The 'Three Friends of Winter' was a decorative theme formed by the pine, bamboo and flowering prunus blossoms. The motif appeared as early as the Yuan period and is found painted on Yuan ceramics such as the meiping vase in the Idemitsu Museum Collection, illustrated by Ye Peilan, Yuandai Ciqi, Beijing, 1998, p. 64, no. 89. These three plants were particularly admired: the pine and bamboo as they remain green in winter, and the prunus blossoms which are the first flowers to bloom each year. All three represented fortitude against harsh conditions and longevity.
During the later Ming dynasty, this form of decoration found imperial favour among imperial ceramics, as can be seen on a Yongle period bowl sold at Christies Hong Kong, 27 May 2009, lot 1801. During the mid to late Ming period, the Three Friends was a popular subject-matter among literati paintings as well as being employed as design on items made for the scholars desk. By the Qing period, the theme continued as evidenced by a Yongzheng-marked falancai olive-shaped vase, in the Qing Court Collection, illustrated in Porcelains with Cloisonne Enamel Decoration and Famille Rose Decoration, The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 13, no. 10 (fig. 1). It is during the Yongzheng period that further new decorative motifs developed for ceramics and works of art, and amongst these was the depiction of elaborate textiles apparently tied around vessels. A case in point is a lacquered rectangular box in the Palace Museum Collection which is designed to imitate a cloth being wrapped around its exterior (fig. 2). This lacquer box was included in the exhibition, Qing Legacies, The Sumptuous Art of Imperial Packaging, The Macau Museum of Art, and illustrated in the Catalogue, Macau, 2000, p. 121, no. 43. It is interesting to note the influence of this innovative decorative device being re-interpreted and employed by bamboo carvers of the 18th century as can be seen by the intricate bow carved at one end of the present wrist rest.