This charming wucai box demonstrates the exuberance of colour and design seen among imperial polychrome porcelains in the Wanli reign. The balance between the underglaze blue areas in the decoration and the sections painted in red, green, yellow and dark brown enamels is used to good effect, producing a design that is at once harmonious and lively. The two registers on the top of the lid are particularly well modulated, with the blue-robed scholar on either side of the upper register being balanced by a blue ornamental rock in the lower register. The use of alternating colours, which is a feature of this palette can also be seen clearly on the robes of the figures, each blue-robed scholar having a green-robed attendant on his right and a red-robed attendant on his left. The design is not completely symmetrical, however, since one scholar holds a cup which an attendant is about to fill from a ewer, while the other scholar holds a leaf and awaits a flower being brought by one of his attendants.
The interior of the box is particularly attractive, and is divided into compartments to produce a six-petalled flower form. The use of s-shaped petals to suggest flower forms on ceramics was current in China as early as the Northern Song dynasty, as can be seen on the flange of the Ru ware cup stand in the collection of the Percival David Foundation (see R. Scott, Imperial Taste - Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1989, p. 37, no. 13). These flower forms continued to be used on ceramics throughout the dynasties, but this use of petal divisions surrounding a second flower form, all with their upper surfaces highlighted in red enamel is especially effective.
Round boxes with bud-shaped finials found considerable favour in the Wanli reign, and a very similar box to the current example is in the collection of the Idemitsu Museum of Arts, Tokyo (illustrated in in In Pursuit of the Dragon - Traditions and Transitions in Ming Ceramics, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, 1988, p. 131, no. 64, which also illustrates a blue and white box of the same form p. 130, no. 63). Another wucai box of similar form, but with a single register of phoenix and dragon on the lid, is in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum (illustrated in Imperial Overglaze-Enamelled Wares in the Late Ming Dynasty, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1995, p. 23, no. 30). A further wucai box of this form, but with additional cash-shaped reticulation on the lid is illustrated anonymously in R. Fujioka and G. Hasebe (eds), Ceramic Art of the World - volume 14 - Ming Dynasty, Shogakukan, Tokyo, 1976, p. 107, no. 108. A slightly smaller Wanli wucai box with six simple radial divisions and with a reticulated lid is in the Tianminlou Collection (see The S.C. Ko Tianminlou Collection - Chinese Porcelain Part 1, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong, 1987, no. 74). A smaller wucai box with only five petalled divisions is in the Palace Museum, Beijing (see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 38 - Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, Commerical Press, Hong Kong, 1999, p. 44, no. 40).