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China, 18th Century
Private Collection, UK
An intricately carved ten-lobed carved lacquer box, decorated with two dragons swirling amongst crested waves, around a flaming pearl. The five-clawed dragons, with their faces turned forwards, have fierce fang-like whiskers. Their long, scaly, reptilian bodies end in a three pronged tail. The straight sides of the box have a floral diaper pattern. The base and the inside are finished in a smooth black lacquer.
The dragon (long) is the creature most associated with China. It permeates its history, folklore, religion and the arts. Ranked first among its mythological beasts, it is associated with goodness, power, and - from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) onwards – is the symbol of the Emperor himself. In contrast to Western dragons, the Chinese dragon is a good-natured creature; said to control the earth and the heavens, from which the rain fell to nourish the crops. From the earliest times in China, dragons were depicted on objects; portrayed in all shapes and sizes, they generally have a serpentine body, clawed feet and stag-like horns. From the Ming Dynasty onwards, the dragon emblem - particularly with five claws - is reserved for the use of the Emperor and his immediate family.
An often recurring dragon motif is a pair of dragons surrounding a ‘flaming pearl’. The origin for this mysterious round object could well have come from the Buddhist iconography, where a similar object appears as a magical wish-granting jewel, symbolising wisdom. In combination with the five-clawed dragons, it then becomes a powerful emblem for imperial wisdom. Dragons depicted amongst waves, emphasise their water-giving powers, symbolising longevity and abundance.
Mythological beasts, writhing amongst churning waves, appears to be a typical Qianlong period (1736-1795) device on lacquer. The fine and detailed carving of the waves and dragons, also date the box to this period. Two comparable inscribed ‘treasure boxes’ with a Qianlong reign mark - both with a single dragon - are in the Chao Collection, Hong Kong and the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh (nr 1981.388). A pair of Qianlong mark & period boxes, with three five-claw dragons around a flaming pearl, are in the Royal Collection, UK (RCIN 10816.1-2ab).