Hornbill; reasonably well hollowed, with a flat lip and protruding flat foot; one main side carved with Magu sculling her log raft in a turbulent stream past a rocky cliff with grass growing from it, with a butterfly above the prow of the raft and, set amidships, a branch of blossoming camellia, a basket of peaches, and a covered jar of wine or elixir, the other main side inscribed with a copy of an ancient bronze inscription 'Jiade himself made the you hu', preceded in regular script by the title 'A hu belonging to Jiade', and followed, also in regular script, by a transcription of the bronze text and 'In imitation of Guji zhai' (Studio of Volume Calculated by the Ancient Method), followed by two seals of the artist, Bai and shi Wang Baishi, 18301850 Height: 5.85 cm Mouth/lip: 0.50/1.63 and 1.52 cm (oval) Stopper: glass; gilt-silver collar
Condition: Natural cracks slightly opening up from the lamination in the material across the lip and shoulders; outer lip nibbled in two main areas, but not obtrusive; some deep scratching on inscription side, on either side of upper inscription; some natural wear and softening of the detail through use. General relative condition: very good
Provenance: Unrecorded dealer, Beijing (1921) Ko Collection (1987)
Published: Chinese Snuff Bottles, no. 5, p. 95, figs. 18 and 19 JICSBS, December 1976, p. 24 Kleiner 1987, no. No. 193 JICSBS, Winter 1987, front cover Orientations, October 1987, p. 44, no. 16 Arts of Asia, SeptemberOctober 1990, p. 93 JICSBS, Autumn 1992, p. 12 Oriental Art, Spring 1994, p. 37, fig. 11 Kleiner, Yang, and Shangraw 1994, no. 259 Kleiner 1995, no. 340 Chen Tao 2002, p. 583 JICSBS, Winter 2002, p. 18, fig. 63 Treasury 7, no. 1569
Exhibited: Sydney L. Moss Ltd, London, October 1987 Hong Kong Museum of Art, MarchJune 1994 National Museum of Singapore, November 1994January 1995 British Museum, London, JuneOctober 1995 Israel Museum, Jerusalem, JulyNovember 1997
The carver who signed most of his works with the hao Baishi (White Stone) is one of the great carvers of the snuff-bottle world. His works exhibit a transcendent level of artistic quality among hornbill carvers, and he belonged to the important trend of the second half of the Qing dynasty of scholar-artists making or decorating snuff bottles. Baishi's works fall comfortably into this late-Qing literati-snuff-bottle tradition with their subdued, painterly compositions and copies and transcriptions of texts drawn mostly from ancient bronzes or stone inscriptions. Indeed, he may have been one of the pioneers in this trend of transferring ancient scripts onto snuff bottles. He worked in hornbill, for which he is famous among snuff-bottle collectors, but less well known are his works in amber, which are equally fine but, intriguingly, lack the pictorial content, consisting only of inscriptions. Fortunately, one of three recorded amber bottles was in the Bloch Collection (Sale 2, lot 12).
Because of his importance, and because further information about the carver is presented on his other extant examples, the interested reader is encouraged to consult the commentary to this bottle in Treasury 7, where we list all known hornbill and amber works by Baishi.
Baishi is a hao (assumed artistic name), but his given name may be awaiting the proper reading of the few undeciphered seals. His family name appears to have been Wang, however, so for the time being we may safely refer to him as Wang Baishi. Apart from the thirteen signed examples, there are a few unsigned bottles that are obviously carved by Wang Baishi but lack any inscriptions (see, for instance, JICSBS, September 1975, p. 13, fig. 12). There are still more hornbill bottles that are carved only with narrow-side mask-and-ring handles that are in the same style as those on Baishi's signed works, raising the possibilities that he was responsible for a broad range of hornbill snuff bottles or that others made the bottles and decorated their narrow sides, providing Baishi with the plain main sides to decorate.
On the present bottle, the studio name is Guji zhai 'Studio of Volume Calculated by the Ancient Method', which appears to be a deliberate reversal of the studio name on a Baishi hornbill bottle in the Art Institute of Chicago, Jigu zhai. We shall offer a speculation on the reason for the reversal, but first let us note that the Jigu zhai belonged to Ruan Yuan (17641849), an immensely influential mid-Qing literatus. He was at the centre of a large group of literati with interests in antiquity, and it is possible that Wang Baishi was one of those scholars whose lives were so positively touched by Ruan. The ancient bronze inscriptions that appear so frequently on Wang Baishi's works were of great interest to Ruan, who compiled records of many such texts, collected ancient bronzes, and published a record of those he kept in his Jigu zhai. It seems that Wang Baishi borrowed his inscriptions either directly from the bronzes in Ruan's collection or from his publication, which was in circulation among the elite during Baishi's period of activity. If Wang and Ruan were, indeed, friends who shared a love of ancient bronze inscriptions, it may place Wang in either Beijing, where Ruan lived between 1835 and 1838, or more likely in Yangzhou, where Ruan retired and lived from 1838 to the end of his life in 1849. None of the dated Baishi bottles bears the Jigu zhai or Guji zhai studio names, so they do not help us date the relationship between the two men. But this does bring us back to the puzzling discrepancy between the two names.
Ruan Yuan is recorded as using the studio name Jigu zhai, 'Accumulating [the artefacts and wisdom of] Antiquity'. He is not known to have used Guji zhai, which could be interpreted as 'Ancient Accumulation', but we think that the name Guji zhai on this snuff bottle may have been a sort of punning allusion that acknowledged Ruan Yuan's prominence as a scholar of the history of mathematics.
Ruan completed a work on Chinese and Western qualitative scientists in 1799, when he was director of the mathematics section of the National University; of even greater relevance, he was among the circle of scholars who saw the treatise Suanxue qimeng (Introduction to Mathematics) by the Yuan dynasty mathematician Zhu Shijie when one of the editions printed in Korea was brought to China in about 1838. The text, which had been lost in China, was soon reprinted with a preface by Ruan Yuan. The Suanxue qimeng is one of two Yuan-dynasty treatises on mathematics that uses the term guji; in that book, guji is the volume of a cone calculated by the first of three methods: the 'ancient method', gu fa; the 'Hui technique', Hui shu, which must be the method of the third-century mathematician Liu Hui; and the 'secret' or, perhaps, 'dense' technique, mi shu. The results, the calculated volumes, are called the guji, the Huiji, and the miji. (Each method gives slightly different results. The surnames of Zhu and Liu, by the way, were given incorrectly by the present editor in Treasury 7. )
Our theory, then, is that Wang Baishi, a member of the enthusiastic group of scholars who poured over this book, noticed that guji was the reverse of Ruan Yuan's studio name and adopted it on his snuff bottles. At present, there is no documentary evidence for this little inside joke, but it provides a rational explanation for the use of Guji zhai on the snuff bottles, at least until a better rationale for the reversal of the characters is found.
Finally, the subject matter here: the image of Magu with a pot of wine calls to mind the legend of her attending the birthday party that Xiwangmu (Queen Mother of the West) hosts for all Daoist immortals (see Ka Bo Tsang 1992). The basket of peaches and the camellia (symbol of youthful energy) augment the wish for longevity.