The current Yuan lacquer box with exquisite mother-of-pearl inlay represents the most impressive manifestation of Yuan dynasty lacquer art. The extraordinary delicacy and intricacy of the inlaid decoration, as well as the complexity and artistry of the overall design of the box, makes it a masterpiece of 14th century lacquer.
In 1970, a large fragment of mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer was excavated from the site of the Yuan dynasty capital Dadu in the west of Beijing. This fragment, possibly from the lid of a large box or a tray, depicts the Guanghan Palace (the Moon Palace, which was the abode of the moon goddess Chang'e), and the precision of shaping and laying the pieces as well as the use of colors and the fineness of the details incised into the tiny pieces of shell can still clearly be seen. The design on this fragment, like the scene on the cover of the present box, is very pictorial. In addition, mother-of-pearl lacquers decorated with pictorial scenes incorporating human figures appear to have been especially admired, based on a comment by Cao Zhao in the Gegu yaolun in a section discussing the mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer:
'In the Yuan Dyansty, rich families ordered this type of ware, but left the manufacturers to take their own time in their making. The products are in very solid lacquer, and the designs with human figures on them are delightful to the beholder.'
The scene depicted on the cover of the present box, although yet to be identified, can be found on two other published black lacquer boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl with similar dating. One is a square box and cover dated to Yuan dynasty also from the Mike Healy Collection and illustrated in Masterpieces of Chinese Lacquer from the Mike Healy Collection, Honolulu, 2003, cat. no. 6, pp. 34-35. The other is a square tiered box and cover with indented corners from the Florence and Herbert Irving Collection and illustrated in East Asian Lacquer: The Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, no. p. 129-130, no. 57.
Although not identical, the similarity in composition of these three narrative scenes suggest the likely use of a template. The scenes on the cover of the Healy square box and the present box are almost the same with very little variation, but the present box, with its octagonal and domed shape, creates a better focus on the scene for the viewer. The Irving box, however, differs from the aforementioned boxes in having ladies in the courtyard rather than with a group of figures with their farming tools and a dog separated by a fenced yard from the main compound.
For further Yuan dynasty mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer examples sold at auction, see the octagonal mother-of-pearl lacquer box and cover inlaid with the maker’s name Liu Shaoxu sold at Important Chinese Lacquer from the Lee Family Collection, Christie’s Hong Kong, 1 December 2009, lot 1823, and a quatrefoil box and cover with a signature of Hu Zhaogang sold at Important Chinese Lacquer from the Lee Family Collection Part III, Christie’s Hong Kong, 28 November 2012, lot 2090.