script, the concavity of the foot incised with the date, also in regular script, Guangxu xinmao lidongri (‘on the first day of winter, in the xinmao year of the Guangxu reign [1891]’), followed by the seal Tiansheng
Inscription: Ding Jun, 1891
Height: 5.64 cm.
Mouth/lip: 0.52/1.26 cm
Stopper: stained chalcedony; gilt-silver collar

Lot 43 Provenance:
Michael Stern
Sydney L. Moss Ltd (1965)
Hugh M. Moss Ltd (1995)

Sydney L. Moss Ltd 1965, no. 108
Treasury 3, no. 380

Sydney L. Moss Ltd, 17 March–1 April 1965

Lot 43 Commentary
Throughout much of the Qing dynasty soapstone enjoyed the intriguing status of being both among the most and least valuable of stones available to snuff-bottle carvers. Among scholar-aesthetes one of the rarer varieties of soapstone, known as tianhuang (‘field-yellow’), would have been valued, ounce for ounce, above most other minerals. At the other end of the scale, because of the softness of the stone, if it was not of a highly valued colour it was both cheap and plentiful. Soapstone (also known as talc or steatite) defines the lower end of the Mohs scale, with a hardness of 1, although impurities in the stone may render it harder. It is very easily scratched with a knife or even a pin. The more valued stones were generally those of pure or attractive colours or translucent stones with intriguing inner texture.

The connoisseurship of soapstone, mostly centred around the carving of seals for the literati, is as arcane and complicated as any in the material culture of China. Because of this there is wide variation in quality found in soapstone bottles, the cheaper material often being used for lesser quality carvings while the more highly valued material would have been treated with the greatest of respect and tended to find its way into the hands of the best carvers. Indeed, some of the finest soapstone snuff bottles were decorated by the literati themselves, as this appears to have been.

Because soapstone is a very soft and therefore delicate material, we may be quite certain that the relatively small number of surviving bottles hardly represents original rarity. The stone was beloved of the Chinese, and there can be no question that the numbers of soapstone snuff bottles made originally would have been considerably higher than the impression we might have today.

The piece of soapstone used here would not have been highly valued as material, certainly not within the range of more exotic colours that would have been valued for seals; however, its resemblance to an ancient piece of nephrite would have given it more value than might be suggested by its appearance to us today.

The form of this bottle is unusual and almost pebble-like, with irregularities in the stone echoed in the shaping of the bottle, as if a natural pebble indicated to the carver the basic form and all he did was to reduce one end to form a neck and truncate the other to form a broad foot. This pebble impression may arise in part from the resemblance of the stone to ancient pebble nephrite, but it may also be a reference to the fact that some soapstone of the most highly valued type was found in pebble form; which is often reflected in the form of the seals carved from it. With a valuable piece of tianhuang, the conservation of the precious material was often the order of the day, and a significant proportion of tianhuang seals are of irregular shape. A common feature of soapstone snuff bottles, because the material was so beloved of the literati in their other pursuits, is the personal artistic involvement of a particular scholar. Soapstone was very easily incised with a steel blade, the ‘iron-brush’ of the Chinese seal-carving tradition, and scholars who were well used to carving their own seals and inscribing poetic inscriptions on their sides would have taken quite naturally to decorating their own snuff bottles. A number of the more intriguing soapstone snuff bottles are so inscribed, and this is one of them. It is possible that the literatus made the whole bottle in this case and that the slightly irregular form, particularly noticeable in the detailing of the foot, may be intentionally rustic.

