Compare to a closely related square tray of identical size with a similar scene of scholars before palatial pavilions, also incised to the centre of the back with a Xuande mark and with an additional inscription by Emperor Qianlong in the Palace Museum collection, Beijing, illustrated in Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, The Complete Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 2006, p. 78, no. 55 (fig. 1). The inscribed mark on back of the Beijing Palace Museum dish and the present dish were likely to have been added in the Qing dynasty, Qianlong period, as the Emperor was known to have ordered apocryphal marks or inscriptions to be added to pieces from earlier reigns. For examples in the Palace Museum collection with later added marks, cf. a Yongle period circular dish inscribed with a six-character, Daqing Qianlong Fanggu, 'Imitating Antiquities in the Qianlong period of the Great Qing dynasty', see ibid., p. 32, no. 20; and a Yuan dynasty dish with a six-character Xuande mark that was added in the Qing dynasty, ibid., p. 13, no. 7.
This magnificent and rare large tray has been the subject of much scholarly debate. It bears a Xuande reign mark, and seems also to have a, deliberately obscured, Yongle mark. However, it has been well argued by certain scholars that this tray belongs to a group of fine carved lacquers that were probably made even earlier, in the Hongwu reign.
A carved red lacquer box, which was exhibited in Hong Kong in the 1993 exhibition 2000 Years of Chinese Lacquer at the Art Gallery of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, pp. 86-87, no. 39, bears a finely incised Yongle reign mark, but was dated in the catalogue to the Hongwu reign. This date was assigned for two reasons. Firstly, the floral scroll on the top of the lid included flowers of different species, which is not usually the case on early 15th century lacquers. Secondly, the reign mark was incised on the right side of the base of the box, while most Yongle reign marks are incised on the left. It may be significant to note that some of the flowers around the edge of the current tray share characteristics with the varied flower types carved around the sides of the base and lid of the exhibited box. The authors of the Hong Kong catalogue note a dish in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which bears a Xuande date, but which is decorated with a similar mixed species scroll to that on the Hong Kong box (illustrated by D. Clifford, Chinese Carved Lacquer, London, 1992, p. 40, pl. 25). It is possible that this Xuande-marked dish in Oxford may also in fact date to the Hongwu reign.
A lobed oviform dish in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which is decorated in the centre with a scene of two gentlemen playing chess, watched by a third, but around the sides of the dish is a floral scroll with four different types of flower, as on the current dish. The Metropolitan dish has been dated to the late 14th century (see J.C.Y. Watt & B. Brennan Ford, East Asian Lacquer - The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, New York, 1991, pp 80-81, no. 25). The same collection has an ogival dish decorated in the centre with figures in landscape, but with four different flowers around the rim, and it has been suggested that this too may have been made in the Hongwu reign, even though similar pieces are known bearing Yongle reign marks see (ibid., p. 79, no. 24.).
The quality of pieces ascribed to the Hongwu reign is very high, and it is worth bearing in mind that the most famous carvers of the Yuan dynasty Zhang Cheng and Yang Mao were both active in the second half of the 14th century, although both probably died towards the end of the 14th century. It may be noted that in the 1685 Jiaxing fu zhi (Gazetteer of Jiaxing district [Zhejiang province]), it is stated that the Yongle emperor summoned Zhang Cheng to the capital, but his son came in his place because the father had already passed away. Nevertheless it seems likely that Zhang Cheng and Yang Mao continued working into the Hongwu reign and certainly the influence of their work would have been seen on other fine carved lacquers of the Hongwu reign. It has been noted by several scholars that the incised reign marks of the Yongle reign are written in a similar style to that used by Zhang Cheng and Yang Mao to sign their work. It has been suggested by Lee Yu-kuan in Oriental Lacquer Art, Tokyo and New York, 1972, pp. 182-3, no. 114, that this tray may have been made at the Guoyuan chang under the supervision of Zhang Degang, Zhang Cheng's son.
The probability that certain lacquers bearing Yongle and Xuande marks should, in fact, be dated to the Hongwu reign has been extensively discussed by Lee King-tse and Hu Shih-chang in 'Carved Lacquer of the Hongwu period', Oriental Art, 2001, vol. 47, pp. 10-20. These authors have re-translated the inventories of the diplomatic gifts sent to the Japanese court in 1403, 1406 and 1407, checking the style and form of the inventories against a preserved edit issued by the Yongle Emperor in 1407. They have also matched the descriptions of the lacquers in these inventories to existing lacquers preserved in international collections. The authors argue strongly that, particularly the lacquers sent in the first year of Yongle's reign, could not have been made in that short period. They further demonstrate that the lacquers could not have been made in the previous, extremely short, Jianwen reign, when work on luxury items seems to have been abandoned on the instructions of an imperial edict. They conclude that the extremely fine lacquers sent to the Japanese court in the early Yongle reign must have been made in the Hongwu reign. Comparison of the current tray with pieces identified by Lee and Hu, as well as analysis of the decorative motifs, suggests that this superb tray also dates to the Hongwu reign, when the influence of the great lacquer carvers of the Yuan dynasty was still very strongly felt.