An inscribed lacquer 'lady in the garden' snuff bottle
'Hermit of the Western Peak', dated 1891 6.3cm high.
Treasury 7, no. 1532
Variegated dark brown lacquer on wood; with a flat lip and protruding flat foot; engraved on one main side with a scene of a woman standing on a low-walled terrace with a rigid fan held at her side and a flute in her left hand, with a plantain and a perforated natural rock formation behind her, inscribed in running script with a poetic description of the scene, followed by 'Made by Xifeng shanren in the xinmao year of the Guangxu period', and on the other main side with a poem in running script, followed by the signature, Xifeng shanren zuo (made by Xifeng shanren), followed by one seal of the artist, Xifeng Xifeng shanren, 1891 Height: 6.3 cm Mouth/lip: 0.51/1.92 cm Stopper: ivory; glass collar
Condition: chip on inner lip; lacquer worn off outer lip, with one chip restored (0.48 cm across); some tiny minor dents in outer foot; usual pattern of scratches and wear from use. General relative condition: very good
Commentary: This is constructed in the same way as some of Lu Dong's snuff bottles, in this case with the addition of a thin layer of lacquer on the interior surface, although not enough to conceal its construction in two parts. It is of variegated dark brown lacquer, although it may appear black at first sight.
No other engraved bottles are known by this artist, and we can find no convincing match with any known scholar. The artistic name (hao) Xifeng (without the shanren indicating a hermit) was adopted by an eighteenth-century scholar, Zhang Zhechun (Yu Jianhua 1981, p. 853) but unless he maintained a very steady hand well into his second century, he cannot have been involved so late; he attained his juren degree in 1747. It may be that our mysterious Xifeng shanren (Hermit of the Western Peak) was a late-Qing scholar who rarely decorated a snuff bottle and from whom only one seems to have survived. Once it became fashionable for scholars skilled with the 'iron brush' or diamond point to use their painterly and calligraphic skills directly on soft materials, any artist might produce a snuff bottle or two without making a career out of it.
The couplet accompanying the picture reads
Tonight the fresh coolness makes autumn enjoyable. Under a bright moon she hugs her companion and practises playing the flute.
This is the second half of a poem entitled 'Huaixian' (Cherishing Thoughts of an Immortal); it is quoted in a collection of random anecdotes (Xiqing sanji, juan 3, p. 189 of the 1987 Beijing edition) attributed to Shi Zhenlin (16921778), where the observation is made that this version is superior to another wording, where 'she hugs her companion' is written with graphically similar characters meaning 'by the storied building', resulting in a sanitized version in which the sexual meaning of 'playing the flute' is veiled (just as it is ignored in the picture on this bottle).
The text on the other main side is a lyric by Su Shi (10371101) to the tune Xingxiangzi. It reads
On a clear night when the air is fresh, The moon dons a silvery sheen, Let's fill a wine cup to the brim. Pursuit of ephemeral fame and profit: Pointless suffering, wearing down the spirit. Alasa horse dashing by a crack, a spark struck from a rock, a life in a dream.
I embrace literary ambitions, yet In whom can I confide my feelings? Let's just make merriment; Unfetter my inner nature. When will I return home, Be a man without responsibilities, Enjoying the company of a qin, A pot of wine, By a cloudy stream?
The first stanza ends with ancient and standard metaphors for the brevity of human life: gone as quickly as a running horse glimpsed through a crack, a spark struck from a stone, or the things experienced in a dream.