When we described this snuff bottle in Treasury 3, we were unable to link the name Tiansheng with anyone who could have inscribed a bottle in 1891. Now we have learned that Tiansheng is probably the hao of Ding Jun, a soldier, official, and painter active in the Guangxu period. A native of Nanchang in Jiangxi province, Ding Jun served in the Xiang Army under Zeng Guofan and Peng Yulin and as a provincial surveillance commissioner in both Zhejiang and Anhui; he was also expert at painting horses, though he tried his hand at human portraits, too, as we shall see. It is possible that he used three alternative names, Tiansheng, Diansheng, and Qiansheng. The important scholar and calligrapher Weng Tonghe (1830–1904), in notes to a record of a visit from Ding Jun on 4 May 1896, says that Tiansheng was his hao. The name Diansheng is given in a note to an entry in a material that was compiled by Xu Lingxiao and Xu Yishi (brothers) and appeared serially in a Tianjin newspaper much later, from 1929 to 1937; it would seem to have the least credibility. The zi Qiansheng is associated with Ding Jun in a compilation of painters by Li Fang (his preface is dated 1923), but more significant for this snuff bottle, it is also associated with him in a preface or headnote to a “Parallel Pillar Inscriptions (yinglian) Written in Mourning for Provincial Surveillance Commissioner Ding Qiansheng” by Yu Yue (1821–1906):

Qiansheng went to war when he was young. His mother, nee Liu, tattooed eight characters on his arm: “Serve your country with a loyal heart. Devote yourself to the service of your lord.” And so when Qiansheng was in the army, he never avoided danger and he accumulated a considerable amount of military merit. Zeng Guofan and Peng Yulin both appreciated him immensely. He once organized his own army of twenty-five hundred "rattan shields”, and anyone they faced could not advance. I thought this was an excellent way to fend off firearms; if we had a few more like him, we would not have to worry about the Western hordes. He was expert at painting, and could depict a person's likeness for him. Once he painted my portrait, but try as he might, it didn’t resemble me. Last winter he brought someone over who took a small portrait of me using the Western method, probably to use as a model to follow. But in the end he ran out of time! The photo he took is still here, along with a photo of Qiansheng and Salt Commissioner Shih Zhenzhi. The three of us were taken the same [way?].

Yu Yue’s record tells us that we have in this snuff bottle an important historical artifact. When he wrote on one side of the bottle

Serve your country with a loyal heart;
Devote yourself to the service of your lord.
Her kind command was that my second-oldest brother tattoo this on my left arm

Tiansheng was recounting a defining event of his youth, just as described by Yu Yue. Of course, there was a well-known precedent for this motherly act. It constitutes an allusion to Yue Fei (1103–1144), a general praised throughout the ages for his supposed single-minded ambition to retake northern China from the Jurchen invaders (even though the Southern Song court had only tentative control of its own territory). A Qing dynasty account rich with supernatural lore adds to his biography the detail that Yue Fei's mother is the one who tattooed ‘Serve your country with a loyal heart' on her son’s back. This novel was banned under the Qianlong emperor, perhaps because it could be interpreted as anti-Manchu, the Manchus having seen themselves as Jurchens before officially adopting the name 'Manchu' in 1635. However, by the late nineteenth century, since Yue Fei had remained an icon of patriotism, most allusions to this story would be a safe expression of loyalty to whoever is ruling the country. Ding Jun had, after all, been a high officer in the army that had suppressed the Manchu-hating Taiping rebels.
Thus, the inscription on the other side of the bottle reads

With four characters tattooed on his back,
Lady Yue strengthened the resolve of her son.
It is my wish for my grandsons,
That they strive to offer loyalty and valor.
To be of service to the country
And honour their grandmother.
Forbears’ kindly admonition

The number of generations involved here is a bit unclear; Ding Jun is explicitly addressing his grandsons, so he must be referring to their great-grandmother, his mother. In any case, the battle lines drawn for their generation would be different from anything Ding Jun could imagine in 1891.

We are faced here with another intriguing lesson on the psychological effects of damage on art. A small, old chip at the neck has been smoothed out, leaving the neck slightly uneven (largely hidden in the illustrations by the stopper, although more obvious in the hand). It is not disturbing, partly because the rather pebble-shaped appearance of the bottle allows the slight variation at the neck and partly because one expects damage on a material as soft as soapstone. The main reason, however, is that, as in all fields, the higher the work of art, the less a little damage affects our appreciation of it; a unique bottle such as this, inscribed, signed, and dated, can manage a little damage better than an anonymous plain jade or glass bottle.


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