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Antique Scholars Box
Item No. 16905

19th Century, N/A, China
Lacquer over Wood and Polychrome
6" x 17.25" x 6.25"
( 15.24 x 43.815 x 15.875 cm)
(H x W x D)

This antique red lacquered wood scholar's box has a lid that is arched from front to back and is slightly concave so that it resembles the shape of a Chinese pillow. It is covered with auspicious symbols and puns which is designed to bring "fu" into the lives of those who possess it. Fu is often translated as happiness, good fortune, blessings or luck and, in a larger sense, symbolizes the bestowal and receipt of divine favors. (Knapp, p. 102) According to Knapp, the color "red is a life giving color, correlated with the summer, the south, and the vermilion bird that represents the element fire and the period of maximum yang. (P.81)

As Bartholomew writes, "red (dan) refers to the Cinnabar Cave abode of the phoenix which opens towards the sun. The sun symbolizes the yang or male principle of brightness or warmth as well as righteousness and promotion. This auspicious motif symbolizes all the good things in life." (p. 160). Red, in short, means fu.

The front of this box is divided into four sections -- two thin and wide framed registers on each side of the top of the box and two much larger framed sections below. The top registers contain carved hibiscus flowers with long branches and foliage, and the lower ones contain elaborately delineated peonies, also with branches and foliage.

The peony, the "king of flowers," is the most popular botanical motif in China, equivalent to the first rank among officials and closely associated with royalty, because it was grown in both the Sui and Tang Dynasty imperial gardens. Among the names for the peony is "flower of wealth and honor" (fuguihua), derived from "On My Passion for the Lotus," an essay by Zhou Dunyi (1017-1073), a famous Song Dynasty philosopher. The peony has long been used, therefore, as a symbol for wealth and honor (fugui), honor meaning among the Chinese high rank, having an official position, or high social status. (Bartholomew, p. 123)

This word play that the Chinese love so much comes to the fore again when the peony(fuguihua)is presented with a hibiscus (mufurong), and it means "may you have splendor, wealth and honor" or "may you have high position and great wealth"(both ronghua fugui). (Bartholomew, p. 148)

On the left side we again have an upper and lower register, this time much smaller, with a carving of a lotus and lotus pod above and two paintings (hua) wrapped in ribbon, a symbol of painting, one of the Four Scholarly Pursuits (siyi), which also include playing a string instrument(qi), chess (qi)and books (shu). (Bartholomew, p. 225) The lotus (he) and lotus leaf (heye)are attributes of a female member of the Eight immortals, Xiangu, and, because of this, is also a Taoist symbol of longevity. The lotus is also a symbol of purity and is among the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. The leaf (heye)is also a pun for "harmony." The lotus pod with seeds symbolizes fertility and the wish for many sons, but, here, there are no seeds in the pod.

On the right side there is another lotus carving in the upper register and one of a lingzhi with ribbons. The lingzhi fungus is a pun for intelligence, and, because of the similarity of its shape to the ruyi wish-granting scepter, it also means "as you wish' or


Terese Tse Bartholomew, "Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art," Honk Kong, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, 2006, p. 123.

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