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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 23 

Lot 23


Lot 23
Treasury 3, no. 381

The Ancient Prunus Soapstone

Soapstone; very well hollowed with a rounded lip and recessed circular foot surrounded by a flat footrim; incised in draft script with three poems on the prunus blossom, followed by ‘On the fifteenth day of the twelfth month of the bingwu year of the Daoguang period, Sun Xuan (?) made three poems about the prunus blossom by assembling lines from ancient poems’; the foot carved with a functioning seal in seal script, Peiyan zhenshang (For the precious appreciation of Peiyan), the footrim doubling as its frame
Decoration: Sun Xuan (?), 1846
Height: 4.55 cm
Mouth/lip: 1.53/2.30 cm
Stopper: coral; ivory collar

Lot 23 Provenance:
Trojan Collection
Robert Hall (1993)

Hall 1992, no. 35
Kleiner 1995, no. 294
Treasury 3, no. 381

British Museum, London, June–October 1995
Israel Museum, Jerusalem, July–November 1997

Lot 23 Commentary
Because of the extensive connoisseurship of Chinese soapstone, recorded in many sources over the past century, we can identify this material as Shoushan stone from Fujian province. This is a relatively common variety from the province that provided much of the finest soapstone material, although by no means all of it (see under Treasury 3, no. 380). It is distinguished by its colour which can become quite valuable if the red is rich, even and pleasing, and the red is often associated with cream-coloured or greyish areas (see, for instance, Treasury 3, no. 383).

This is formally one of a group of small snuff pots which seem to have been a development of the nineteenth century. They are usually squat, basically cylindrical forms with very wide mouths and they appear in porcelain from the first half of the nineteenth century. There is even one known glass overlay of similar shape which would be dated to the late-eighteenth or early-nineteenth century (see Kleiner 1987, no. 118). The shape is very much rarer in materials other than ceramics and this is the only known version in soapstone, although for one in aragonite, see Treasury 3, no. 389.

Inscribed around the bottle in literate draft script are three poems:

To purify my heart, I quietly wait for the prunus to bloom, reading the lyrical poems of Chu.
[These flowers] do not vie with the orchids for dazzling beauty.
Rather, they acquire a tenacious bearing thanks to the frost and snow.

Only the monk living in the neighbourhood and I appreciate their freshness.
Common people hardly notice their elegance.
Viewed toward the evening, at full bloom, they look even more beguiling,
Until the gleaming full moon makes its descent beyond the southern branches.

When spring arrives at the West Lake, flowers are to be seen everywhere.
The first thing to find out is the distance of the journey
[At the end of which are] crimson cliffs and luxuriant rock-faces thousands of zhang high;
[In addition,] ancient trees and eight or nine families [scatter about] in a remote village.

Writing poems by putting together lines from existing poems is an old practice in China. In this case, the first line is by the Tang poet Yang Juyuan, the second by the Song poet Su Shi, and so on. What is intriguing about these twelve lines is the fact that they appear as the third poem and the first four lines of the fourth poem in a series of fourteen poems 'put together’ by Luo Wenmo (1902–1951 or 1904–1950; see Deyi qianqiu 1999, p. 158). Since the inscription is precisely dated (by the Daoguang reign name in addition to the cyclical date) to 1846, the engraver is obviously not copying from Luo, who hadn’t been born yet; rather, it is likely that the engraver and Luo Wenmo independently copied from some source that had put these lines together before 1846. (Although Luo’s verses are presented as having been assembled by him, whoever found them among his papers after his passing obviously had not seen this snuff bottle and therefore had no reason not to assume Luo was responsible for them.)

Luo Wenmo’s verses alert us to another interesting fact. These are not three quatrains, as the engraver thinks they are; they are regulated verses, or rather one-and-a-half regulated verses. The first eight lines are a complete regulated verse, as Luo correctly presents them. This tells us that Mr. Sun, the engraver or designer, spoke a northern dialect, or at least a dialect in which the entering tone had disappeared. Why? Because he thought that the fifth line rhymes. It would more or less rhyme to the ear of someone who read the poem in, say, Mandarin, and that has certain consequences. Because the fifth line cannot rhyme in a regulated octave (only even-numbered lines can rhyme, with optional rhyme in the first line), our Mr. Sun concluded, very reasonably, that he was looking at the first line of a new quatrain. The fact that it had the same rhyme as lines 1, 2, and 4 ahead of it might have given him pause, but there is nothing inherently wrong with two adjacent poems having the same rhyme. Now, anyone capable of writing poetry himself, which would have meant following the Tang dynasty rhyme categories and ignoring even major pronunciation changes since the tenth century or so, would have known that the last syllable in the fifth line did not rhyme; it was an entering-tone syllable, ending in a final ~k. So Mr. Sun was not very educated. Moreover, if Mr. Sun had spoken a dialect in which the entering tone still existed (and this would include Min, the language of the area where this stone is quarried) he would have literally heard the final ~k (or at least a vestige of it) and would have known it did not rhyme with the other rhyme words in the poem, which are (in Mandarin) qi, ci, ci, zhi, and zhi. He heard (in Mandarin) xi, and drew the wrong conclusions. This tells us something about his level of education, but it also suggests that the bottle had left the Fujian area before the inscription was carved in 1846. Whether it was a long time before or a short time before, we cannot say.

Since the snuff bottle and the popular seal of the Chinese artist are of a similar size-range, from time to time one finds a snuff bottle which doubles as a functional seal. Many snuff bottles have seals on their base, i.e. inscriptions in seal characters (names, dates), but very few of them are mirror images that can be impressed to be legible as a print of the image. This is one of them and what defines it, of course, is the fact that characters are the wrong way round if read directly from the bottle. The seal characters read: ‘For the precious appreciation of Peiyan,’ Peiyan presumably being the name of the owner of the bottle, and perhaps another name for Mr. Sun. Since the later addition of this relief script would have involved recutting the entire foot area, including the footrim, we can assume it was original. For an eighteenth-century jade bottle with a functioning seal from the Gerry Mack Collection, see Sotheby’s, New York, 25 October 1997, lot 87. For another example of a functional seal in this collection, see Treasury 3, no. 392.

When this bottle was re-stoppered some years ago, the point was rather missed that the flat, collar-like stopper in ivory was actually made especially for it, possibly originally, and that bottles of this shape often had such flat stoppers. It is shown the way it should be seen in the Robert Hall publication cited above (see also discussion under Treasury 3, no. 389).


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