Nakamura Shogado, Kyoto (1960s)
Edward T. Chow
Previously sold at Christie's London, 14 July 1980, lot 334.
A RARE AND EXQUISITE YUAN DYNASTY MOTHER-OF-PEARL INLAID LACQUER BOX
ROSEMARY SCOTT - INTERNATIONAL ACADEMIC DIRECTOR, ASIAN ART
The current Yuan lacquer box with exquisite mother-of-pearl inlay represents the most impressive manifestation of Yuan dynasty lacquer art. The extraordinary delicacy and intricacy of the inlaid decoration as well as the complexity and artistry of the overall design of the box makes it a masterpiece of 14th century lacquer. The inlay of shell into lacquer has a long history in China, but many connoisseurs would argue that it reached a peak in the Yuan dynasty, and this box certainly supports that view.
Even in the early Bronze Age lacquer was used not only to give a glossy and protective covering to carved wood, but was also used to allow specially-shaped pieces of shell and bone to be inlaid into the design. The remains of this type of inlay have been excavated at the royal Shang dynasty tombs at Xibeigang, Anyang dating to the 12th-11th century BC.(1) In the later Bronze Age, lacquer inlays were more frequently cut from metal foil, but the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907) saw a resurgence of shell inlays on lacquered items. Tang so-called luodian lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay is particularly associated with luxury items such as mirrors, sutra boxes, and musical instruments. On these, relatively large pieces of, primarily white, mother-of-pearl were used to create the design, and details were incised into the surface of the shell using a fine point. Coral and semi-precious stones were also occasionally incorporated into these designs. The mother-of-pearl used for Tang dynasty lacquer wares comes from the shell of the marine gastropods turbo cornutus (commonly known as horned turban) or turbo marmoratus (commonly known as marbled turban).
Mirrors with this type of inlaid mother-of-pearl-decoration have been found in a number of Tang dynasty elite tombs.(2) A group of Tang dynasty musical instruments decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl are preserved in the Shoso-in imperial repository in the grounds of the Todaiji Monastery in Nara, Japan.(3) The treasures of the Shoso-in were deposited there by the widow of the emperor Shomu after his death in AD 756. The technique of inlays using relatively large pieces of mother-of-pearl was also continued into the Five Dynasties and Song periods, as can be seen from sutra boxes excavated from several pagodas.(4)
However at some time during the Song dynasty a new style of mother-of-pearl inlay was adopted. This style moved away from the use of large, thick, white, pieces of shell and employed tiny, thin pieces of multi-coloured shell to build up detailed designs. This shell came from the inner layer of the haliotis (abalone) shell and is thinner and more iridescently colourful than the Tang mother-of-pearl. The technique employing this more delicate style of inlay is usually referred to in the West as laque burgautei. Wang Shixiang has noted that in the 1950s Beijing lacquerers referred to the thick shell inlays, like those of the Tang dynasty, as 'hard mother-of-pearl' and the thin shell inlays, introduced in the Song dynasty, as 'soft mother-of-pearl'.(5)
The use of this latter technique is documented as being used on Song dynasty furniture, and can be seen in paintings attributed to the 12th century painter Su Hanchen (active 1130s - 1160s), such as his hanging scroll of Children Playing in an Autumn Garden in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, where the children's toys have been placed on lacquered stools apparently decorated using this technique (fig. 1).(6) The Southern Song writer Zhou Mi (1232-98) records gifts from Wang Su to the Southern Song prime minister Jia Sidao (1217-75) of ten table screens decorated with inlaid mother-of-pearl to illustrate important events in Jia Sidao's life, with citations. It has been suggested that this could only have been accomplished using the smaller, thinner pieces of shell from the haliotis. (7) To date very little excavated evidence has been forthcoming for Song/Jin lacquers of this type, except for a circular box with floral decoration found in a burial dated to 1262 at Datong, Shanxi province. (8) However, a tiered, lobed, lacquer box in the Eisei Bunko Museum of Art in Tokyo has been dated to the Song dynasty, at least in part because of the similarity of its floral scrolls to those in the Su Hanchen painting. (9) Certainly the technique of using this type of shell must have been well established by the Yuan dynasty in view of the extraordinarily accomplished pieces, such as the current box, which were made at that time. A number of the finest of the few surviving Yuan dynasty mother-of-pearl inlaid boxes, such as the current example, have twisted metal (often pewter) wire inlaid along the edges -sometimes framing the upper panel but also reinforcing the edges and preventing damage. Such fine mother-of-pearl boxes would have been extremely precious items in the Yuan dynasty and the wires would have been intended to serve a protective, as well as a decorative, function. There are records describing Song lacquers with metal wire,(10) but its use seems to have been particularly applied to fine Yuan dynasty boxes.
