Lot 3007. An outstanding and extremely rare inscribed 'shanmu' 'dragon' raft, signed Meigen, Qing dynasty, Guangxu period (1875-1908), 31.7 cm, 12 1/2  inEstimate 2,000,000 — 3,000,000 HKD. Lot sold 2,500,000 HKD. Photo: Sotheby's.

the natural branch oriented horizontally to resemble a log raft with protrusions extending upwards, one side carved with a two-character inscription reading long cha ('dragon raft') followed by Jilou ('Odds and Ends Studio'), the reverse densely carved with a lengthy inscription referring to the source of the branch and eulogising its shape, terminating with the signature Meigen, the wood with an attractive fluid grain and smoothly patinated to a warm reddish-brown colour, wood stand.

ExhibitedGerald Tsang and Hugh Moss, Arts from the Scholar's Studio, Fung Ping Shan Museum, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1986, cat. no. 62.
Jean de Loisy and Alain Thuleau, La Beauté, Avignon, 2000, p. 238.

NoteNaturally gnarled and wrinkled and of pleasing vivacious form, the ‘dragon’ raft encapsulates a story. It was reputedly once a section of a towering shan tree in front of the temple of the legendary Emperor Shun that, having witnessed the passage of time and the change of seasons, was crudely severed when the local official destroyed the woods. Having been saved by a scholar and later cherished by a monk who decorated it with an inscription, the present log manifests its erstwhile owner’s reverence for the ancient ruler, his resentment over the destruction of the woods and his innocent pleasure derived from scholarly objects. Having been transformed from a guardian tree to a poetic object perfect for a scholar’s desk, the ‘dragon’ raft recalls ancient tales and provides inspiration.

The log is incised in clerical script with a long inscription, which can be translated as: 

The whereabouts of Shun’s tomb on the Nine Doubts Mountain has been uncertain for ages, but shan trees in front of the Temple of Shun presented a magnificent towering sight, cloaking the place with a sense of the mysterious and divine. Woodcutting was thus prohibited, so there they flourished like sweet pear trees providing a place to stop and rest. During the Guangxu period of our present dynasty the district magistrate, on the pretext that wind would topple them, had all the trees cut down—becoming like Cavalry Commander Huan in doing so.1 And they, whose heads had once reached into the clouds so that they made one rest one’s staff and become stirred to strong emotion, chanced to leave behind a few small fragments of branches, which all in the world treasured. Liu Zhun, a retired scholar from Lingdao, gave me one such fragment that he had saved. Its shape is so irregular and knobby, curving like a dragon at play, that it deserves to be elegantly embellished with a title and inscription. Now today as my thoughts float free on the sea and my spirit roams along Yu’s tour routes of inspection, I make this clear to future generations: spoil not my intention and rashly ridicule this object of enjoyment. The inscription states: Was this cut down to serve as a chronological record? Or was it done to provide something on which to ride up to Heaven? Aha! Aha! Or was it because Shun really is immortal?

It has long been believed that the burial place of Emperor Shun, who supposedly ruled in the later part of the third millennium BC, is located on Jiuyishan (‘Nine doubts mountain’) in the south of Hunan province. This legend has been well recorded long before the first dynasty. One early text is Shanhaijing [Classic of mountains and sea] compiled between the early Warring States period (475-221 BC) and the early Han dynasty (475 BC-9 AD); see section Haijing [Classic of sea], juan 13: Haineijing. According to a later classic, Shuijing zhu [Commentary on the Water Classic] by Li Daoyuan in the late Northern Wei dynasty, Jiuyishan is surrounded by nine similar peaks, all craggy and crooked, confusing the visitors, and hence the name ‘Nine doubts’. It is said that there were temples with stone stelae devoted to Emperor Shun on Jiuyishan, for it is where he was said to be buried.

Under ‘Shunmiao [Temple of Shun]’ in the 1796 version of Jiuyishan ji [Record of Nine Doubt Mountain], it is mentioned that the shan trees outside of the Temple of Shun appeared to have lived for centuries, and poets from Tang and Ming dynasty have written repeatedly about the shan trees in the area. The author says in a later chapter that 15 shan trees flanked the Temple of Shun, and adds “They are the oldest and the largest, with thick green branches and leaves. At night, lights can be seen on these trees, echoing the saying that they emit ‘heavenly lamps’ in the evening.” The present log was once part of an old tall tree, probably similar to those mentioned in the ancient literature, and beamed ‘heavenly lamps’ through the darkness of the nights.

According to the signature, the inscription was written by Du Meigen, a late-Qing dynasty monk. He was a calligrapher, painter and seal carver, native of Hezhou (present-day Hexian, Anhui), and lived in the Sanmei’an (‘Samādhi [Total Absorption] Hermitage’) in Wuhu, Anhui (see Hezhou ji [Record of Hezhou], included in Yu Jianhua, Zhongguo Meishujia Renming Cidian [Encyclopedia of Chinese artists]Shanghai, 1987, p. 904). Named after the Buddhist teaching of meditative absorption, Sanmei’an was built as early as the Ming dynasty. Poet Shi Runzhang (1618-1683) from Xuancheng, who had lived in Wuhu, wrote a poem on the hermitage, mentioning the monks residing there. Despite a lack of historical documentation on Du Meigen and the lack of any other surviving works, the inscription on the present piece is a literal portrait of the monk, giving us a glimpse to his love of nature, appreciation of scholarly objects and boundless imagination.

1 Huan Sima [Cavalry Commander Huan] features in the story behind the proverbial saying yan ji chiyu (‘Disaster reaches fish in the pond’ or ‘Disaster is visited on innocent people’). It is believed that Cavalry Commander Huan of the state of Song possessed a precious pearl. He committed a serious offense and fled the state.  When the king dispatched someone to ask where the pearl was, Huan said, ‘I threw it into the pond’. On hearing this, the king had the pond drained to find it, but it was not recovered, and the fish all died as a result”. Just as the fish died because of Huan (who in his greed, had surely lied and kept the pearl), the trees died because of the greedy magistrate, who lied about his reason for cutting them down. For details, see Lü Buwei (290-236 BC), shi chunqiu [Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lü]. 

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