Nephrite; very well hollowed, with a slightly irregular, flat foot; carved in relief seal script with a didactic song in four-character lines divided between the two main sides and contained in oval panels Possibly Imperial, 17261830 Height: 5.79 cm Mouth/lip: 0.60/2.48 and 2.43 cm (oval) Stopper: tourmaline; jadeite finial; silver collar
Condition: Natural flaw line across the rim original to material; slight irregularity close to foot suggests either that a flaw in the material was removed originally, or that a later chip has been smoothed out; otherwise, workshop condition
Provenance: Trojan Collection Robert Hall (1993)
Published: Hall 1992, no. 22 Treasury 1, no. 30
The song, by the Northern Song philosopher Shao Yong (1011 1077), was included in an anthology put together by the Yongzheng emperor, the Yuexin ji [Collection to give joy to the mind]. Although completed in 1726, the Yuexin ji was not widely available until the last years of the dynasty; this suggests that this bottle could be a palace product. Against that, of course, one must remember that Shao Yong was hardly a forgotten figure as a philosopher or poet, and his writings would not have been hard to find. The title of the song is Wuwang yin [Song of no-carelessness].
The ears should not listen carelessly; The eyes should not see carelessly. The mouth should not speak carelessly , The mind should not think about things carelessly. If one is not careless in these four things, He is complete in sagely wisdom. What manner of person am I, That I should not aspire to this?
The inscription is written here in the ancient and somewhat esoteric seal script, reducing its potential audience to the highly educated and, therefore, one would hope, refined and morally upright, ideally matching the message. In this case, the medium also becomes the message. The manner in which it is carved is also wholly appropriate. The mastery of the esoteric script is impressive and the carving exhibits extraordinary command of the lapidary medium by reducing the surrounding ground to leave the perfectly formalized characters in relief against a matt, roughened ground. The pure material is equally understated, as is the detailing and hollowing, which is of extraordinary quality without being flamboyant. All in all, there is a ponderous righteousness about this bottle that carries the solemnity and morality of a religious sermon.
There is another feature of the workmanship that seems to echo this approach to the work of art, and it may tell us something about the manufacture of a snuff bottle by the lapidary. An initial shaping cut has obviously gone just a little too deeply into the form, leaving a small, diagonal step just above the foot on one side, linking the foot and the lower edge of one panel, and making the otherwise perfectly oval foot slightly irregular on one side. As in calligraphy or painting, the fully mature artist, totally confident in perception and expression, rises above technical perfection as a primary goal and aspires to a goal of spontaneous expression, where technique is absorbed and becomes entirely natural. The artist has merely finished it to the same degree of polish as the rest and left it.