Another of the significant features of the current box is the fact that it bears the name of the craftsman who made it. The characters Liu Shaoxu zuo (made by Liu Shaoxu) are incised into the lacquer on the left-hand side of the lid. The 14th century seems to have marked the first period in which lacquer artists put their names to their work. In most cases Chinese craftsmen through the ages have been anonymous, but so great was the prestige of some Yuan lacquer artists that they signed their work, and some are also mentioned in contemporary and early Ming literature. Those artists whose signed work is most well-known are Zhang Cheng and Yang Mao from Zhejiang, who were pupils of Yang Hui in Xitang, and who are mentioned in the Gegu yaolun. (11) These lacquer artists, however, were known for their carved lacquer, rather than for mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer. Far fewer signed examples of the latter type are known.
To date seven mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquers are known which bear the names of the artists who made them, and three of those include the area of Ji'an fu in Jiangxi province as the place of origin. In the 1462 extended edition of the Gegu yaolun Wang Zuo, in his commentary, notes that during the Song and Yuan dynasties inlaid mother-of-pearl lacquers were made in Luling xian, Ji'an fu in Jiangxi province. (12) In the Yuan Shi one section notes that in 1332 mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer furniture for the powerful General Yan Tiemu'er was also made in Jiangxi province.(13)
There is a Yuan dynasty mother-of-pearl inlaid lobed box on the top of which is a scene showing Li Bai's revenge of palace official, which was exhibited in Hong Kong in 1993.(14) On this box the name of the lacquer artist is inscribed on the column of the building on the right of the scene. On the pillar is written Luling Hu Zhaogang tiebi (inscribed by Hu Zhaogang of Luling). A table screen sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 28th November 2005, lot 1460, which depicts celebrating scholars passing under gates in procession, also bore the inscription Ji'anfu Lulingxian Guo Xianzhang jisi ji xia (Recorded in the summer of the jisi year by Guo Xianzhang of Luling county, Ji'an prefecture) incised into balustrades. The cyclical jisi year probably refers to AD 1329. This date is also incised on one of the banners in the scene, along with the title Zhuang Yuan, which was given to the highest graduate of the Hanlin Academy.
There are certain aspects of the design on the current box which suggest that it too may have been made in Luling county, Ji'an prefecture, or at least in Jiangxi province. One of those features is the form of the descending willow branches. While willow trees were often incorporated into the designs of mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquers, the branches on the lid of the current box, the lobed box from Luling, and the table screen from Luling are distinctive in that the end of the branches curve gently outwards. This graceful detail suggests the movement of the willow branches in the wind. Another possible clue to the region in which the current box was produced is the turbulent wave design, which appears above the main entrance to the palace on the top of the lid of the box. This wave design, which also decorated a table on one side of the fine Yuan dynasty square mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer seal box, sold at Christie's Hong Kong on 27th May 2009, lot 1906, can be linked to designs which appear on ceramics painted in iron brown made at the Jizhou kilns of Jiangxi province in the latter part of the 13th century, and the underglaze-blue decorated porcelains made at Jingdezhen in Jaingxi province in the mid-14th century.
