The exquisite carving and naturalistic depiction of flowers on the present box is characteristic of carved lacquerware from the early Ming period, which represents some of the finest decoration found in the Chinese decorative repertoire. The rendering of the peonies is characterised by the deep naturalistic carving, and as Clarence F. Shangraw observes in his article 'Chinese Lacquers in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco', Orientations, April 1986, pp. 22-41, "The lacquer style of the Yongle era echoes that of the underglaze-blue decorated porcelains and continued into the subsequent Xuande reign".
The exacting standards of the Yongle lacquer workshop are demonstrated when craftsmen in the Xuande period, struggling to keep up with the high standards set by their predecessors, on occasion carved bold Xuande marks on Yongle pieces to suggest that they were made during the later reign-period. Pieces made in the late Yongle reign were also sometimes re-assigned with Xuande marks.
A number of related boxes of varying sizes bearing Yongle and/or Xuande reign marks have been published decorated with one, three, five or seven blooms to the top of the cover. Interestingly the boxes with five and seven blooms have a more formal symmetrical design revolving around a central flowerhead which does not vary significantly from box to box, whereas the boxes with three blooms such as the present example seem to have a much more varied arrangement of the blooms.
A 'peony' box of nearly identical size (13.4 cm. diam.) incised with a Yongle mark and decorated with five flowerheads is in the National Palace Museum, Taipei and was included in the Special Exhibition of Lacquer Wares in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1981, and exhibited in the Catalogue, no. 8. A larger example (18.5 cm. diam.) with a Xuande mark and decorated with three flowerheads in the Palace Museum collection, Beijing is illustrated in Lacquer Wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Commercial Press, Hong Kong, 2006, p.46, no. 29.
Compare also the box of this pattern but larger in size (22.1 cm. diam.), inscribed with a Xuande mark in the Linden Museum, illustrated by M. Kopplin, ed., Im Zeichen des Drachen, Linden-Museum, 2006, p. 113, no. 42; a smaller example (10.8 cm.) with a single flowerhead sold at Christie's Hong Kong, The Imperial Sale, 27 March 1997, lot 23; and another (13.3 cm. diam.) with a single flowerhead sold at Christie's Hong Kong, 29 April 2002, lot 673.
This style of floral decoration also includes camellia, chrysanthemum and hibiscus. Cf. the box included in the British Museum exhibition, Chinese and Associated Lacquer from the Garner Collection, 1973, and illustrated in the catalogue, no. 32; an example from the Nezu Art Museum, exhibited at the Tokyo National Museum, Exhibition of Oriental Lacquer Arts, 1977, Catalogue, no. 506; and another in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo Qiqi Quanji, vol. 5, Ming, Fujian meishu chubanshe, 1995, pl. 27. Other examples of Yongle boxes of varying sizes and differing numbers of flowerheads in the Palace Museum Beijing are illustrated in Gugong Bowu Yuancang Diaoqi, Wenwu Chubanshe, 1985, nos. 31-42.
In the article by Sir John Figgess, A Letter From the Court of Yung Lo, Transactions of the Oriental Society, 1962-1963, pp. 97-100, the author suggests that the present box was probably part of a group mentioned in a letter from the Yongle Emperor to the Japanese Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu dated to 1407 in which Yongle lists a number of gifts sent in praise of the Shogun's efforts to capture pirates operating between Japan and China. Among these gifts were 30 lacquer incense boxes of unspecified size which the author speculates may refer to boxes similar to the present example, many of which are today found in Japanese collections.