The carved decoration narrates the legend of Zhang Liang, also known as Zifang, one of the Three Heroes of Han, who masterminded the the overthrow of the Qin dynasty by the Han dynasty. He is considered one of the greatest strategists in Chinese history and an important figure in Daoist iconology. He is famous for his ability to disassociate himself from politics after the Han victory, and for always putting the state before any personal agenda.
Zhang is said to have come upon an old man on Yishui Bridge in the town of Xiapi on a winter's day. The old man had lost his shoe in the water and Zhang retrieved it for him. Zhang Liang helped the old man replace the shoe and as a reward for his kindness and humility the old man gave him a book on military strategy and tactics known as Huangdi Yinfu Jing (The Yellow emperor's Scripture of Hidden Contracts). He was also told that he who studied this book would become the emperor's preceptor. This knowledge helped Zhang support Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han dynasty, to found the dynasty and unite China. The legend was passed from China to Japan. (See W. Edmunds, Pointers and Clues to the Subjects of Chinese and Japanese Art, pp. 104-106.)
The Zhiting School at Suzhou produced a number of spectacular pebble-shaped snuff bottles in nephrite using the natural skin to good advantage. This is one of the finest examples known. For another see Moss, Graham, Tsang, A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles, Vol. 1, Jade, no. 122; and a third example sold in these rooms, 3 June 1993, lot 328.