A box from this group was sold in these rooms, 4th April 2012, lot 179, where the maker and his wares are discussed in detail (p. 139). A further box, also sold in these rooms, 8th October 2010, lot 2192, and dated to 1537, may have been made in the same workshop and around the same time as the present example. It is of similar style and inlay decoration, with an almost identical horse and trappings. Further compare a small box inlaid with a scene of boys at play illustrated in Wood from the Scholar's Table. Chinese Hardwood Carvings and Scholar’s Articles, Hong Kong, 1984, pl. 58; another small box with a figural scene of Shoulao riding a deer and accompanied by a crane and a bat, last offered at Christie’s New York, 2nd June 1994, lot 20.
The decoration on the cover depicts Su Wu who was an official under emperor Han Wudi (r.141-29 B.C.). Wu was captured by the nomadic-tribe in the north called Xiongnu and after proving himself of considerable fortitude by surviving in prison without food or water for many days, he was sent to tend goats. The king of the Xiongnu tried to make him change allegiance to him but without success. When a Han diplomat was sent to meet with the Xiongnu, the king claimed that Su was already dead. Su’s attendant later secretly met with the diplomat and told him the opposite. Encouraged by the attendant, the diplomat confronted the king and accused him of lying by telling a story: the emperor of Han shot down a goose, which had a message slip tied to its leg saying that Su and his company were still alive. Surprised and probably embarrassed, the king released Su Wu after nineteen years of imprisonment. The scene depicted here may be the king’s messenger informing Su Wu of his release, although the goose in the sky is far from shot, but it may be an encapsulation of the legend, or the messenger begging Su Wu to change allegiance.
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