The present lacquer box was made to preserve the second handscroll from a series of 12 scroll paintings titled Kangxi Nanxun tu ('Emperor Kangxi's Southern Inspection Tour') (fig. 1). As well as representing a beautifully crafted piece by the hand of a lacquer ware artist employed by the Neiwufu (Imperial Household Department) located within the Imperial Palace grounds in Beijing, it is also of historical importance for its association with possibly the greatest painting projects conducted during the reign of the Kangxi emperor. See the box made for the tenth scroll, which is in the collection of the Palace Museum in Beijing and is illustrated in Qing Legacies: The Sumptuous Art of Imperial Packaging, The Macao Museum of Art, Macau, 2000, cat. no. 1 (fig. 2), where it is believed to have been made by the order of the Qianlong Emperor to house the handscroll depicting the southern inspection tour of his grandfather, the Kangxi emperor. It is also mentioned in the Macao Museum of Art catalogue (p. 68) that the copper bolts of the body exactly match with the grooves of the lid so that the box can be securely locked. The Palace Museum box is of the same form and decoration as the present example, confirming that the twelve containers of the Kangxi Nanxun tu were identical and were both most likely produced during the Qianlong reign. It can then explain why both the Palace Museum scroll box and the present lot are attached with an old label reading Kangxi ye ('Grandfather Kangxi'). The tenth scroll box is incised with the date reading Kangxi ershiba nian sisi er yue ('Second month in the 28th year of the Kangxi period'), which is a month later than the date of the current lot, with the cyclic year mistakenly incised as sisi instead of jisi. That the very same error also appears on the present box suggests the possibility of the inscriptions on both boxes being carved by the same hand, or the cyclic year being directly copied from the same draft.
Another aspect worth noting is that this box would have been stored in the Shouhuang Dian within the Imperial Palace compound. According to Nie Chongzheng's study of the sixth scroll from the Kangxi Nanxun tu, sold in these rooms, 8th April 2010, lot 1824, Shouhuang Dian was the hall where all artwork with the Emperor's image was housed during the Qing dynasty. For more information see Nie Chongzheng, 'Viewing a Remnant of the Sixth Scroll of the Kangxi Emperor's Southern Tour', Sotheby's Catalogue, Hong Kong, 2010, pp. 92-95.
There are some examples of Qianlong lacquer decorated in this elegantly lavish manner known as the qianjin technique. It is a decorative method where the surface of the lacquer is incised with a tool, followed by the application of lacquer to the engraved lines which are then filled with gold leaf. The height of qianjin lacquer was during the Yuan and early Ming periods with records showing that imperial gifts from China to Japan in 1406 and 1433 included qianjin lacquer works. This confirms the existence of imperial patronage for works embellished in this technique which then continued to be used in the early period of the Qing dynasty under Qianlong's reign. Interestingly, lacquer boxes made to house court paintings of the Qianlong emperor's southern inspection tour were ordered by the Court from the lacquer workshops in Suzhou and were not made in the Palace Workshop. See a carved red-lacquer box for the Southern Inspection Tour scrolls made circa 1776, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, published in Wen C. Fong and James C.Y. Watt, Possessing the Past, New York, 1996, fig. 177.
The Kangxi Nanxun tu was painted by court artist Wang Hui (1632-1717) and a number of others working under his supervision. It is a most impressive set of paintings which range in length between ten and 20 metres per scroll, and depict the spectacular occasion of Emperor Kangxi's trip in 1689. The Emperor embarked on his second inspection tour covering the southern regions of the nation in the first month of 1689. This extensive journey took 71 days and included visits to Mount Tai, the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, the Grand Canal and a number of important urban centres in the south. Contemporary official chronicles heralded the tour as a great success, and claimed that it allowed the Emperor to fulfil his wish to review major river works, examine local customs and inquire about civil administration. However, the main aim of the tour was to consolidate Manchu rule over the Han Chinese in the commercial and cultural centres of the Yangtze Delta region. During the tour Kangxi observed various functions and ritual ceremonies that served to enhance his image as a legitimate ruler while extending his control over the native Chinese population.
The second scroll from the series, now in the collection of Museé Guimet, Paris, depicts the Emperor's tour in Shandong province, his visit from Pinyuan to the capital Jinan. The scroll is 1377 centimetres in length and illustrates the emperor and his vast entourage of soldiers, porters, officials wending their way to Jinan. Shandong was, and remains to this day, one of the most important and picturesque provinces in China. Mount Tai, the 'cosmic peak of the East' is one of its most sacred sites where Chinese rulers have worshipped for centuries. In fact, the third handscroll, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, shows the emperor's trip from Jinan to Mount Tai.
Wang Hui was especially talented in painting landscapes in a most graceful style and was known as one of the six great artists of the early Qing dynasty. He was commissioned in 1692 to commemorate the Emperor's epic journey, breaking down the tour in episodes which he personally designed and executed with a team of assistants. The project took more than six years to complete. After its completion Kangxi personally wrote the four characters Shan Shui Qing Hui (mountain and water are clear and bright) in praise of Wang's work, providing the opportunity for Wang to name himself Qinghui Zhuren ('The Master of Clarity and Brightness').
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