An inscribed black and white nephrite 'Zhang Qian' snuff bottle
Suzhou, 17401850 5.4cm high.
Treasury 1, no. 128
The Explorer's Return from the Stars
Nephrite; well hollowed, with an irregular flat foot; carved with a continuous rocky landscape scene with trees and lingzhi framing a body of water on which Zhang Qian floats in his log boat, the upper branches of which are still in leaf above a double gourd dangling from the upper reaches of the main trunk; a two-storied pavilion floating in the clouds above, all beneath a shoulder band of formalized clouds, inscribed 'On his return [Zhang Qian] brought back only the stone that supported the loom [of Zhinü, the Weaving Maid].' Suzhou, 17401850 Height: 5.4 cm Mouth/lip: 0.5/1.82 cm Stopper: tourmaline; jadeite collar Condition: Two practically invisible insignificant, tiny chips to the inner lip. Otherwise, workshop condition
Provenance: Alice B. McReynolds Emily Byrne Curtis (1987)
Published: Newsletter, December 1973, p. 26 Arts of Asia, July-August 1974, p. 63 JICSBS, September 1975, front cover Stevens 1976, no. 447 Arts of Asia, SeptemberOctober 1990, front cover Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 44 Treasury 1, no. 128
Exhibited: San Francisco Convention, 1973, prize-winning bottle Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993 Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum, Singapore, November 1994February 1995
Commentary: One of the masterpieces from the classic Suzhou output of the mid-Qing period, this is of the multi-plane cameo type where successive layers of colour are used to considerable effect. Other examples may be found in Treasury 1, nos. 127, 129, and 130, Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 3, p. 20, figs. 1 and 2; Perry 1960, no. 85; Stevens 1976, no. 451, and Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, nos. 24, 25, and 26.
The style of carving links all of these bottles, which may have come from the same workshop, involving perhaps only a small group of carvers over a period of a few decades, or perhaps only a single carver. The cursive inscriptions that appear on some of them and on other Suzhou bottles also link them, although in a workshop it is possible that all of the inscriptions were the responsibility of one literate carver. There can be little doubt that several of these cursive inscriptions come from the same hand.
The shape of the foot here is dictated by the rocks, which end at the base of the bottle, leaving it irregular. This is one common form of foot for Suzhou bottles. Others have the design, usually rocks or water, continuing under the foot or a simple concavity or flat area. Raised footrims are rare as are mask and ring handles on the fully evolved, classic wares (although see the discussion on two bottles signed by Zhiting with mask handles, under Treasury 1, no. 122).
The identity of an individual figure on a log raft is sometimes difficult to establish accurately (Tsang 1992), but here we have the advantage of an identifying inscription. Depicted is the Han-dynasty explorer, Zhang Qian (?114 B.C.), an historical figure who undertook two arduous journeys to Central Asia as a goodwill ambassador at the command of Emperor Wudi (r. 14088 B.C.). In official documentation, he is recorded as having been entrusted on one of these trips with looking for the source of the Yellow River. This trip was later fantasized by Zong Lin of the Liang dynasty (502556) in his Jing Chu suishi ji, a work dealing with local customs and seasonal festivals of the Chu area. Drawing upon an earlier work, the Bowu zhi (Notes on Miscellaneous Things) by Zhang Hua (232300), Zong Lin asserted that Zhang Qian was the unnamed hero who, according to Zhang Hua, plied a raft on the Milky Way, where he met the Weaving Maiden and was given a stone that supported her loom as a clue to her true identity. This then became the popular subject adopted into the repertoire of later artists.
The gourd hanging from the upper trunk of the raft may have functioned as a wine- bottle, but by the time Zhang Qian had become a legendary figure it would probably have doubled as a symbol of the Immortal. The dwelling floating in the clouds presumably represents the home of the Weaving Maiden (see JICSBS, Summer 1984, pp. 89).