Lot 6 Lot 7 Lot 8 Lot 9 Lot 10 Lot 11 Lot 12

photographer E-Yaji.

The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part III  
Bonham's, Hong Kong, 25 May 2011: Lot 9 

Lot 9

Lot 9
Treasury 4, no. 607

An inside-painted rock crystal “Jiang Yanxing’ snuff bottle

(‘Portrait of General Jiang Yanxing’)

Flawless crystal, ink, and watercolours; with a flat lip and recessed, flat foot surrounded by a protruding, rounded footrim; painted on one main side with a portrait of General Jiang Yanxing in full military dress, the other main side inscribed in regular script with an inscription, preceded by ‘For the pure appreciation of General Binchen, a sworn younger brother,’ and followed by ‘[Inscription] composed and [bottle] presented by Shen Zhen, his sworn elder brother,’ with one seal of the artist, Shaoxuan, in negative seal script
Bottle: 1760–1925
Painting: Ma Shaoxuan, Studio for Listening to the Qin, Ox Street district, Beijing, 1915–1925
Height: 6 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.5/1.75 cm
Stopper: tourmaline; vinyl collar

Lilla S. Perry
Hugh Moss
Belfort Collection (1986)

Perry 1960, p. 136, fig. 134
Arts of Asia, July–August 1972, p. 17
Arts of Asia, September–October 1978, p. 64
Curtis 1980, p. 74, fig. 100>
Jutheau 1980, p. 70, figs. 1 and 2
Kleiner 1987, no. 297
Ma Zengshan 1997, p. 69, fig. 71
Treasury 4, no. 607

L’Arcade Chaumet, Paris, June 1982
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987
Creditanstalt, Vienna, May–June 1993
Christie’s, London, 1999

Lot 9 Commentary
We are grateful to Emily Byrne Curtis for both the identification and biographical detail of the subject of this portrait (Curtis 1980, pp. 72 and 73, available online here). She says his dates are unknown, and that is essentially correct. According to some sources, Jiang Yanxing died in 1941; others give the date of death as unknown. His date of birth is given variously as 1875, 1877, or 1882. He was among the first to be sent in 1901 to Shikan Gakko, the Military Officers’ Academy in Japan, and specialized in infantry. When he returned to Beijing he joined the elite of the Beiyang Military Clique. At the time of the revolution, Jiang was the military governor of Suiyuan in Jiangbei and was among the forty Beiyang commanders who sent a telegram to the emperor requesting his abdication. In September 1914 he was called to Beijing and appointed to the College of Marshals. He was also named Director General for the Promotion of Military Standards.

It seems unlikely that this portrait would have been painted prior to his taking up residence in Beijing in 1914, and Curtis illustrates a photograph of the Beiyang military leaders dated to 1917, which includes Jiang. It is difficult to judge from the photograph, but Jiang appears to be wearing fewer medals there than in this portrait, and his uniform is certainly less impressive. He also looks younger in the photograph than in this portrait, suggesting that the photograph from which this portrait was taken post-dates 1917.

It seems rather unnecessary to extol the obvious qualities of Ma’s portraits since they are all quite extraordinary. There is an intensity captured in every single one which, as we know, was not always present in the original photographs, and a piercing sense of personality. Regardless of how sympathetic a face we are presented with, these qualities are constant. This genre was obviously Ma’s greatest achievement, and despite his other masterpieces there is no doubt that without the portraits of actors in costume and other celebrities of his day, Ma would have been looked upon quite differently today. With them we are able to see him, separated from the often rather damning efforts of family members signing his name on repetitive decoration, as a master of the art. This in turn elevates the finest of his other output and allows us to separate out the real Ma Shaoxuan — in theory at least if not, in every case, in practice—as one of the major artists in the medium.

The inscription on the other main side of this bottle seems to be by Ma himself, or if not, then composed specifically for this portrait bottle by someone else, perhaps even the man credited with it on the bottle: Shen Zhen. Shen was a major in the infantry in 1914, but we have found little other information about him. The text is quite complex. It begins by making an obvious allusion to the inside-painted portrait.

One leaves one’s image within a bottle:
And if he wants to see his form,
He must look within and turn inside himself---
Only then is the Ultimate Way apparent.

This portion rhymes in lines 2 and 4, so we have formatted it as a poem. The second two lines are best understood and appreciated as an echo of a passage in the Wenzi, an ancient text that presents a mixture of Taoist and other schools of thought. ‘The Way takes non-striving as its essence; look at it, and you do not see its form; listen for it, and you do not hear its voice—it is called the Obscure. But “The Obscure” is not the Way, it is how we speak of the Way. Now, [the man of] the Way looks within and turns inside himself.

This is immediately followed in the Wenzi by the statement that ‘If people do not [claim] small enlightenment, there are no enormous errors; if they do not [possess only] small wisdom, there is no enormous stupidity.’ This can be interpreted as meaning something along the lines of our English proverb, ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’. Another interpretation, one that fits in with the notion of the ineffability of the Way, is that clinging to one’s limited understanding of the Way leads to the major error of never being able to realize total enlightenment. Whatever the meaning, the inscription on the bottle next quotes that Wenzi passage verbatim:

[If one] does not [claim] small enlightenment, there are no enormous errors; if one does not [possess only] small wisdom, there is no enormous stupidity.

The final two lines of the inscription may refer to General Jiang Yanxing, for the critical phrases can refer to people, although the pronouns in the original could refer to either a person or a thing.

Employ him, and he becomes nourishing rains; reject him, and he hides away in a secret place.

A person who improves the livelihood of the people can be said to act as seasonal or nourishing rains (linyu). In the last sentence, ‘hide away in a secret place’ (cang yu mi), is equivalent to the phrase ‘retreat and hide away in a secret place’ (tuicang yu mi), which recurs in texts from the Book of Changes on down. It is the idea of concealing one’s tracks or, more abstractly, comprehending everything without revealing how much one knows. In a letter of 1868, General Zeng Guofan’s message to his protégé Li Hongzhang included advice to ‘retreat and hide away in a secret place’ even as Li was receiving commendations from the court—and attracting the slander and criticism that come with notoriety.

On another level, these final lined could refer to snuff: use it and sneeze (long, soaking rains); or don’t use it and put it away for safekeeping. That is perhaps a topic for further (textual) research. Thanks mostly to having access to vast, searchable databases, we have made advances over the translations in Curtis 1980 and in Treasury 4, but we make no claim to have ferreted out the full or precise meaning of this text.

Lot 6 Lot 7 Lot 8 Lot 9 Lot 10 Lot 11 Lot 12


Hugh Moss | Contact Us