The composition follows in the tradition of ‘flower-and-bird’ paintings that can be traced back to as early as the Five Dynasties period (906-60 AD). A distinctive painting genre from the Song dynasty (960-1279) onwards, flower-and-bird paintings were typically created by academy painters working for the court and were a favourite subject of the great imperial connoisseur, collector and amateur painter, Zhao Ji, the Huizong Emperor (r. 1101-25 AD) himself. This genre continued to develop after the court moved to Hangzhou in Zhejiang province, and thereby established the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279). The asymmetrical composition of the design, with the majority of pictorial elements on the lower left corner of the cover, is reminiscent of flower-and-bird paintings of this period.
Boxes of this size and carved with this motif are unusual. Compare a smaller box decorated with magpies perched on a pomegranate branch, in the British Museum, London, illustrated in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, pl. 29:11, possibly the same box from the collection of Geoffrey C. Hughes, sold at Christie’s New York, 27th November 1991, lot 191; and another carved with a prunus branch, sold in our New York rooms, 31st March / 1st April 2005, lot 77. See also a flattened jade vase, carved on the body with this motif, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo yuqi quanji [Complete collection of Chinese jades], vol. 6, Shijiazhuang, 1993, pl. 217; and another in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is published in Ming Wilson, Chinese Jades, London, 2004, pl. 50.
Boxes of this circular form were used for holding incense, and often displayed together with an incense burner and a small vase. Two jade garniture sets of this type, but the boxes carved on the cover with different motifs, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, are illustrated in Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum. Jade, vol. 10: Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2011, pls 112 and 113.
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