A white nephrite pebble-material 'silkmoth' snuff bottle 1720–1840
Lot 125
A white nephrite pebble-material 'silkmoth' snuff bottle 1720–1840
Sold for HK$ 660,000 (US$ 85,112) inc. premium

Lot Details
A white nephrite pebble-material 'silkmoth' snuff bottle 1720–1840
A white nephrite pebble-material 'silkmoth' snuff bottle
5.6cm high.


  • Treasury 1, no. 57


    A white nephrite pebble-material 'silkmoth' snuff bottle

    ('Silkmoth Jade')

    Nephrite of pebble material; irregularly hollowed and carved in the form of a stylized silkmoth
    Length: 5.6 cm
    Mouth: 0.6 cm
    Stopper: coral; turquoise collar

    Condition: workshop condition

    Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (Hong Kong, 1989)

    Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 48
    Treasury 1, no. 57

    Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
    National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995

    There is some question as to the identity of this insect, since moths have flat wings and these are distinctly rounded to the contours of the body. A cicada has been suggested as an alternative identification but the cicada had become so much a standard part of Chinese decorative arts by the Qing period that its detailing and formalization were well established and unlikely to have been changed. Altered to this extent, people would simply not recognize the creature as a cicada, and there is little point in using cicada symbolism if it is to be missed by the target audience. It is far more likely that this unique bottle is intended to depict a moth, and if so, the silkmoth is the only one that would occur to the Chinese to depict, no others having any particular symbolism, while silkworms and moths refer to a vital and long-standing part of the material culture of China.

    The silkmoth is often depicted in this way, with bug-eyes, spread double wings, and a ribbed body (see, for instance, a Yangzhou glass bottle illustrated by Kleiner 1987, no. 123). Here the wings are closed so the inner set is covered by the outer. Another high-relief Yangzhou glass snuff bottle with a unique combination of eight colours, in the Franz collection, which is even closer in detail to this example, has a silk moth in association with silkworms, cocoons, and mulberry leaves, so the identity of the creature as a silkmoth seems confirmed.

    The curving of the wings may indicate that the moth has just emerged from its
    cocoon, at which point the wings, not yet dried, follow the shape of the body to some extent. This transformation from worm (or caterpillar) to flying insect through the chrysalis stage, common to lepidoptera, has always intrigued humankind. The obvious symbolism of rebirth after entombment would have been significant in a culture that believed in the reincarnation of individuality. A more likely reason for the curved wings is sculptural licence. In Chinese art the spirit of what was depicted was usually more important than its detail. Whatever was sufficient to identify it and convey its spirit was enough. Cicadas also have flattish wings, although angled to sit into the curve of the body when at rest, and yet they are often depicted with a far more pronounced curve than in
    real life (see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, nos. 7 and 8). This creature has only four legs shown, sufficient to indicate legs, but two short of a full complement for a moth, although some geometrid moths do not use their hind legs, which are atrophied and reduced in size.

    The original conception of this carving as a snuff bottle as opposed to a converted small sculpture is confirmed by the fact that the lines surrounding the eyes on one side of the mouth are bent to follow the line of the mouth opening, and on the other side, where the opening takes up the same space as the outer eye-line, it was obviously carved after the mouth was in place, since the line peters out as it approaches the open mouth. Had the mouth been cut through existing detail, the line would be continuous, and the opening for the mouth would have simply cut it short. This provides some useful information about procedure in making such a creature, since it implies that the mouth and, most likely, the hollowing were completed before the outer detail was finished. A rough shape was probably hollowed out first, and then the outer detail carved and finished.

    The skin colour of this pebble is entirely natural, sinking into the surface of the stone rather than sitting on it. It was clearly there before the carving was done, since the incision outlining the head of the moth penetrates through its shallow depth to reveal white below. Had it been stained after the carving was finished, the colour would have penetrated into the incision. A possible indication of a palace workshop source is in the heavy area left unhollowed at the tail end of the creature , since this would make the bottle more stable when set out on display in the palace. But it must be noted that, although the bottle is well hollowed through its flatter profile, it is not well hollowed into the partially spread wings of the broader profile, nor is the shaping inside the mouth of the bottle very well done. Functionally it is well hollowed, but not the work of a perfectionist, so perhaps the heavy foot is no more significant than the heaviness in the wing areas.

    This minor interior shortcoming is amply offset by the masterly sculpture and fine carving of the exterior detail, suggesting that either someone else in the workshop did the hollowing, which is quite likely, or that the artist concentrated on what he felt was more important, having achieved functional hollowing.
    The moth, apart from being a unique form as a naturalistic snuff bottle, is very well conceived as sculpture, taking advantage of the brown colouring for the head area to distinguish it clearly from the relatively flawless material of the pebble core. It is formally powerful, with the head well balanced by the three elements of the body (the two wings and the main, ribbed thorax). As sculpture, it works in the hand, or lying on a flat surface where one can look down on it.


    卵石料; 掏膛不規則
    長: 5.6 厘米
    口經: 0.6 厘米
    蓋:珊瑚;綠松石 座

    狀態敘述: 出坊狀態

    Hugh M. Moss Ltd. (Hong Kong, 1989)

    Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, 編號 48
    Treasury 1, 編號 57

    Hong Kong Museum of Art, March–June 1994
    National Museum, Singapore, November 1994–February 1995

    這不一定是蠶蛾,但一定是蛾。玉器雕蛾者有國立故宮博物院所藏的蛾形耳餌的八足洗。也可參照一件揚州製的玻璃煙壺: Kleiner 1987, 編號 123。Franz珍藏有一件揚州製的浮雕玻璃煙壺,除了蛾子以外,還雕蠶、桑葉、茧等,而蛾子更像這件煙壺的蛾子。

    仔細地看壺口和蛾子眼睛的形勢,可以明白,口是先挖的,眼睛是後琢的 ,大概是玉匠掏了膛再在表面加工的。而且皮的顏色是全天然的,蛾子頭下邊的陰刻線穿透了薄薄的皮層,揭露下面的白玉質,如果顏色是後塗的染料,顏色就會滲入陰刻線裏。

    跟很多曾經在宮廷擺陳設的物品一樣,本壺的下部比較重,掏膛不算徹底。這大概是為了煙壺站立的高穩定性, 但也可能不過是掏膛的草率。基本上,本壺的掏膛是徹底的,但在兩邊的翅膀方面就不是;再說,壺口裏頭的挖掘並不整齊,不是完美主義者所作。 除此之外,煙壺的外貌還算是雕塑藝術的傑作。
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