A Songhua inkstone and lacquered zitan box Palace Workshops Seal Mark and Period of Qianlong
Christie's New York, 2nd December 1993, lot 25.
Sydney L. Moss Ltd., London, 1994.
Songhua stone belongs to the sedimentary rock family and is named after the Songhua River in Jilin province which was the Manchu homeland in the northeast part of the Qing empire. For its natural colouration in the brown and green palette that gives the stone many decorative possibilities combined with its smooth surface texture, it was ideally suited for the making of inkstones. Its association with the Manchu motherland made it particularly popular with the Qing rulers, especially the Kangxi emperor who was especially fond of the stone. From his reign Songhua stone became a staple of the Palace Workshop carvers with many of the inkstones preserved today the product of the Imperial atelier.
The present inkstone is closely related to one with a Qianlong reign mark, from the Court collection and still in Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasure of the Palace Musuem. Four Treasures of the Studio, Inkstone and Paper, vol. 48, Shanghai, 2005, pl. 99. (fig. 1) Both inkstones are inscribed with an eight-character phrase which reads and can be translated as follows:
Yi jing wei yong,
shi yi yong nian.
By means of meditation,
eternal peace is achieved.
Zhou Nanquan in 'Songhuashi yan (Songhua Inkstone)', Wenwu, 1980, no. 1, pp. 86-87, notes that in Qianlong's poetry collection, Shengjing tuchan zayong shier shou ('Twelve Miscellaneous Poems on the Native Products of Shengjing'), the emperor praises the stone as 'Songhua yu' (Songhua jade). He further mentions that in the 39th year of Qianlong's reign (equivalent to 1774) official records list a total of 120 Songhua stone pieces, whether worked or as raw material, in the Imperial Palace collection. On three occasions that year, raw material amounting to 38 pieces from Jilin province was sent to the palace. Out of five stone pieces, eight inkstones and their boxes were made.
Another study by Chi Jo-hsin in 'A Study of the Sunghua Inkstone Tradition', Special Exhibition of Sunghua Inkstone, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 1993, p. 38, mentions that 'during the Qianlong period, an inventory of inkstones in the Imperial Household was compiled. Of the more than two hundred entries in the Hs'i-ch'ing- yen-pu which is part of the Ssu-k'u-ch'uan-shu, six sunghua inkstones with imperial reign marks of the K'ang-hsi, Yung-cheng and Ch'ien-lung periods are recorded, five of which are in the collection of the National Palace Museum'.
Currently there are eighty Songhua inkstones in the Palace Museum, Beijing, of which ten are attributed to Kangxi, sixteen to Yongzheng, thirteen to Qianlong, nine to Jiaqing, one to Daoguang and five to Guangxu's reigns.
For further examples of Songhua inkstones see one carved with the design of a crab on a lotus leaf, from the Muwen Tang collection, published in Simon Kwan, Chinese Inkstones, Hong Kong, 2005, pl. 107; and two from the Mary and George Bloch collection, sold in these rooms, 23rd October 2005, lot 23 and lot 149, both incised with a four-character Qianlong reign mark. For an earlier, Kangxi period example, see an inkstone sold at Christie's New York, 19th September 2007, lot 50.
The lacquer container for the inkstone is exquisitely carved and painted. It is a fine example of the importance placed on the packaging of imperial objects by the Palace Workshops. The gilt-painted decoration band around the sides of the box is reminiscent of that found on a Qianlong lacquer box illustrated in Zhonguo qiqi quanji, vol. 6, Fuzhou, 1993, pl. 40, from the Palace Museum, Beijing. Compare also a lacquer table painted with a related landscape scene and the sides of the table painted in gilt with similar floral scroll decoration published ibid., pl. 25.