It is rare to find such a finely carved bamboo miniature 'grotto' group. A number of larger bamboo examples of mountain and grotto groups have been published. Compare two examples from the Lutz Collection, exhibited in the Denver Art Museum, Selections from the Lutz Bamboo Collection, October - December 1981, and illustrated in the catalogue, nos. 17 and 18. The theme was more commonly depicted during the 18th century using other materials including jade and hardstone.
The imagery of two men playing chess and observed by a spectator, is probably from a Ming dynasty woodblock print, and in particularly from the San cai tu hui, which illustrates the story of the woodcutter, Wang Zhi, who one day went up the Shishi Mountain to cut wood. Wang came across two men playing weiqi in a grotto and stayed to watch until his return home when he found he had been away for hundreds of years. Since Wang no longer had any surviving relatives and friends, he returned to the mountain and gained enlightenment. A brushpot carved with the same chess playing scene is illustrated by S. Kwan, Ming and Qing Bamboo, Hong Kong, 2000, p. 189, no. 21; where a similar scene from the woodblock print is illustrates, p. 188.
The two minute apertures either side of the cave serve the dual purpose of allowing light in to illuminate the figures within but would also have allowed the carver access to the back of the figures to depict them more successfully in the round.