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photographer E-Yaji.
Snuff Bottles from the Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part I  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2010: Lot 3 

Lot 3

Lot 3
Treasury 7, no. 1481
HK$ 384,000


Bamboo; a double bottle, each container carved in the form of a pea pod, with a severed branch, the upper end of which forms the stopper to one container, growing with leaves, tendrils, and a third much smaller pod, with a katydid crawling on one leaf and a butterfly flying between the larger pod and a leaf, engraved in clerical script with a short but obscure passage that appears to praise the olfactory acuity of the person to whom this vessel is being presented, followed in a slightly cursive, regular script with ‘Composed by the honourable elder brother Runzhi; engraved by Xiaozhou’
Bottle: 1730–1850
Inscription: Runzhi and Xiaozhou (possibly Zhang Baopu), 1760–1920
Height: 10.95 cm. (including original stopper)
Mouths: 6.5 and 4.4 cm
Stoppers: bamboo, one carved as the upper end of the severed branch of the main decoration, the other in the form of a leafy stalk, both with integral corks and spoons; both original

Lot 3 Provenance:
Unidentified dealer, Beijing, (1924)
Ko Collection (1987) 

Arts of Asia, September-October 1990, p. 92
Kleiner 1987,no.200
Illustrated London News, Summer 1990, Summer 1990, p. 49
Orient Express Magazine, Summer 1990, p. 49
Prestige, Summer 1990, p. 49
Kleiner 1995, no. 339
Chen Tao 2002, p. 56, fig. 94
Treasury 7, no. 1481

Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May-June 1993
British Museum, London, June-October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July-November 1997

Lot 3 Commentary
This is one of the most spectacular of all bamboo snuff bottles and would qualify as such even without the additional inscriptions. It is carved from the solid, subterranean mass discussed under Treasury 7, no. 1478 and of which Treasury 7, no. 1480 is another example. Here, however, the piece of material has been inverted from the way it grew in order to make the bottle; the clusters of small roots are concentrated in the upper area of the bottle while the burgeoning nodes form the base (see discussion under Treasury 7, no. 1480). The material itself is delightful and well used, and the design concept artistically brilliant. That it retains both its original stoppers and spoons is a considerable bonus, although with astonishing foresight, the carver left the upper area of the severed branch on the bottle ambiguous, so that without the stopper it would not be glaringly obvious that it was missing although once it is in place the design is obviously complete and greatly enhanced by the gnarled, upper end of the severed branch. Perhaps the maker knew the fate of so many stoppers eventually separated from their original bottles given time.

The inscription is difficult to parse, but one interpretation would give:

The nose's 'sight’ is penetrating and numinous;
And so it receives pair after pair:
[fish with] eyes abreast and the beans of love.

Fish with both eyes on one side of their heads (like sole, plaice, and similar fish) were thought by the Chinese to always swim in pairs so as to compensate for their supposedly incomplete field of vision; hence, they are symbolic of eternal love. The beans of love are the red seeds of the Abrus precatorius, which grows in southern China. One story has it that they sprung from the tears shed by a woman waiting for her husband to return home. The reference to the nose’s ‘sight’ is more opaque. This synæsthetic expression appears in several Song dynasty poems in connection with various subtle scents, but the phrase biguan also means simply 'nostrils'. Obviously, the first line has something to do with snuff or someone's ability to discriminate the subtleties of snuff, and the symbols of conjugal faithfulness are related to the double form of the bottle. Whatever the connection between the nose and the form, the inscription must have been intended for this particular bottle rather than borrowed from another source. Whether 'elder brother Runzhi’ actually engraved the inscription he composed or wrote an exemplar for Xiaozhou (“Little boat”) to carve into the bottle, Runzhi clearly had a personal connection to the piece.

