The beauty of the Institute's collection of eighteenth-century Chinese art, presented over a period of years by Mr. and Mrs. Augustus L. Searle, has taken on new lustre through the recent gift form Mr. Searle of three gold boxes formerly a part of the imperial Chinese treasure. Exquisitely wrought of gold and colored stones, these boxes have a lavish quality that is suggestive of the splendor of the Chinese court under Ch'ien Lung.The boxes were originally part of a set of eight, of which five were acquired by Mr. Searle in 1934. They were presented to the Emperor Ch'ien Lung in the forty-third year of his reign, the gift, it is said, of the governors of eight provinces who wished to express their high esteem for their ruler. Undoubtedly they constituted an important part of the famous imperial gold treasure which has long since been dispersed, except in such rare examples in other collections. It is probable that the bulk of the treasure was melted up into bullion. The purity of the gold, and its consequent malleability, was tempting not only of goldsmiths; it offered easy access to capital in times of financial stress.Boxes of this type were frequently exchanged by the Chinese as gifts, although it is doubtful if they were ever so magnificent as the examples intended for the emperor.Those in the Searle gift are quite large, measuring about seven inches at the widest points by two inches in depth. One is round and two are cartouche-shaped, all with a scalloped outline. Each box bears the emblem of one of the eight Taoist immortals: the fan of Chung-li Chuan, the flute of Han Hsiang Tzu, and the basket of Lan Tsai-Ho. Although similar in shape and decoration, no one is exactly like the other, the artist having avoided, by a subtle variation of line and detail, the monotony that would have resulted from exact repetition.The surface of each box is chased with a swastika-fret design, but each cover carries a different decoration of leaves and flowers as a frame for the particular emblem displayed. The delicately spun gold blossoms surrounding each emblem are picked out with small cabochon rubies, sapphires, and green jade, and it is interesting to note, in this connection, that the Chinese, when they used precious stones for purposes of this kind, did not cut them in facets but polished them and set them en cabochon.
The combination of the jewels, centering blossoms of lacy fineness, with the plain gold of the foliation and the filigree symbols, produces an effect of great magnificence.The box bears on its cover the fan of Chung-li Chuan surrounded by branches of flowering plum. It is delicately fashioned of gold filigree with a narrow, pierced border. The handle is of finely wound gold wire, ornamented with filigree knots. Scattered leaves applied to the fan, as well as the branches and leaves of the flowering plum, are of burnished gold. The flowers themselves are formed of small, lace-like petals centered with cabochon jade, rubies, and lapis, and flowing through them, in a sinuous curve, are the fine gold wires of the horsehair tail attached to Chung-li Chuan's fan.Chung-li Chuan is sometimes given first place among the eight immortals, but since his conversion to the ascetic life is said to have been due to Li T'ieh-kuai this position cannot have been rightfully his. He is frequently known as Han Chung-li, or Chung-li of Han, because he is thought to have lived during the Han dynasty. There are so many legends concerning his origin, however, that full credence can be given none. The only point on which stories of his life coincide is that he was a recluse who lived in the mountains and spent his days searching for immortality. He is always depicted with a beard, and a fan with a horsehair tassel.The purpose of Chung-li Chuan's fan, according to one writer on Chinese mythology, was to revive the dead. An engaging story of him is told in this connection. He stopped one day to observe a young woman who was fanning a newly made grave. When he asked her why she was doing this she replied that she wanted to remarry, but could not do so until the grave of her first husband was dry. She continued fanning the grave vigorously, and Chung-li Chuan, who appears to have had a rather perverse sense of humor, said he would help her. Thereupon he plied his fan with such mighty strokes that the dead husband came back to life again, so ending one dream of love. Legends such as these, and they are endless concerning the eight immortals, add a piquant flavor to many Chinese works of art. Thus it is that those who know them regard with increased pleasure such works of art as the gold boxes with which Mr. Searle has most recently evinced his interest in the Art Institute.Referenced Work of Art
- Jewelled gold box bearing a fan, emblem of Chung-li Chuan. Chinese, Ch'ien Lung Period. Gift of Augustus L. Searle.