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Exquisitely carved around the exterior with a continuous scene from Xixiang ji, (The Romance of The Western Chamber), with two female figures dressed in long robes, the reverse with two archaic vessels on a rocky outcrop, the handle of the cup formed by a gnarled branch with its leaves extending over the mouth rim, the horn of an attractive rich toffee tone
3½ in. (9 cm.) high
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Lot Essay

Images from Romance of the Western Chamber
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director, Asian Art

This rare and exquisite rhinoceros horn cup is decorated with a scene from one of China's most famous literary works - the Xixiangji, which is usually called The Romance of the Western Chamber in English. The origins of this story can be traced to a Tang dynasty prose tale entitled Yingying Zhuan (The Biography of Yingying) by Yuan Zhen (AD 779-831), whose courtesy name was Weizhi. He was a member of Bai Juyi's literary circle, and famously wrote a grave inscription for Du Fu. In the 12th century the story was well known as a long ballad with musical accompaniment of the type known as zhu gong dian, in which the tale was amplified and given a happy ending. This version is often credited to Dong Jieyuan (AD 1190-1208) from the Beijing area. However in the Yuan dynasty the most famous version, a zaju drama called Xixiang ji (Romance of the Western Chamber) was created by Wang Shifu (c. 1260-1336), and it has remained popular to the present day.

The story, set in the Zhenyuan period (AD 785-805) of the Tang dynasty, tells of the troubled romance between the beautiful Cui Yingying, daughter of an important court official, and the impoverished scholar Zhang Sheng (Zhang Junrui). While accompanying the coffin of her late father to the town in Shanxi province in which he was born, Yingying and her mother stop to rest at the Pujiu Buddhist Temple. Zhang Sheng, travelling from Luoyang to the capital Chang'an, is also staying at the Temple, in the Western Wing, whereas the Cui party are housed in the Pear Blossom Courtyard guest quarters. When Zhang Sheng catches sight of Yingying in the garden he instantly falls in love with her. He is unable to approach Yingying openly since she is under the watchful eye of her mother, but manages to convey his feelings through music - playing the qin in his room while Yingying listens from outside. The romance, however, meets with great disapproval from Yingying's mother. The couple are nevertheless aided by Yingying's spirited and resourceful maid Hongniang, who acts as a go-between - delivering letters and poems, as well as keeping the audience informed as to the emotions of the main protagonists of the play. Over some twenty-one acts in five sections the drama follows the vicissitudes of the young lovers' relationship. The story includes threats by bandits, military rescue, promises reneged upon by Yingying's mother, Zhang Sheng being summarily despatched to the capital to pass his civil service examinations, and rumours of his marriage to someone else before Cui Yingying and Zhang Sheng are eventually reunited and able to marry.

Over the years many editions of the Romance of the Western Chamber were published with woodblock illustrations, but one of the most beautifully illustrated is the 1639 edition collated by Zhang Shenzhi, for which the illustrations were produced by the famous late Ming artist Chen Hongshou (1598-1652). It is two of Chen Hongshou's illustrations from this edition which have provided the inspiration for the decoration on the current rhinoceros horn cup. It is significant that both of these illustrations show the heroine Yingying turned to the viewers' left with her head bowed. In the first illustration - called 'Peeping at a letter' (fig. 1) - Yingying stands reading a letter, which has been sent to her secretly by Zhang Sheng via her maid Hongniang, while the maid hides behind a screen, with her finger to her lips, anxious to see her mistress's reaction. In the second illustration (fig. 2) - Yingying stands in front of a table on which are placed a wrapped qin, an incense burner in the form of a Buddhist lion-dog, and an antique crackled-ware vase containing lotus leaves and blooms. Above and below her are the leafy branches of trees and shrubs. The main inspiration for the carving on the rhinoceros horn cup is the first of these illustrations, and the carved image of Yingying in particular is very close to the woodblock print, even down to the folds of her gown and the decoration on the front panel of her robe. Although the shape of the cup did not lend itself to the depiction of a screen, the maid Hongniang is nevertheless shown peeping around a rock, in the same attitude of finger to her lips, watching her mistress. The screen in Chen Hongshou's illustration is decorated with trees and growing lotus, and these have been included naturalistically on the cup. Further around the cup from the depiction of Yingying, part of a table is shown under an overhanging rock. Just visible upon it is the end of a qin. This is a reference to the second Cheng Hongshou illustration, but also a reference to Zhang Sheng's qin playing, which originally won Yingying's heart. Links with the second woodblock illustration can also be seen on the opposite side of the cup, where items are shown on a natural rock table, including an antique bronze vase containing lotus leaves and blooms. The carver has extremely skilfully blended inspiration from the printed two-dimensional images to create a superb three-dimensional carving.

It is interesting that the same two Chen Hongshou illustrations also provided the inspiration for the design on the famous mid-17th century bamboo brush-pot bearing the signature of Zhu Sansong in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in Possessing the Past - Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei, New York/Taipei, 1996, pp. 464-5, plate 269). The differing shapes of the natural materials from which the rhinoceros horn cup and the bamboo brush-pot were made have necessitated somewhat different combinations of the elements from the printed illustrations. On the brush-pot, for example, the cylindrical shape has facilitated the inclusion of part of the screen from the original illustration, whereas the shape of the rhinoceros horn made rocks a more harmonious alternative. Both are exceptional examples of the carver's art.

Please note this lot is accompanied by a letter from Animal Health agreeing that Christie's may sell it without further CITES certification and confirming that they would be likely to grant an export permit for it to leave the EU post-sale.

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