Jet; well hollowed, with flat lip and recessed flat foot surrounded by a protruding convex footrim; engraved on one main side with a young woman gazing wistfully at a branch of blossoming gui flower, the other main side inscribed , in seal script with a poem followed by 'Inscribed by Lianbai himself in the eighth month of the renxu year of the Tongzhi period' Lianbai, eighth month, 1862 Height: 6 cm Mouth/lip: 0.58/1.43 cm Stopper: mother-of-pearl; gilt-silver collar
Condition: chip to inner lip (0.45 cm long); minute chip to one narrow side panel; usual pattern of scratches, tiny dents, and abrasions through use; duller streak on neck where polish is not as high, possibly due to a flaw in the material itself. General relative condition: good
Provenance: Alex S. Cussons Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1997)
Published: Chinese Snuff Bottles No. 1, p. 24, fig. 9 Snuff Bottle Review, Vol. II, no. 1, 1976, p. 58, figs. 21a and b Treasury 7, no. 1607
Commentary: Another of the literati masterpieces in the Bloch Collection, this leaves us in no doubt about when it was engraved. We are provided with not only a cyclical date but also a reign title to make it specific, and even the precise month of the engraving. Unfortunately, we are unable to further identify the artist, Lianbai. At first glance, one is tempted to make a connection with another rectangular jet bottle in the J & J Collection, also engraved with a beauty, but in a garden setting (Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 91). The shapes of the bottles are similar, as is the idea of using the iron brushwork of the literati to depict similar subjects. There, however, the similarities end; in the all-important matter of style, the iron brushwork is different. As with brushwork on paper, each artist has his own idiosyncrasies in the language of line, easily visible to the experienced eye. Here, the lines are restrained and elegant with understated modulation. There is variation in the lines, and some slight obliqueness at the point of starting or finishing a line to give it strength and character, but the lines are mainly there to do their job of depiction without calling attention to themselves. On the J & J bottle, the lines are more powerful and more obviously modulated for independent effect, as if the artist were emphasizing his dancing brushwork as much as depicting a scene. Lianbai's extraordinary skills and restraint are demonstrated beyond a doubt by his accompanying inscription. Nearly all literati inscriptions on snuff bottles are impressive. They were written by the elite artists in a culture where any educated person was trained from a very early age in mastery of the brush and the language of line, and where the better artists among them were mostly maestros. This one stands out even among this exulted company. In exquisitely even and well-controlled miniature seal script, Lianbai has executed a faultless transcription of a poem with four stanzas. It reads
This sorrow goes on and on, never to have an end! Who has any idea of the sour feeling in my heart? Why does a tanhua manifest itself in an ordinary circumstance? It is so sad that even the hair on a eunuch's temple [turns grey].
Although I may not already be afflicted by thoughts of love, This sorrow goes on and on, never to have an end! All too easy, the moon wanes, the clouds disperse, And the tears of the candle falling say it all for me.
With one heart we planed to live together until we grew old. Our trysts were too short, our joys too few. This sorrow goes on and on, never to have an end! The mandarin-duck dream breaks off, the feelings never stop.
Lamenting over the past, in dejection I chant the verses of Mentor Bai, Whose sorrowful thoughts have been infused into his heart-rending poems. If in another life I still cannot fulfil my desire in this life, This sorrow goes on and on, never to have an end!
The tanhua (udumbara in Sanskrit) is a tree that blooms only once in three thousand years. It symbolizes the rarity of the appearance of a Buddha in the world but also is the origin of an idiomatic expression of more general application, tanhua yixian (the momentary manifestation of a tanhua), which describes the brevity of emotions or events. 'Mentor Bai' refers to the highly acclaimed Tang poet Bai Juyi (772846). He once served as junior mentor to the heir-designate. The line translated 'This sorrow goes on and on, never to have an end!' is the last line in Bai Juyi's most famous work, the 'Song of Everlasting Sorrow'; the reader will have noticed that it constitutes the first line of the first quatrain, the second of the second, and so on.