This is an example of a bottle that may have inspired a scholar, or scholars, to add an inscription many years after it was produced. The bottle, judged independently, could have been made in the eighteenth century, or the first half of the nineteenth, whereas the additional inscriptions, and the co-operation of two artists in adding them, is more typical of the nineteenth century and, without further information of the identities of the participants, could have been added at any time during the later-Qing, or even the early-republican period. In that respect, the only thing we can be sure of is that they were not added after 1924, when the bottle was acquired in Beijing for the Ko Collection. The most likely time for their addition, however, is the nineteenth century.

Regardless of the precise, art-historical details of the co-operation, it seems appropriate that two people were involved given the double form of the bottle, the paired insects, and the reference to pair-eyed fish and the love seeds (two are implied, because of the association between couples).
The inscription seems to have been composed by Runzhi and engraved by Xiaozhou. Xiaozhou’s characters are of very high quality; if he didn’t carefully copy stroke-by-stroke from a model that had been prepared for him, both he and Runzhi must have been scholarly individuals. The bottle itself seems to have been made in the Qianlong-to-Daoguang period, but the inscription must have been added after the Xianfeng era; it was in the closing years of the Qing and the early Republican era that the fashion for engraving on old bottles was at its height, often with three individuals involved. In any case, this inscription was made before 1924, when the bottle entered the Ko Collection.

We have found the following individuals who used the name Xiaozhou and are the most likely to have been in a position to make this inscription. Some peripheral information is omitted here, but is in the Chinese version of this web page for the convenience of those who wish to push the research further along.


Personal Information


Xu Ji

1720~1793;native of Kunshan, medical expertise, excellent in literature, calligraphy, and painting

Ma Yiping 1997, pp. 97~98。

Zhang Baopu

Dates unknown; native of Nanjing, skilled in seal cutting

Yu Jianhua 1981, p. 886.

Huang Yuheng

1777~1820; Native of Guangdong, 1811 jinshi; served in Zhejiang, skilled in calligraphy and painting

Nanxiong 1992, p. 251; Xie Wenyong 1985, p. 194

Huang Zhaokui

Dates unknown; native of Dantu, skilled in calligraphy and painting, expert in clerical script

Nanjing Normal University 1994, pp. 321–322

We once suggested that Xiaozhou was Zhang Baopu, but in a previous publication misidentified his native place. If our thesis regarding the timing of the literati enthusiasm for engraving snuff bottles is correct, Xu Ji and Huang Yuheng would appear to have lived a little too early. But since the dates of Zhang Baopu and Huang Zhaokui are still unknown, more research is needed.

There is no dearth of people who used the name Runzhi. Out of twenty-some individuals from the mid-Qing to the Republican period, we have identified the following men as the most likely candidates for ‘our’ Runzhi. (Mao Zedong is perhaps the most famous Runzhi, and he was from bamboo-rich Hunan, but whether he would have had an opportunity as a young man to compose an inscription for a bamboo snuff bottle is unclear; we have elected to exclude him for now.)


Personal information


Chen Shihua

1714~1779; an avid collector of calligraphy and paintings

Standard dictionaries of art figures

Wu Yun

1790 jinshi; native of Suzhou, skilled calligrapher. Lin Zexu wrote of him that ‘at the age of 94, he was fully aware and robust, still writing fly-head characters by lamplight’

Chen Juyuan 2000, p. 409

Zhai Shufang

1832 juren


Wang Ze

Native of Jintang, Sichuan, widely learned, excellent in calligraphy, passed district examination in 1849

Yu Jianhua 1981, p. 133

Ding Renze

Native of Ninghuai, county magistrate of Tongshan around 1887, skilled in poetry and writing

Ma Changhua 1995, p. 232; Anhui fuxian zhi 1998, pp. 432–433

Gan Yu

1823~1896; native of Yaozhou, known for his filial piety

Li Yiping 2005, p. 356; Yu Jianhua 1981, p. 168

Tang Shishu

1831~1902; native of Changzhou, skilled at painting flowers and writing colophons

Standard dictionaries of art figures

Wu Dinglu

Native of Suzhou, famous Jiangnan painter

Yu Jianhua 1981, p. 285

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