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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 65 

Lot 65


Lot 65
Treasury 4, no. 620

An inside-painted rock-crystal ‘landscape’ snuff bottle

(‘Ziyizi’s Auspicious Beginning’)

Crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed, flat, elongated foot surrounded by a protruding flat footrim of the same shape; painted with a continuous composition of a cicada and two dragonflies flying above a grass-covered rocky outcrop on which a cricket crawls, beside a willow sprouting fresh leaves with a cabbage and a red-leafed shrub growing below it beside a pond in which nine minnows swim, inscribed in draft script, ‘Modelled after the brushwork of Shitao, Ziyizi executed this at the capital in the eighth month of the year dingyou,’ with one seal of the artist, yin (‘seal’), in negative seal script
Ziyizi, Beijing, eighth month, 1897
Height: 6.2 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.6/1.84 and 1.71 cm (oval)
Stopper: tourmaline, vinyl collar

Lot 65 Provenance:
Arts of China, Hong Kong (1986)

Kleiner 1987, no. 302
Treasury 3, no. 620

Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993

Lot 65 Commentary
Ziyizi is one of the most intriguing and mysterious artists in the entire history of inside-painted snuff bottles. Studios and collections of writings bearing names that incorporate the term ziyi are rife in Qing China, partly due to the influence of the Ming dynasty Neo-Confucian Li Zhi (1527 –1602). Li emphasized individual autonomy; writing about a collection of eight hundred critical biographies he wrote in 1599, he said, ‘I please myself (ziyi) with it and call it Books to keep hidden. What does Books to keep hidden mean? It means that this book is only for pleasing myself (ziyi), not to show to others. That is why it is called Books to keep hidden.’ This book was full of the unorthodox Confucian thought that eventually got Li Zhi arrested, so perhaps he had many reasons to keep his book put away. In any case, the idea of doing things simply to amuse oneself, disclaiming any serious goal, was given extra impetus in literati culture by Li Zhi’s precedent.

Now, we have found only one person who is known to have used the name Ziyizi, a Kangxi-era Suzhou man by the name of Kong Shangyou. He is too early to be of any relevance to this snuff bottle. In Treasury 4, no. 620, we pointed to two bottles dated to 1895 (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 429, and Kleiner 1997, no. 187) that have a seal reading yuan (see figures on p. 486), which we hoped might be a clue. We have now found one person who used the name Ziyi in the title of his poetry collection and has yuan in his name: Xie Yuanshou (1849 – 1911), a native of Yuyao, between Shaoxing and Ningbo. He wrote an account of the Ever-Victorious Army activities near Yuyao during the Taiping Rebellion, and some of his poems concern the impact of foreign goods on the local economy, so the political consciousness manifested in the inside-painted portraits of Li Hongzhang and the fourth Prince Qing attributable to Ziyizi (see Treasury 4, no. 625) would not surprise us if Xie Yuanshou were our artist. However, we have seen no evidence that he lived in Beijing at any time or had artistic interests.

There are about fifty additional Qing-dynasty persons who also use the phrase ziyi in the names of their studios or literary collections. Most of them are either too early or too late; or it seems highly unlikely that they could have been part of the Beijing culture that produced these and similar snuff bottles around the turn of the century-or we simply have no idea when or where they lived.

One who would have been in the right place at the right time, however, is Wang Kaiyin (1860 – after 1919), a native of Dantu. He wrote poems on events in Beijing, and his poetry collection is called Ziyi shi shigao (Draft Poems from the Ziyi Chamber).

A second possibility is Ou Renheng (1857 – 1920), who was an official who would have been in Beijing at the turn of the century (he retired after the overthrow of the dynasty). He had an important library in Ningbo (his books survived the War but not Land Reform) and was a good calligrapher, especially in the cursive style. His poetry collection is called Ziyi xuan yincao (Draft intonings from the Ziyi Studio).

A third possibility is Fei Yin (1866 – 1933), about whom we know quite a bit more. He was a bookseller in Haining, between Hangzhou and Shanghai; his library in Haining was called Ziyi zhai. We have no evidence to place him in Beijing, unfortunately, but he was well connected with other Haining natives, such as the aesthetician Wang Guowei and the modern poet Xu Zhimo. When the latter died in 1931, he was among the luminaries who wrote funerary couplets, luminaries who included Mei Lanfang (the actor was still living in Beijing at the time) and Yu Youren (the calligrapher was then director of the Control Yuan in Nanjing). If he had been in Beijing, he would have moved in the circles that provided both the audience and the subjects for some of the Ziyizi snuff bottles, and so we include him here as one individual to consider in future research.

