ming dynasty

Carved as a sage seated amid entwined flowering branches spanning the interior of the hollowed log which forms his vessel, the figure, possibly Zhang Qian, holds a fly whisk in his right hand, the log narrowing at the front where a short channel forms a spout and carved to the underside with swirling waves, of rich reddish-honey colour shading to dark brown, small repairs and some losses
9 3/8in. (24cm.) long

Lot Essay

This carving may represent the story of the Han Dynasty statesman and traveller, Zhang Qian, floating down the Yangtze river in a boat in the form of a hollow log. This was a popular theme during the late Ming and early Qing period and can be seen in other rhinoceros horn carvings of the period. Cf. signed examples in the Shanghai Museum by the Ming Dynasty artist, Bao Tiancheng, which was included in the exhibition, Treasures from the Shanghai Museum, 6,000 Years of Chinese Art, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, May-September 1983, Catalogue, no.21; and by Wango Weng and Yang Boda, both in the Palace Museum, Beijing, Catalogue, p.187.

A similar example is illustrated in the Catalogue, no.34, from the collection of Dr. Ip Yee, exhibited in Ten Centuries of Chinese Rhinoceros Horn Carving, International Asian Antiquities Fair, Hong Kong, 1982; and another in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, illustrated by Soame Jenyns, Chinese Art III, New York, 1982, no.143.

Also, compare the representation of this theme in silver inscribed with a poem and the artist's seal, Bishan, for Zhu Bishan, a silversmith working during the 14th century, from the collection of Lady David, included in the exhibition, Chinese Art Under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Cleveland Museum of Art, 1968, Catalogue no. 37, where the traditional identification of the figure as Zhang Qian is discussed and an alternative identification of Taiyi Zhenren, an important Taoist deity, is suggested.

Three more vessels of this design, one carved with an inscription, zai lai hua jia ci, and two seals, Xian and Yu Yuan, are illustrated and discussed by Bo Gyllensvard, Two Yuan Silver Cups and Their Importance for Dating Some Carvings in Wood and Rhinoceros Horn, B.M.F.E.A., no.43, 1971, pp.223-233, pl.4 and pl.5. The two cups illustrated in pl.4 are from the collection of H.M. Gustaf VI Adolf of Sweden; the cup with the inscription, illustrated in pl.5, is in the collection of Mr. W. Fleisher, Stockholm. Gyllensvard also mentions another vessel of this subject in the king's collection in which Zhang Qian is depicted holding a fly whisk as in the present lot.

For further reading on rhinoceros horn 'raft cups', cf. J. Chapman, The Use of Manipulation in Chinese Rhinoceros Horn Cups, Arts of Asia, July/August 1982.

Similar examples sold in our New York Rooms, one from the Sackler Collection, 1 December 1994, lot 17; and 2 December 1994, lot 139

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