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photographer E-Yaji.

The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part IX  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 24 November 2014: Lot 103 

Lot 103

Lot 103
Treasury 4, no. 447 (‘The Realm within the Bottle’)

Crystal and ink; carved in the form of a gourd with a severed branch of vine growing with leaves and a smaller fruit; the inside inscribed with a variety of commentaries about the bottle, one followed by the signature Zhongchang 仲昌, one by the signature Banshan 半山, and the other by the signature Yiru jushi 一如居士
Bottle: 1760–1811
Painting: Yiru jushi, attributable to Beijing, circa 1802–1811
Height: 6.8 cm
Mouth: 0.6 cm
Stopper: coral; turquoise finial; bone collar

James Gleeson and Frank O’Keefe
Sotheby’s, London, 6 June 1980, lot 202
Ann Kreuger
Hugh M. Moss Ltd (1990)

Treasury 4, no. 447

The inscription between the Yiru jushi and Zhongchang signatures is also found on Sale 1, lot 68 and Sale 6, lot 183:

Compare it to jade: happily, it has no flaws.
Liken it to ice: it has even more charms.
Within it, the universe is different:
Beyond the world, a flavour to be longed for.

The next inscription (as one rotates the bottle to the right) reads


Such thought went into this,
Such strength of sight!

This is a fragment from a lyric that was recorded on Sale 7, lot 11. There are two odd things about it. First, the last line lacks the last three characters, which include the rhyme at the end of the line that serves to ‘punctuate’ this unit (sometimes called a strophe) in the lyric. In the absence of the full lyric, one would not notice that the omission makes the inscription incomplete, but one would still be puzzled by the second oddity, which lies in the last two characters. Where the other bottle writes mingshing 明生, this bottle writes mingzhu 明主, meaning ‘enlightened ruler’, which seems irrelevant to this context. Mingsheng doesn’t make sense here, either, and one wonders whether the discrepancy between the two versions indicates that the person writing the inscription in the two bottles was working from a smudged manuscript and couldn’t decide what came after ming. But then why didn’t he choose something else to write?

(A note here about our suggestion with Sale 7, lot 11 that the name Zhitang 芝塘 on that bottle might belong to Xue Chuanyuan 薛傳源: we have since gone through Xue’s prose and poetry> without finding any mention of Banshan, Yiru jushi, Zhongchang, etc. While discouraging, that does not prove that Yiru jushi did not take the lyric from Xue. Xue’s collection does not include lyrics (they were traditionally not considered a serious form of literature), and Xue, if he was acquainted with Yiru jushhi, may not have communicated with him in any writings that he wanted to include in his collected works.)

The next inscription, followed by the signature Banshan, is:

Every aspect is clearly distinguished, without a speck of dust.
An important text for a thousand ages comes from an embryo within.
Not only for its warm lustre is it worth keeping—
From time to time it emits a clean scent to brush against the face.

This would seem to describe the snuff bottle. ‘Every aspect’ is literally ‘outside and inside’ and could refer to the exterior and interior of the bottle. However, the phrase biaoli fenming 表裏分明can describe clear reasoning, meticulous carving, careful clinical evaluation of a patient, and so forth, so something a bit more abstract may be at issue here. The second line refers to the ‘embryonic’ structure behind a piece of writing that forms the basis for elaborating and fully realizing the argument. Wenzhang 文章 can also refer to elaborate patterns or ritual systems, but the reference to the ‘thousand ages’ and the ‘embryo’ strongly suggests that wenzhang means ‘text’. What texts the writer has in mind is not clear. The second couplet presents fewer problems: mentions the warm lustre characteristic of nephrite and the scent we may guess comes from snuff, so even if this is a crystal snuff bottle we are on more familiar ground.

In the fourth illustration, accompanied by the signature Yiru jushi, is

‘There are no dharmas outside the mind’
But within the bottle there is a world.

Dharmas here probably mean phenomena, understood as momentary mental states, hence having no existence outside the mind.

The first line here also appears on Sale 2, lot 124.

Yiru jushi painted only in crystal, and of his crystal bottles six are faceted shapes typical of court production. If we add to those the others that are of standard courtly forms from the mid-Qing period, the total comes to thirteen. Thirteen out of twenty-five examples offer a link to the court, some a very strong link. By comparison, only one of Gan Xuanwen’s bottles is of a known imperial form, providing us, we believe, with some strong (even if still circumstantial) evidence of his connection to the court and his possible identity as Hongwu 弘旿 (1743–1811), a grandson of the Kangxi emperor.

This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s.

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