Although unsigned, this exquisite tianhuang
brushrest, intricately carved as a reclining boy with a cicada resting on his leg, is clearly the work of a master craftsman, possibly one of the great carvers active in the early Qing dynasty, such as Zhou Bin and Yang Yuxuan. According to Gerald Tsang and Hugh Moss in the catalogue to the exhibition Arts from the Scholar’s Studio
, Fung Ping Shan Museum, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1986, p. 86, the early soapstone master carvers are set apart by one key feature: every figure is conceived as an individual work of art. This characteristic is evident in the present carving, which is notable not only for the outstanding piece of tianhuang
it has been fashioned from but also in the careful and sensitive consideration of his facial expression and details to convey his spirit and individuality, as well as the masterfully conceived robes, which fall naturalistically around his body, and are intricately incised and gilded with floral and auspicious motifs. The golden hue of the precious stone further imbues this figure with a sense of vitality and playfulness.
The same precise texture of tianhuang, suffused with identical crimson-red inclusions in the stone, can be seen on a tianhuang ‘bixie’ seal sold in these rooms, 8th April 2016, lot 3690. For another example of tianhuang figural carving, see the figure of Maitreya by Zhou Bin in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Zhongguo meishu quanji [The complete collection of Chinese art], vol. 6, Beijing, 1988, pl. 158.
A boy with cicada (Jinchan tongzi) is symbolic of wealth. In traditional mythology, the boy with cicada is a reincarnation of the golden cicada, and a previous manifestation of the Tang monk, traveller and Xuanzang.