One of the materials adopted, along with bamboo, gourd, soapstone and wood, was coconut shell - materials, along with a few others, united in being soft enough for scholar-artists to decorate personally with the 'iron-brush' of the seal carver. The nineteenth-century vogue for coconut-shell snuff bottles is evident in the many extant examples that appear to have been decorated by the literati, as is the case with the present bottle. The calligraphy on the group is excellent, and includes frequent signatures, dates, seals and other details. The majority were the works of literati who probably acquired blank bottles and inscribed them as personal works or as gifts for their friends.
The inscription on the base indicates that Yue'an was given the blank bottle, and that he then carved it. The implication is that one scholar had the blank bottle made, or perhaps even made it himself, and gave it to a friend who then inscribed it for his own use. Even though Yue'an is an unrecorded artist, the standard of calligraphy and carving are both of the highest quality.
One side of this bottle bears the complete text of the prose, 'An Account of a Humble Cottage' by Liu Yuxi (772-842):
A mountain does not need to be high. It becomes known when immortals are to be found. A river does not need to be deep. It becomes enchanted when dragons are to be found. Here is my humble cottage. Through my reputation [its name spreads like] fragrance. The steps are green with scattered moss. One catches glimpses of the lush green grass through the screen of bamboo splits. Learned scholars [come to] chat and laugh together. The ignorant never count among our company. I can play my lute or read the Diamond Sutra without [fear of] being disturbed by a medley of stringed and wind musical instruments, or being fatigued by reams of governmental documents. [Similar to] the thatched cottage of Zhuge Liang of Nanyang and the pavilion of Ziyun of Western Shu, [we may cite] Confucius's saying, 'How could this be [considered a] crude [abode]?'
Zhuge Liang (181-243) was a politician and famous military expert from the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280). At the end of the Eastern Han dynasty (25-220), he went into seclusion in Nanyang (Xiangyang in Hubei province). However, in 207, Liu Bei (161-223), soon to become the founder of the Minor Han dynasty (221-263), visited him thrice at his thatched cottage to gain advice on military strategy. These visits have come to symbolize able leaders foregoing formal etiquette in their search for talented individuals.
Ziyun was the sobriquet of Yang Xiong (53 BC-AD 18), a native of Chengdu in Shu (now in Sichuan province). He was a well-known writer, philosopher and linguist from the Western Han period (206 BC -AD 8).
The inscription on the other side of the bottle is composed by Zuo Si (circa 250-305), a renowned writer of the Western Jin dynasty (265-313). The sixth out of a group of eight poems collectively entitled 'On Past Events', it reads:
Jing Ke had a drinking bout in the marketplace of Yan.
As he became inebriated his spirit swelled.
Chanting sad songs to the accompaniment of [Gao] Jianli,
He was oblivious to the presence of onlookers.
Although lacking the moral stature of a cavalier,
His doings were above the ordinary,
Aloof and undaunted by the [expanse] of the four seas.
To him, the rich and powerful were not worth mentioning.
Though people of noble blood esteemed themselves highly,
He regarded them as particles of dust.
Though the poor belittled themselves,
He treated them with the utmost respect.
Jing Ke (d. 227 BC) lived during the late Warring States period (475-221 BC). A subject of the Wei state, he came into the service of Prince Dan of the Yan state, who sent him to assassinate Qin Shihuangdi. Jing Ke failed in his mission and lost his life. Gao Jianli was a subject of the Yan state and an excellent lute player. After the unification of China and the establishment of the Qin empire, Gao also made an assassination attempt on the Qin emperor. Like Jing Ke, he failed in his mission and was put to death.
The construction of this bottle is unusual. Constructed from nine separate sections, the two largest sections are joined with two further sections at each edge to form the main body, with another section forming the foot and two circular sections bonded at the top to form the straight neck.