Lot 3503. An exceptional hardstone-inlaid birchwood box and cover, Late Ming dynasty; 9.4 by 21 by 12 cm, 3 3/4 by 8 1/4 by 4 3/4 in. Estimate 2,000,000 — 3,000,000 HKD. Lot sold 2,500,000 HKD (322,025 USD). Courtesy Sotheby's.
of rectangular form, exuberantly and skilfully decorated with inlays in lapis lazuli, red goldstone, mother-of-pearl, soapstone, turquoise, malachite, rose quartz, amber and wood, the cover depicting a long-tailed bird perching on a pierced rock with its head turned backwards looking at another bird sheltered amongst lush flowering peonies and magnolia, below two flying butterflies on the top left corner, the sides of the cover and box similarly decorated with fruiting leafy branches of succulent loquat, bordered by silver-wire inlaid keyfret bands encircling the rims, the attractively grained and smoothly polished wood patinated to a golden-brown tone with swirling burls and knots, the interior with a black-lacquered wooden tray.
‘Blessings of Wealth and Honour’: A Hundred Treasure Inlaid Birchwood Box
Dr Hajni Elias
Made of the Chinese red birch and inlaid with colourful precious and semi-precious stones and materials which include lapis lazuli, turquoise, mother-of-pearl, rose quartz, malachite and amber, this box is a testament to a late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) artisan’s expertise in creating luxurious wooden objects of the highest craftsmanship. Fashioned in the technique known as the ‘Hundred Treasure Inlay (Baibao qian)’, also referred to as ‘Made by Zhou (Zhou zhi)’, a credit to the inlay method used by the master artist Zhou Zhu (fl. 16th century), it employs a special decorative technique associated with Ming imperial furnishing and one that continued to enjoy high popularity in the Qing period (1644-1911). The imperial provenance of this exquisite box is indisputable, being one half of a pair of which the other is now in the Palace Museum, Beijing, and is illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures from the Palace Museum. Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, Hong Kong, 2002, no. 223 (fig. 1).
fig. 1. Hardstone-inlaid birchwood box and cover, late Ming dynasty Qing court collection. © Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing
The artist’s refined level of skill and expertise in working with the various materials is displayed in the inlay method, a bolection-like technique in which the inlay projects beyond its frame and thus creates a surface of different levels with a strong three-dimensional quality. The two Ribbon-Tailed birds (Shoudainiao), also known as the Red Billed Blue Magpie (Urocissa erythrorhyncha), mother and chick, are expertly positioned in the composition to appear in different planes, with the mother standing on the rock where she can oversee and guard her chick perched on a lower rock below her. The blossoming peony, chrysanthemum and white magnolia and the flowering crabapple tree all appear luscious and textually sumptuous, while the pair of butterflies expertly included in the top left corner of the composition, at a smaller scale to convey distance, display a sense of air and lightness to the composition. The four sides of the box are also richly inlaid with fruiting loquat branches and provide the perfect frame for the central composition on the cover.
The decoration is rich in symbolism. The Chinese name for the Ribbon-Tailed bird is the ‘Longevity-Tailed bird (Shoudainiao) because the ‘ribbon (shou)’ is a pun for ‘longevity (shou)’ and dai is a pun for the word ‘generation (dai)’, together symbolising happiness for many generations. High officials in China historically wore a belt embellished with jade ornaments called yudai, making the Ribbon-tailed bird also a symbol of high official rank. For a further explanation of this bird see Teresa Tse Bartholomew, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, San Francisco, 2006, pp. 215-218. Depictions of the magnolia (yulan) and the crab apple (haitang) together represent the wish for ‘riches and honour (yutang)’ and the combination of butterflies, peony, crab apple and white magnolia is a reminder of accumulated blessings of wealth, high official success and honour for one’s household.
As mentioned earlier, the inlay technique seen on the present box was first developed and made popular by Zhou Zhu who was active during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor (r. 1521-1567) of the Ming dynasty. Zhou’s workshop was located in the city of Yangzhou in Jiangsu province. By the Ming period Yangzhou, lying north of the Yangtze river and at the southern terminus of the Grand Canal, was a thriving centre for the arts and culture. It was of national importance for the salt trade and commerce, serving as the base for wealthy salt merchant families who became patrons of the arts and letters. The city made its name for artists such as the ‘Eight Eccentrics of Yangzhou (Yangzhou baguai)’ who became a notable group of painters in the 18th century, as well as for the many artisans, such as Zhou Zhu, who set up workshops producing artefacts and whose products were much coveted by the elite and the wealthy throughout the empire. The scholar artist and calligrapher Qian Yong (1759-1844) in his Lüyuan congzhi [Collection of talks from walking in the garden] mentions Zhou Zhu as one who devised an inlay method which is known as the Zhou zhi. Qian explains how this method used precious metals such as gold and silver, precious stones, pearls, raw copper ore, turquoise, mother-of-pearl, ivory, amber, and aloes wood to represent landscapes, human figures, trees, elaborate buildings, flowers and plants, birds and animals, inlaid into sandalwood, huanghuali wood and lacquerware. Zhou’s works include large furniture pieces such as screens, tables and chairs, window frames and bookcases; for smaller objects he is known for his brushpots, tea services, ink stone cases and items for the scholar’s studio. Qian Yong describes these multi-coloured and multifarious objects as all of them spectacular articles that had never existed before.1
The Palace Museum in Beijing has one of the most comprehensive collection of inlaid artefacts – boxes, screens and brush holders – from the late Ming to the Qing periods, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Bamboo, Wood, Ivory and Rhinoceros Horn Carvings, op.cit., nos 219-228, 230-234, including the pair to the present box, no. 223. See another related box, luxuriously embellished on all sides with gems forming flowers, fruits and birds, included in The Palace Museum Collection of Elite Carvings, Beijing, 2002, pl. 98 (fig. 2). A further example of an inlaid box decorated with a hunting scene, from the collection of Mr and Mrs Gerard Hawthorn, recently sold in these rooms, 31st May 2018, lot 31, together with a tray attributed to the workshop of Zhou, lot 7, from the same collection. Another outstanding work attributed to Zhou is the inlaid zitan box and cover sold in these rooms, 16th/17th November 1988, lot 256, and again, 4th April 2012, lot 179, from the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat collection.
fig. 2. Hardstone-inlaid zitan tiered box and cover, late Ming dynasty Qing Court collection. © Collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing
1 Qian Yong, Lüyuan congzhi [Collection of talks from walking in the garden], Beijing, 1979.
Sotheby's. Scholarly and Imperial Works of Art from a Distinguished Collection, Hong Kong, 03 Apr 2019