Boxwood brush-holder depicting a scholars' gathering in the West Garden, Late 17th to early 18th century, h. 18.5 cm, diams. of mouth 17.8 x 22.3 cm © National Palace Museum.
A popular legend in the Ming and Qing periods described how several centuries ago during the Yuanyuo reign (1086-1093) of North Song emperor Zhezong, a graceful literary gathering had taken place at West Garden, the property of Wang Shen, husband of a mid-Song emperor's daughter, and a painter-cum-calligrapher in his own right. Wang was the host, the list of guests including the famous brothers Su Shi (1037-1101)and Su Che (1039-1112), their calligrapher friend Huang Tingjian (1045-1105), as well as Qin Guang (1049-1100), Mi Fu (1051-1107), Li Gonglin (1049-1106), Chao Buzhi (1053-1110), Zhang Lei (1054-1114), Zheng Jinglao, Cheng Jingyuan (1024-1094), Wang Qinchen, Liu Jing, Cai Zhao, Li Zhiyi (1038-1117) and Yuantong the Great Monk. All were heavyweights of the then literary and art circle and had their respective significant places in the art or literature history of China. Among them, Li and Mi were both leading figures of great importance in the Chinese painting. Su, and Mi again, ranked among the top four calligraphers of Song. It was also said that Li had supposedly done a painting of the happy gathering, titled a "Graceful Literary Gathering at the West Garden", and that Mi had written a namesake account to go with it, making the story of this highbrow event even more prominent and enjoyable down the centuries. However, Mi's account didn't make its first appearance until Ming dynasty though it has survived to today since, and no other literatures or sources back in Song ever mentioned thus backed up the story of the gathering. Further complicating the matter is that since South Song, there have been all sorts of versions as to the place, time, and list of the guests. So did or did not the famous Garden Gathering actually take place? One is led inevitably to raise the question.
Of late some have commented that the well-known writing attributed to Mi Fu of Song dynasty was very likely a Ming "forgery", and that still the event as recorded in this account could have indeed happened, but might or might not have been called as an "Graceful Literary Gathering at the West Garden".
Regardless, the high-Qing carver who created the present boxwood brush-holder based his design on the descriptions in Mi's account of the Graceful Literary Gathering at the West Garden, with some of the carver's own artistic adaptations for better composition. The guests are arranged into five groups:
Group one: the center figure is the ever-popular and beloved poet Su Dongpo, with four other gentlemen and one lady. Our protagonist wearing his signature "Dongpo cap" is writing feverishly. The host Wang sits by him on the right, watching. Li Zhiyi stands on the other side of the long table, holding a plantain leaf and looking intently toward the calligrapher at work. Cai Zhao is seated right across facing Su, but glances sideways at Su's brother Su Che, who is leaned against a rock and reading. Beside Cai, the charming lady who also has her gaze fixed at the younger Su is a member of the Wang household. All six are surrounded by plantain trees, and each person leads the viewer to the next, together forming a seamlessly coherent whole.
Beyond the old pine tree, group two huddles around the painter Li Gonglin, who perches on a round mound, in front of a table, working his brush to render a painting based on the theme of Tao Yuanming's Returning Home after Quitting the Government Job. Across him Huang Tingjian sits against the table watching. Chao Buzhi stands by Huang, his left hand on the latter's shoulder, his gaze focused at the painter. To the left, Zhang Lei and Zheng Jinglao hold each other on the shoulders, appreciating a painting scroll together. A boy attendant behind Huang turns head to look over at group one, subtly joining the two groups together. Indeed a ingenious, well-thought-out arrangement.
Below, to the left of group two, is situated the third group, a party of two. The Taoist monk Zheng Jingyuan, settled at the root of a kuai juniper, is voluble with excitement and gesturing to an uncertain look on the face of poet Qin Guang, who sits on a rock facing him, hands covered in long sleeves. From where Qin is, now the viewer glances upward and finds Mi Fu wielding his brush writing on a cliff wall. His good friend Wang Qincheng looks up at him at work with both hands clasped behind the back. A boy holds the ink-stone in attendance. The three make up a fourth group.
Across the ledge, a bamboo grove comes into view. Yuantong the Great Monk sits cross-legged in lotus posture on a rush cushion, discoursing on wushenlun (the Buddhist concept of "being not born") with Liu Jing, who also sits in the same posture facing him. Below them, the water splashing against the rocks seems almost audible in the streaming creek under a small bridge. And this fifth group completes a full circle, back at the beginning with group one, delivering an immaculate composition round the brush-holder's entire circumference wall.
Boxwood has a beautiful sheen to it and the grain is very fine. Its hardness is just right and very easy on the knife. However, the tree grows extremely slow so a good-sized chunk is hard to come by. The fact that the diameter of the present brush-holder at where it is widest measures over twenty centimeters makes it a rather rare piece. The carving on the outside surface goes piercingly deep, and the inside is hollowed out for the practical use of holding brushes, and the uneven cross-sections form an irregular wall surface. All this makes it uniquely different from a typical counterpart made of bamboo, both visually and tactilely.