Whoever Ziyizi was, he worked in Beijing but was not from Beijing, since he used the form ‘sojourning at the capital’ when inscribing some of his works, like Ding Erzhong; Ma Shaoxuan and Ye Zhongsan, who we know to have been born there or in the immediate vicinity, never used this form. Wang Kaiyin and Ou Renheng definitely fit this criterion.

We can also be fairly sure that Ziyizi was well educated. His calligraphy is impressive, and when he chooses to inscribe ancient texts he does so with a grace and power that reminds one more of Ding Erzhong than of Yu Shuyun, who also copied similar scripts. Ziyizi has always been considered as one of the possible scholar-painters of the medium and this remains a possibility. There is no evidence of blatant commercialism and many of his inscriptions, which are poetic and thoughtful, show considerable depth of understanding. Nor is there a single dedication on any of his works. The impression gleaned from Ziyizi’s works is that he painted for his own amusement as much as anything else, which would account for an often bizarre choice of subjects. He painted Western soldiers (see no. 623), portraits of high officials, portraits of opera stars, including Tan Xinpei in the role of Huang Zhong (see under no. 622), and opera scenes (see no. 623), scholarly subjects, auspicious subjects, and a strange series of figure paintings showing foreigners. There is a lovely portrait of a lady who appears to be Japanese and another, possibly of the same woman but in a different pose, with a picture of a crawling child on the other main side; a remarkable double portrait of baby boys; another with two Western children on one side and a Western pastoral scene on the other (Hall 1990, p. 36, no. 23), and a very Western-looking picture of a horse in a landscape backed by a picture of a Western mother and child. On the reverse of a second version of a Western soldier on a horse (quite different from the first), there is another scene of a Western girl apparently opening a letter.

Ziyizi seems to have painted whatever he felt like, either purely for his own amusement or to give to friends, and presumably the paintings of children were done to give to their parents. Given the gaps in his career, he also seems to have painted whenever he felt like it. From a career spanning at least twelve years, we have a record of only nine dated and twenty-two undated bottles. During a career with dated bottles from 1895 to 1907, there are no paintings at all from the years 1896, 1898, 1900, or 1902 to 1905. The impression gained from all of this is that Ziyizi was a scholar-amateur painting mainly for his own enjoyment and for the amusement of his friends, a mantle once worn by Ding Erzhong that perhaps should now be passed on to Ziyizi.

Ziyizi was obviously inspired by various other artists. His earliest works show an obvious debt to Zhou Leyuan, not only in his choice of subjects but in the style as well, which is apparent in this example. He must also have been influenced by Ma Shaoxuan in his portrait painting, although Ziyizi had a distinctive style of his own from which he never varied, and in the use of lines of calligraphy on the back of two of his portrait bottles (for example, this sort of Ma inscription appears on his finest portrait from the J & J Collection, Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 430). A third portrait, from 1906 in the Brandeis University Collection, has similarly placed, but cursive calligraphy. We can also assume that Ma inspired his portraits of Tan Xinpei in the role of Huang Zhong, although, again, the style and composition are quite different and very individualistic. We have no idea what may have inspired his various Western paintings. The soldiers may have been seen around the streets of Beijing at the turn of the century, particularly at the time of the Boxer Rebellion, like many other foreigners, but he may also have seen illustrations. It is also possible, given the number of apparent portraits of Western women and children, that he was friendly with some of the foreigners in Beijing at the time, of whom there were many, and painted for them.

His individuality, regardless of his source of inspiration, is demonstrated by this bottle, one of three of his earliest known works from the summer and autumn of 1895. The subject is obviously inspired by Zhou Leyuan, and yet the style is distinctly Ziyizi’s, attributed in this case to the inspiration of Shitao (1642–1707 - also known as Daoji and one of the most creative and versatile painters working in the early Qing dynasty). Even in his early years he acted like a scholar-painter, borrowing ideas but painting in his own style. Although the subject was almost certainly inspired by Zhou, the composition is quite independent of him, as is the style. It is also extremely well painted for the first year from which we have any dated works, with confident calligraphy that speaks of a well-practised calligrapher in other media applying himself to a new art form rather than an artist struggling to master both calligraphy and inside-painting at the same time.

In this case we are reasonably sure that the crystal bottle was not an old one when it was painted. The hollowing is too irregular for an early plain bottle (a detail that becomes incidental once the inside surface is painted) and the detailing of the foot is quite inconsistent with known early examples.

When previously published, Kleiner misread the cyclical date on this bottle. Ziyizi’s cursive script led him to read dingyou (1897) as dingwei (1907).


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Hugh Moss |