The image skillfully carved with great detail on the cover of the present box represents a scene from the life of Buddha Shakyamuni preaching to his Buddhist disciples including the 500 luohan, the four heavenly guardians and numerous guanyin (Shijia mouni fo shuofa tu). A subject that is rarely depicted on three-dimensional objects, it is nevertheless known from carved cinnabar lacquer boxes and covers of similar shape and design with a sliding cover such as an almost identical example formerly in the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. R. H. Palmer, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, illustrated in R. Soame Jenyns and William Watson, Chinese Art. The Minor Arts, vol. II, New York, 1963, pp. 354-355, no. 167, and a box in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer Wares of the Qing Dynasty, Hong Kong, 2006, cat. no. 24. A cover of such another box decorated with the same subject, was sold at Koller Zurich, 18th September 2010, lot 275.
While the exact function of these rare boxes is not known, it has been suggested that they may have been designed and decorated to contain the spirit tablet of a deceased, a practice whereby the name of the deceased was recorded on a spirit tablet which were then kept in boxes of similar shape in temples, taken out to receive prayers and offerings at suitable festivals, compare Jenyns and Watson, ibid., pl. 355. The box now in the Victoria and Albert Museum is inscribed and dedicated to the Qianlong emperor, the box in the National Palace Museum is similarly inscribed with the Qianlong emperor's name. While the present box is not inscribed, we may assume that it too may have been made for use by the Qianlong emperor or a high-ranking member of the Imperial family as the quality of the carving is identical to the two boxes referred to and the sides are decorated with 5-clawed dragons.