Literati Texts and Snuff Bottle Culture

4 5 on imperial porcelains of the Qianlong era, most likely an allusion to the famous phrase shangao yuexiao (mountain so high and moon so small) which appears in Su Shi’s “ Later Rhapsody on the Red Cliff, ” translated and annotated below. As a motto it may refer to the power of the emperor, as awesome as the immensity of nature—not unlikely since interential evidence suggests that Wu worked in the palace workshops during the last four decades of the eighteenth century. 1 Though he divides his writings among the three grades, This Jiang Yan’s dream has not yet come true. On the bridge today he writes an inscription, But to whom shall he present a painted fan? Though the hare keeps casting its shadow, he remains just as sharp, So his warbler’s song writ on paper is always something new. What need has he to set the coral matrix of such sturdy poetry in a frame? For the free way he wields his brush has more than enough spirit! 2 The “ three grades ” when applied to writing, calligraphy or painting are the shenpin (divine grade), miaopin (marvelous grade) and nengpin (proficient grade), all of which indicate achievements of a master writer who deserves a national reputation—but which eludes the frustrated scholar depicted here. Jiang Yan (443–504), while still young, dreamt that he was given a brush with a multicolored handle; henceforth his writings flourished, but years later, he had another dream in which someone claimed the brush and the quality of his writings then deteriorated. The bridge inscription refers to Sima Xiangru (d. 117 B . C . E .), who when he left home in Chengdu, Sichuan, on his way to the capital Chang’an to make his mark, passed over a bridge, where he inscribed a pillar atop the bridge: “ If I am not riding in a vermillion carriage drawn by four horses, I won’t pass beneath you! ” It is likely that “ painted fan ” refers to a gift fixing a marriage proposal. “ Hare casts its shadow ” refers to the hare in the moon, equivalent to “ moon casts its shadow, ” which in turn refers to the passage of time. “ Warbler’s song ” is a conceit for the voice of the poet. “ Coral ” is a cliché for great talent, but old “ coral ” is fragile and liable to break, so when displayed needs a frame to hold it together. Looking at the scene depicted, we find an elderly teacher and his unruly young students. It seems the poem pokes fun at an old, unsuccessful scholar, who still hopes that his literary skills will win him fame and position. It is a satire, for Sima Xiangru was a young man, full of hope and ambition when he inscribed the bridge, and the painted fan suggests that the old fellow still wants to get married, but no one will have him. But he does not give up, for he is a Jiang Yan whose prophetic dream still has not come true, so the poem ends in ridiculous bravado. This poem is unknown in the sources and seems unique to this bottle, which suggests that Wu Yuchuan himself may have been the author, for such a fine calligrapher would surely have been capable of such a verse, though it may also have been supplied by an anonymous poet-official associated with the court. The comic irony involved presents another problem: if made for the Qianlong emperor, why was such a bottle made in the palace workshops and for whom was it intended as a gift? Perhaps it provides an insight into the emperor’s sense of humor? Turning now to lengthy inscriptions on bottles, we find that one engraver who excelled at them was Zhou Honglai (active 1890s–1910s). Zhou’s alternate names were Yanbin jushi (Sojourner in Yan Retired Scholar), Quantang jushi (Sojourner in Quantang [Hangzhou] Retired Scholar) and (Yuntao ), perhaps a personal name, which so far has been found on only one bottle; see the signed inscription to “ Later Rhapsody On the Red Cliff ” below. Zhou sometimes signed himself as a native of Baimen (Nanjing), where “ White Gate ” was the popular name for the main south city gate, the Xuanyang men (Emanate the Yang Force Gate) during the Six Dynasties era (420–589). The use of “ Sojourner ” in Yan (Beijing) and Quantang (Hangzhou) suggests that he had lengthy stays in those two cities. Zhou did his exquisite inscriptions using a diamond point on glass. The following group of bottles ( figs. 2a–6b and 11a, 11b ) bears witness to his great skill. In the ninth year of Yonghe [Eternal Harmony], a guichou year [353], at the beginning of the last month of spring, a gathering was held at the Orchid Pavilion, located on the north slopes of the mountains at Kuaiji; to hold the spring lustration ceremony. A group of the prominent came, with young and old alike assembled there. Here towered above precipitous mountains and lofty ridges covered with thick forests and tall bamboos, and a clear stream dashed along enhancing the beauty of both shores. From this we had diverted a winding channel on which to float our winecups, around which we arranged our seats in order. Though we lacked the grandeur provided by strings and woodwinds, a cup of wine and a song helped us free up and express our innermost feelings. On that day, the sky was clear and the air fresh, and a soft breeze LITERATI TEXTS AND SNUFF BOTTLE CULTURE Richard John Lynn L iterati snuff bottles are so designated because they are inscribed with various pieces of poetry and prose. The writings, almost always anthology favorites, served as expressions of learning and literary sensibilities. These expressions provided calligraphic models for enjoyment and emulation, and they enhanced the illustrations on the bottles, which themselves exemplified aspects of elite literati culture. Collectively, the bottles present a gallery of miniature calligraphic and visual motifs, which surely pleased their original owners as much as they continue to delight collectors and connoisseurs today. The first bottle inscription I shall consider ( fig. 1 ) is by Wu Yuchuan who worked in enamels on glass. His artistry is identifiable only by seals on several bottles, for example, as in the following inscription: Wu Yuchuan , Shangao (Mountain High), and Zhonghe (Equable and Harmonious). Yuchuan looks like a place name, so it is likely that it is Wu’s sobriquet and not his given name ( ming ) or personal name ( zi ). Such a place name actually exists: present-day Yuchuan xiang (Yuchuan Township), Lantian xian (county) , southeast of Xi’an in Shaanxi. The area of Yuchuan, literally “ Jade River, ” became an important source of fine jade in the late Qianlong era (Lantian in general had been such a source for centuries), and it is likely that the name Yuchuan dates from that time. Therefore Wu Yuchuan is probably “ Wu from Jade River, ” he likely being a native of that place. Zhonghe might be Wu’s given name ( ming ), and Shangao (Mountain High) is not a sobriquet of Wu’s but likely a seal motto. This motto was common Fig. 1. Wu Yuchuan: Famillé-rose enamels on translucent white glass “ Elderly Teacher Unruly Students ” (Private Collection). Fig. 2. Zhou Honglai: Engraved Glass “ Preface [to the Poems Composed at] the Lanting [Pavilion] ” (Private Collection).