Only three of the published Yuan dynasty mother-of-pearl lacquer wares have dated inscriptions - the table screen mentioned above, and two others. The second of these is a low table from a private collection, which was exhibited at the Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo in their exhibition The Colors and Forms of Song and Yuan China - Featuring Lacquerwares, Ceramics, and Metalwares, Tokyo, 2004, no. 126. This table, the top of which is decorated with a busy scene of pavilions, lotus pond, deer and travellers, all in a landscape setting, has an inscription incised into one of the banisters giving a cyclical date of the xinchou year, which probably refers to AD 1301. An exhibition in the Tokyo National Museum in 1981, entitled Chugoku no Raden (Chinese Inlaid Mother-of-pearl Lacquer), included as exhibit no. 15 a square Yuan dynasty lacquer box from a private collection, which was decorated with a scene showing children and a lady playing the qin in a garden. This box bears the inscription Wuwu Jun Bo zhi (made by Jun Bo in the wuwu year). The cyclical date of the wuwu year, probably refers to AD 1318.
The much-published rectangular stationery box from the Lee Family Collection, sold at Christie's Hong Kong in December 2008, lot 2113, which is decorated on the top with a lively procession descending a hill, bears the inscription Luotian jiang Yin Junhua (Mother-of-pearl inlay craftsman Yin Junhua) incised into one of the balustrades. The square seal box mentioned above, which is decorated with horses and scholars in landscape, also bears the name of the craftsman who made it. On one balustrade is inscribed (made by Zhou Tong), while the characters Bo Xuan Li appear on another balustrade. The name of the craftsman also appears in an inscription on a circular box in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum, which was included as exhibit no. 14 in the exhibition of Chinese inlaid mother-of-pearl lacquer held at the museum in 1981. In fact this box bears two inscriptions, one reading Tiebi Xiao Zhen (Inscribed by Xiao Zhen), and the other Wenliang Wang Shuheng gong (A tribute from Wang Xiaoheng of Wenliang).
In 1970 a large fragment of mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer was excavated from the site of the Yuan dynasty capital Dadu in the west of Beijing. This fragment, possibly from the lid of a large box or a tray, depicts the Guanghan Palace (the Moon Palace, which was the abode of the moon goddess Chang'e), and the precision of shaping and laying the pieces as well as the use of colours and the fineness of the details incised into the tiny pieces of shell can still clearly be seen. The design on this fragment, like those on the other Yuan dynasty mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer items mentioned above, is very pictorial, and it is interesting to note a comment by Huang Cheng in the Xiu shi lu where he notes:
'The greater the care taken over the details to achieve a resemblance to painting the better. The fact that there are differences in colour in different shells is sometimes exploited by using them in different parts of the design.'(15)
In respect of the decoration on the fragment from Dadu, it is also worth noting not only that the choice of location for the scene is the same as that on the top of the lid of the current box - the Guanghan Palace - but that there are some strong similarities between aspects of the architecture of the palace depicted on the fragment and that of the palace on the top of the lid of the box.
Mother-of-pearl lacquers decorated with scenes incorporating human figures appear to have been especially admired, and it is significant that in the Gegu yaolun section on mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer it says:
'In the Yuan Dyansty, rich families ordered this type pf ware, but left the manufacturers to take their own time in their making. The products are in very solid lacquer, and the designs with human figures on them are delightful to the beholder.'(16)
A wealth of figures are depicted on the current box - not only on the top of the lid, but also in cartouches around the sides of both the box and lid. On the sides of the lid the cartouches with human figures alternate with those containing birds and flowers, while on the sides of the lower part of the box the cartouches with human figures alternate with cartouches containing deer.
