An inside-painted glass 'Zhang Zuolin' snuff bottle
Meng Zishou, Beijing, dated 1914 6.35cm high.
Treasury 4, no.638
An inside-painted glass 'Zhang Zuolin' snuff bottle
Glass, ink, and watercolours; with a slightly concave lip and recessed convex foot surrounded by a protruding rounded footrim; painted on one main side with a monochrome portrait bust of Zhang Zuolin in a fur hat set in a painted oval frame, the other main side and the two narrow sides with a landscape scene showing the Peach Blossom Spring, with a fisherman approaching a cave at the source of a river, beyond which is the idyllic, paradisiacal realm, inscribed in regular script with the title, 'Peach Garden', followed by 'Painted at the capital by Meng Zishou on a summer day in the year jiayin for the approval of the elderly gentleman, Yingke', with one seal of the artist, Zishou, in negative seal script Meng Zishou, Beijing, summer, 1914 Height: 6.35 cm Mouth/lip: 0.64/2.09 cm Stopper: amethyst; turquoise finial; vinyl collar
Condition: Bottle: miniscule chips to interior of the mouth. Painting: minor snuff staining, otherwise studio condition.
Provenance: Sotheby's, New York (PB Eighty-Four), 11 October 1979, lot 111 Emily Byrne Curtis Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 1 July 1985, lot 176
Published: Curtis 1980, pp. 7879, figs. 102 and 104 Curtis 1982, no. 26 JICSBS, Autumn 1985, p. 136 Arts of Asia, NovemberDecember 1985, p. 136 Ceramics, MayJune 1986, p. 143, fig. 10 Kleiner 1987, no. 304 Kleiner 1995, no. 427 Treasury 4, no. 638
Exhibited: Newark Museum, OctoberNovember 1982 Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, October 1987 Creditanstalt, Vienna, MayJune 1993 British Museum, London, JuneNovember 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997 Christie's, London, 1999
Emily Byrne Curtis identified the subject of this portrait in Reflected Glory in a Bottle (p. 78, fig. 102), where she gives a brief biography of this fascinating character. He is so interesting a figure that it is worth repeating his brief history. A much fuller biography is given in Howard L. Boorman, ed., Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, pp. 115122.
Zhang Zuolin (18731928) was born into an illiterate peasant family during the late Qing period. Despite that humble beginning, he came within a whisker of proclaiming himself emperor of China and became de facto ruler of Manchuria for many years. The step that placed him on the road to such dizzy heights of success was to join the army. He appears to have been a natural strategist and excellent commander, and soon rose to control of what was, in effect, his own army. By the time the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911, Zhang, sensing his opportunity, moved his forces into the Mukden (Shenyang) section of Manchuria to maintain order. Although the province of Manchuria came under the nominal control of Beijing, the newly established Republican Government had other more pressing matters to worry about and left Zhang in virtual control of the whole of southern Manchuria. He was fortunate in being in sole control of his area, as elsewhere in China vying warlords fought over territory, while Zhang was left relatively unchallenged, his only threat to absolute power being the Japanese, with whom he maintained a delicate diplomatic alliance. The Japanese maintained headquarters for their industrial development of Manchuria in Mukden, and through his shrewd dealings with them, Zhang gained their support in extending his control into Inner Mongolia. Through a series of intrigues over the next few years, Zhang further tightened his control on the area to the north and northeast of the Great Wall, culminating with his entry into Beijing in December 1926 to become de facto ruler of North China and Manchuria. Zhang by then had set his sights firmly on becoming the next emperor of China and founding a new dynasty. It was his old allies the Japanese who eventually flouted his ambitions. With the news of a nationalist force moving northwards, the Japanese threatened to take military action to protect their interests in Manchuria. Zhang faced the inevitable, like the strategist he was, and agreed to retire north of the Great Wall and confine his ambitions to the control of Manchuria. It was also the Japanese who eventually led to his death. He was assassinated on June 24th 1928 when a bomb blew his private railway car to smithereens. It was later discovered that this was part of a larger Japanese plot to seize Manchuria.
Curtis provides two photographs of Zhang Zuolin, one in full military dress in a formal portrait, showing a small, slim man swamped by his trappings of office but with a steely reserve evident in his impassive face. The other shows him as a much older man in Chinese civilian dress, looking much more sinister, and it is easy to believe of this man that when he ruled briefly in Beijing, he acted with the arrogance of an emperor. He held court sitting on a throne-like chair flanked by two stuffed tigers, prepared court procedures, ordered special ceramics to be made and followed the imperial custom, when moving through the streets, of ordering the streets closed, the shops shuttered and pavements strewn with 'golden sand'.
This portrait captures Zhang between the two published by Curtis and represents, we may assume, how he looked in the summer of 1914 when he would have been consolidating his power in southern Manchuria. Meng Zishou has managed to make him look a good deal more benign than he does in either of the Curtis photographs, and from this it is easier to see how a Western correspondent described him as 'a slim little man, with shining brown eyes, a kindly smile, and gentle manner' (ibid., p. 76). Technically, it is unusual in the overall output of monochrome portraits in that Meng has used extensive white washes to paint the face, whereas on his other portrait (Sale 2, lot 59) he used leftover space to serve the same function, as did Ma Shaoxuan and Ziyizi.
The landscape on the other three sides of the bottle is another of Meng's masterpieces of the genre, and like so many of his other landscapes, a unique composition for both him and the medium. It illustrates the famous legend of the Peach-Blossom Spring: we see the fisherman approaching the cave (in this case depicted as a massive natural arch through which the river flows), and beyond can be seen the paradisiacal realm, the Arcadia where he steps off the stage of time. (A landscape with the text of Tao Yuanming's famous prose-poem on the Peach-Blossom Spring was seen on the mid-twentieth-century porcelain bottle, Sale 2, lot 111.) The odd thing isand this was missed when we described this bottle in the Bloch cataloguethat the title inscribed on the bottle does not say 'Peach Spring' (an acceptable abbreviation of 'Peach-Blossom Spring'); it says 'Peach Garden'. And, as any Chinese person would know, 'Peach Garden' inevitably evokes the oath of brotherhood taken by Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei in a peach garden at the beginning of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. 'Peach Spring' and 'Peach Garden' are pronounced the same in modern Mandarin, so this could be a horrible homophone error (the kind of mistake that is easiest for a writer to make and hardest for a reader to detect, in any language). Or it could be an intentional pun, a coded reference to the parallels between the fall of the Han and the fall of the Qing, between the Three Kingdoms and the fragmented state of the Republic in 1914? A more focused topical reference to some incident at that time, which, being early in Zhang's career is probably less well documented, may be uncovered through patient research in the future.