This beautiful box with its delicately colored glaze is typical of the fine Yue wares made at the Zhejiang kilns in the 10th century. Such wares were so admired at the Northern Song court, that, according to the Song shi (Song history) and the Song hui yao (Collected source material on the Song dynasty), when Qianshi the ruler of Wu-Yue submitted to the Song in AD 978 he offered the emperor at Kaifeng 50,000 pieces of mise Yue ware, 150 of which were fitted with gold or silver-gilt bands. Indeed it has been estimated that some 170,000 pieces of tribute Yue ware are recorded for the first three decades of the Northern Song period (i.e. AD 960-990). In addition, fine Yue wares have been found in a number of Tang, Five Dynasties and Song royal and aristocratic tombs, most notably those of the royal house of the Kingdom of Wu-Yue and the tomb of Song dynasty Empress Li, wife of the Emperor Zhenzong. The empress's tomb, located at Gongxian in Henan province is dated to AD 1000.
The box may well have been intended to hold ladies' cosmetics, and the theme of its decoration would have made it a perfect wedding gift. The two ducks are symbolic of marital felicity, while the lotus provides a rebus for harmony as well as a reference to purity and feminine beauty. The prominently depicted seedpods touching the outstretched wings of both ducks also provide a reference to the wish for progeny. Confronted birds, particularly ducks, were a favorite subject on the decorative arts of the Tang dyansty and can be seen on ceramics, silver and textiles. It is very rare, however for their necks to be entwined as on the Barron Yue box. Nevertheless, two Tang sancai pillows, one in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 31 - Porcelain of the Jin and Tang Dynasties, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 232-33, no. 212, the other illustrated by R. Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, vol. I, London, 1994, p. 154, no. 274, are decorated with similarly entwined ducks standing on an open lotus blossom or lotus stand. Two birds with necks entwined in the same manner appear on a parcel-gilt silver shell-shaped box excavated in 1989 from a tomb in the eastern suburbs of Xi'an and now in the Shaanxi Archaeological Institute, illustrated by C. Michaelson in Gilded Dragons - Buried Treasures from China's Golden Ages, London, 1999, pp. 68-9, no. 36. Even more significant is the pair of three-dimensional ducks with entwined necks on the top of a lotus-form Yue ware box, which is illustrated in Special Exhibition of Chinese Ceramics, Tokyo National Museum, 1994, p. 93, no. 129.
A slightly smaller Yue ware box, anonymously loaned to an exhibition at the Museum of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka, shares with the Barron example similar depth of carving, and similar finely incised details on the top of its cover. See Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka (ed.), Song Ceramics, Tokyo, 1999, p. 41, no. 4. The Osaka box also shares the lotus theme, but without ducks. On both boxes the firing of the glaze has been skilfully controlled to promote sufficient pooling of the glaze to achieve an early example of the dichromatic effect more usually associated with later Yaozhou celadons. For a further, marginally larger, Yue ware 10th century box decorated with a peony design in similar technique in the collection of the Zhejiang Provincial Museum see Fung Ping Shan Museum, Green Wares from Zhejiang, University of Hong Kong, 1993, no. 46.
Although paired birds are relatively rare on Yue ware boxes of this period, a smaller box with high foot ring in the Cultural Relics Bureau of Shengxian, Shaoxing, has a pair of parrots among peony blossoms. See Zhongguo taoci quanji 4 Yueyao, Shanghai, 1981, no. 201. A pair of phoenixes can be seen encircling the interior base of a 10th century Yue ware bowl illustrated by R. Scott, Imperial Taste - Chinese Ceramics from the Percival David Foundation, San Francisco, 1989, pp. 22-3, no. 3. A Yue ware box of the same size, shape and decorative scheme to the current box exhibited in Osaka in 1994 is illustrated in Celadon of Yue Ware, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 1994, p. 14, no. 54. Although the decoration on the cover of this Osaka box is incised rather than carved, it comprises a bird and scrolling plants. The sides of the exhibited box bear the same delicate scrolling design as on the Barron Box.