A number of the figures incorporated into the design on this box can be identified as coming from Chinese history, mythology, or literature, but the majority are linked to Daoism. On the top of the box a host of Daoist immortals are shown in a garden in front of the Guanghan palace. To the left three senior female immortals ride on phoenixes towards an altar. Each phoenix has different, elaborate, tail feathers. One of these female immortals probably represents Chang'e, who is regarded as the Goddess of the Moon. There are many versions of the story of how she came there, but all the stories involve her husband, the archer Yi, who saved the earth by shooting down the additional suns that were burning it up, and from whom some stories say she stole the elixir of immortality. She was believed to live on the moon with a white hare, which pounded the elixir of immortality with a pestle and mortar, and with the woodcutter Wu Gang, who was condemned to stay on the moon until he could chop down a magically regenerating osmanthus tree. Another of the female immortals is likely to represent Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West, in whose garden grew the peaches of immortality. In view of the fact that the waves from the sea appear in the lower right of the scene, it is possible that the third female immortal is supposed to represent Mazu, the Daoist Goddess of the Sea. Her mortal name was Lin Moniang, named because as a child she never cried, who was reputedly born in AD 960. She was believed to have saved her fishermen father and brother from perishing in a typhoon at sea, and came to be regarded as the goddess who protects fishermen and sailors. The goddesses are shown each accompanied by a female attendant carrying a banner, and being entertained by a band of eight female musicians. In the rest of the scene a priest approaches the altar from the other side carrying an lighted incense burner. At the top right of the panel Shou Lao, the Star God of Longevity floats towards them on a cloud, while below him the group known as the Eight Daoist Immortals approach on foot from the right. The scene suggests an important Daoist ritual or celebration.
In one of the cartouches on the sides of the lid a regal figure is shown approaching a door to a rustic cottage, where he is greeted by a servant. Through a window a scholarly figure can be seen reading a book (fig. 2). This scene is from San Gu Mao Lu (Three Visits to the Thatched Hut), which is one of the episodes from the San Guo Zhi Yan Yi (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms). In this episode three visits are made to Zhuge Liang in order to persuade him to support Prince Liu Bei, the ruler of the kingdom of Shu, in his struggle against Cao Cao, ruler of the kingdom of Wei. Twice Liu Bei is turned away from the thatched hut, but on the third occasion Zhuge Liang agrees to help him, as he has proved his enlightenment and determination.
Another of the cartouches on the sides of the lid shows three men approaching a fourth man who is fishing on the river bank (fig. 3). The man fishing is Jiang Ziya, a military strategist who left the service of the Shang King because of the latter's debauchery and corruption. He sat fishing by the Wei River with an unbarbed hook, or even no hook at all, waiting for the day that a virtuous ruler would come and seek his assistance. It was not until he was eighty years old that King Wen of Zhou, who followed the advice of his ancestors and sought out talented advisors, found Jiang Ziya. As the king talked to the old man he realised that he was a remarkable political thinker and military strategist, and so he persuaded him to ride back to court in his own coach and appointed him prime minister. The king gave Jiang Ziya the title Jiang Taigong Wang (Great Duke Hope). This story was later adapted and incorporated into the Ming dynasty novel Fengshen yanyi (The Investiture of the Gods).
Another of the cartouches on the sides of the lid shows a simply dressed man leading a water buffalo and being approached by two richly dressed men, one of whom is trying to present a tablet to the man leading the buffalo (fig. 4). The man with the buffalo is Xu You, a wise but reclusive man from Huaili in Yang Cheng in Dengfeng County, Henan province. While he was living as a recluse in Peize, working as a cowherd, he was reputedly asked by Emperor Yao (traditional dates 2356-2255 BC) to take over his throne. As Emperor Yao was a sage and benevolent ruler Xu You was horrified by the suggestion and so fled to the area on the north bank of the Ying River. This is regarded as a Daoist story, rather than a Confucian one, since a Confucian would have been obliged to serve a virtuous ruler.
One of the cartouches on the sides of the lower half of the box depicts the philosopher Zhou Dunyi, who was also known as Zhou Maoshu (AD 1017-1075) (fig. 5). He is shown in the cartouche with his back to a blossoming peony plant admiring the flowers in a lotus pond. Zhou famously wrote a short essay entitled Ai lian shuo (Love of Lotuses), in which he explained his admiration for the lotus, and noted that only the poet Tao Yuanming (AD 365-427) had expressed admiration for chrysanthemums, while many people praised peonies. Zhou Dunyi is regarded as the first Sage of the Song dynasty, who examined the relationship between human conduct and universal forces and believed that metaphysics and ethics were inseparable. His most famous works are Taiji tushuo (An Explanation of the Diagram of the Great Ultimate) and Tongshu (Penetrating the Book of Changes). These are regarded as major Neo-Confucian texts, but their subjects are Daoist in origin.
