This magnificent pair of boxes exemplifies the skilful manipulation of differently colored lacquer layers to produce striking decoration. In the central decorative roundel on the cover of both boxes the air and earth are shown in different tones of ochre lacquer, while the water and some vegetation is deep green and the figures, along with most of the rocks, trees and buildings are in vermillion red. The classic choice of diapers, which began to become established in the Yuan dynasty, has been used to enliven the texture of the air, water and ground. On the sides of the boxes and covers the dark green lacquer provides an effective contrast to the writhing dragons in the ogival panels, as well as to the Buddhist emblems which alternate with them.
The central decorative area on both boxes depicts foreigners from the West bringing tribute to the Chinese court. Westerners rarely provide the subjects for the main decoration on lacquer wares, although a small number of related examples have been published. A Qianlong-marked box, bearing the name shuang lu bao he (doubly auspicious treasure box), in the form of conjoined circles, in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, which has a foreigner on horseback accompanied by his servant is illustrated in Emperor Chien-lung's Grand Cultural Enterprise, National Palace Museum, Taipei, p. 56, pl. I-45. Another Qianlong carved lacquer box, bearing the name long feng bao he (dragon and phoenix treasure box) and decorated with a related theme is illustrated in Zhongguo gudai diaoqi jindi yishu zhi yanjiu (The Study of Ancient Chinese Brocade-Ground Carved Lacquer), National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1982, p. 308. A further Qianlong lacquer box of begonia form has a scene on the top of the cover including a standing Western figure, who appears to be holding peacock feathers. This box, which is inscribed Zhi Yun bao he (Precious Box of Zhi Yun) was sold in our Hong Kong rooms, 29 April 2002, lot 576. A smaller, lobed, three-color Qianlong carved lacquer box decorated with a scene of foreigners with an elephant bringing tribute, similar to that on the current box, was sold in our Hong Kong rooms on 27 November 2007, lot 1667.
A fascination with European art, technology and with Europeans themselves was evident at the 18th century Chinese court, particularly during the Qianlong reign, in much the same way as the fascination with Asia swept Europe. In some cases the depiction of foreigners appears simply to have been a decorative device intended to cater to the desire for the exotic at the Qing court. Nevertheless, the well-carved Westerners on the current boxes may have been intended to send a specific message to the box's recipient. On the top of both boxes the western figures are shown with all kinds of auspicious gifts, and on one box are even accompanied by a similarly laden elephant. While each of the scenes is a skilfully designed version of the classic Chinese 'figures in landscape', they were probably intended as a compliment to the Emperor, showing foreigners paying homage and bringing tribute to him.
Such Westerners with elephants and mythical beasts are also depicted in the hanging scroll Envoys from Vassal States and Foreign Countries Presenting Tribute to the Emperor in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum - 14 - Paintings by Court Artists of the Qing Court, Hong Kong, 1996, pp. 240-1, no. 64. The elephant on one of the covers carries a number of auspicious meanings. It is shown with a rider, and the Chinese phrase 'to ride an elephant', qixiang, sounds like a phrase meaning auspicious, jixiang. The rider holds a vase above his head, which provides another rebus. In this case the word for elephant, xiang, is the same as the word for a sign, while the word for vase, ping, sounds like one of the words for peace. Together they suggest taiping youxiang, 'peaceful times'; a reference to the saying 'when there is peace, there are signs' (see T.T. Bartholomew, Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2006, p. 238). The wish for peace is emphasized by the elephant's elaborate saddle cloth, since the Chinese word for this part of the trappings is an, which sounds like another word for peace. The rider also appears to be holding a peony, which would additionally wish the recipient wealth and honor. Many other auspicious wishes are also to be found amongst the treasures being transported by the figures on these two boxes.