Coconut shell; with a flat lip and no functional foot; made up of two segments for the main sides, padded out at the narrow sides, shoulders, and neck with further segments; engraved in clerical script with an excerpt from an epitaph, followed in regular script with the title 'Epitaph of Master Zhao, frontier commander' with one seal of the artist, ji (healthy and strong) 17801900 Height: 4.22 cm Mouth/lip: 0.39/0.94 cm Stopper: jadeite; vinyl collar
Condition:slight cracking and separation between multiple sections at shoulders and neck.General relative condition: excellent
Provenance: Honor Smith Sotheby's, London, 5 December 1983, lot 207 White Wings Collection Robert Kleiner (1998)
Commentary Several features make this a particularly unusual coconut-shell bottle. It is of the type of construction where the two segments of shell are separated by inserted segments, but it is the smallest example of the type known. The additional segments here form a wedge tapering to a point almost at the bottom, allowing the two face segments to join. The final unusual element of the construction is the neck. The various vertical sections continue up into the neck to give it its thickness, so that the parallel lines of the joins run across the lip, whereas neck segments are usually set horizontally, not vertically. Finally, the ancient inscription is taken not from a bronze, as is so often the case, but from an epitaph, presumably carved on a stone stele.
This is the Later Han dynasty epitaph of an otherwise unknown man identified only as Zhao, commander of Yu (a county in Chenliu Commandery about 60 km SE of modern Kaifeng). It was known from philological dictionaries published from at least the Kangxi era onwards. The composition is written in rhyming trimeter, lines 2, 4, 6, and 8 ending in tong, zong, yong, and gong; lines 10 and 12 ending in shuang and bang. (These are the Mandarin readings, but the pattern would have been the same in the Later Han pronunciation.) Our translation does not attempt to rise to the same level of artistry:
Heaven is truly high, Only sages can hope to equal it. O Our Lord, We admire his deeds. He embodied great benevolence; He followed the doctrine of the mean. Whatever the situation He had excellent achievements. [Even if we want to] emulate his lofty virtue, It would be hard to match him. We engrave this on metal and stone, To display to the myriad nations.
The only identification of the maker is the anonymous seal ji, which if read as a single character means 'healthy and strong' although it is possible that it was intended to be read as two characters, Jiren (Auspicious one). This happens to be the name of a famous early-eighteenth-century literatus and carver, Lin Ji (zi Jiren; hao Luyuan; 1660after 1738). He was a native of Houguan in Fujian province and a jinshi of 1712. Two soapstone seals have survived by him (one in tianhuang is in Arts from the Scholar's Studio, no. 54; the other, unpublished, is in the Shuisongshi shanfang Collection and is dated to 1738.) There is also an inkstone inscribed by him in the imperial collection; see Gugong bowu yuan and Zhang Shufen 2005, no. 60. Jiren, however, is the sort of name that would have been adopted by a number of people, and it seems hardly likely that this bottle dates from as early as the first half of the eighteenth century. In this case, moreover, the seal might have been used not to identify any particular individual, but simply for graphic purposes and to convey a generally auspicious meaning.