A further cartouche on the lower half of the box may depict Laozi himself, and shows him seated on a mat holding a fan, while two disciples present a vase and a lidded jar (fig. 6). The traditional view is that Laozi lived in the 6th century BC. He is believed to have been a record-keeper at the Zhou dynasty court, and is regarded as a philospher and central figure of Daoism - indeed religious Daoism sees him as one of the Three Pure Ones. Laozi is traditionally regarded as the author of the Daodejing, a text that is fundamental to philosophical Daoism and which influenced both Legalism and Neo-Confucianism. Thus, not only do the figures in the main panel on the lid of this remarkable box represent Daoist beliefs, so do many of those exquisitely depicted in the cartouches around its sides.
(1) Garner, Sir Harry, Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, plates 2-4. (2) One such mirror, excavated at Luoyang, Henen province in 1955 is illustrated in China - Dawn of a Golden Age, 200-750 AD, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2004, p. 321, no. 216.
(3) Some of these are illustrated by Ryoichi Hayashi in The Silk Road and the Shoso-in, New York, 1975, pls. 25 & 28, figs. 44 & 45.
(4) For example the Five Dynasties sutra boxes discovered in 1978 at the Ruiguang pagoda, Suzhou, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu fenlei quanji - Zhongguo qiqi quianji 4 Sanguo-Yuan, Fuzhou, 1998, p. 66, no. 60, and in 1986 at the Feiying pagoda, Huzhou, Zhejiang province, illustrated ibid. pp. 63-4, no. 59.
(5) Wang Shixiang, preface to the 1959 edition of the 1625 Xiu shi lu by Huang Cheng.
(6) See Wang Shixiang and Zhu Jiajin, Zhongguo meishu quanji - Gongyi meishu bian 8 Qiqi, Beijing, 1989, p. 30.
(7) Ibid., p. 54, note 195.
(8) Although the inlays on this box were described as beingof fish bone in the original excavation report, see: 'Excavation of the Yuan dynasty tombs at Feng Daozhen and Wang Qing, Datong, Shanxi province', Wenwu, 1962, no. 19, pp. 34-43, it was later identified as haliotis shell, see: Zhou Naquan and Ye Qifeng, 'The origins and development of mother-of-pearl inlay', Gugong bowuyuan yuankan, 1981, no. 1, pp. 52-58.
(9) Illustrated in The Colors and Forms of Song and Yuan China - Featuring Lacquerwares, Ceramics and Metalwares, Tokyo, 2004, no. 122.
(10) The relevant section of the 1388 Gegu yaolun mentions the use of copper wire on Song imperial inlaid lacquers. See Sir Percival David, Chinese Connoisseurship - The Ko Ku Yao Lun, The Essential Criteria of Antiquities, London, 1971, p. 148.
(11) Sir Percival David, Chinese Connoisseurship, op. cit., p. 146.
(12) Sir Percival David, Chinese connoisseurship, op. cit., p. 148 (13) Yuan Shi, 1976 reprint, juan 36, p. 805.
(14) Illustrated in 2000 Years of Chinese Lacquer, Hong Kong, 1993, pp. 172-3, no. 90.
(15) Translated in Sir Harry Garner, Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, p. 211.
(16) Sir Percival David, Chinese Connoisseurship, op. cit., p. 148.
Bulletin of the Academy of Lacquer Research, Shikkoshi, vol. 23, November 2000, pl. 2
Kathlyn Liscomb, The Art of the Book in China, Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia No.23, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, 2005, pp.86 fig.2
Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, 1979, Exhibition of Chinese Inlaid Mother-of-Pearl Lacquer Art, Catalogue, no. 18 The Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne, 1990, Dragon and Phoenix, Chinese Lacquer Ware, The Lee Family Collection, illustrated in the Catalogue, no. 87
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1990/91
The Shoto Museum of Art, Shibuya, Japan, 1991, Chinese Lacquerware, Catalogue, no. 100
The Tokugawa Art Museum, 1999, East Asian Urushi Lacquer Work with Mother-of-Pearl Inlay, Catalogue, no. 4