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...ingenious and elegant boxes for storage...

What follows below is detailed background information on small Chinese boxes and brushpots within the sphere of iconic acessories.  


CHINESE BOXES

The influence of the absence of any built in storage in the Chinese home has been covered in some detail in About Cabinets. This influence is also seen in the smaller decorative boxes.


The need to find storage for smaller household items was just as important as designing storage for larger items. This is particularly true given that the scholar’s desk and other tables do not have drawers. 

Drawers were rare in Chinese furniture, apart from their occasional inclusion in some bookshelves for storage of documents. There is, for example, no equivalent for example of the western chest of drawers. The reason is believed to be security: a wealthy Chinese household would have accommodated a range of servants, concubines and multigenerational relatives. Indeed, it was, believed that the ideal household living to Confucian ideology and principles should accommodate five generations of the same family.


Within such an arrangement it was also thought to be deeply insulting to lock any door within the family compound. Any item of value was therefore accessible to all in the household unless locked elsewhere. Drawers are more numerous and more difficult to lock than larger single pieces of furniture. Thus personal and valuable possessions were placed in furniture that could be easily and visibly locked: for example cabinets, trunks, chests, document boxes, and a multitude of miscellaneous smaller boxes.


This also explains why all of these items have locking plates, which were capable of taking the early Chinese padlock, while the households internal doors did not have any locking facility.


Given multiple individual drawers are harder to lock than a single cabinet, there was a proliferation of boxes holding many drawers, all of which would have originally had a front cover which could be locked, thus removing the drawers from public view.


The drawers are deliberately loose and easily removable, in the way of a modern safety deposit box for example, rather than the more elaborate drawers of the West, which have sophisticated railing tracks and are difficult to remove from their surrounding frames.

It is difficult to categorise these boxes by usage, given they were multifunctional, providing storage for jewellery, cosmetics, gambling pieces, ink stones, seals.

The traditional Chinese medicine cabinet often has subdivisions within the drawers themselves, making identification easier.


Iconic Acessories

It is also worth remembering that paper money was invented in China, and a widespread paper based monetary economy existed by the 12th century: this may explain why some boxes have hidden pouches, sleeves and drawers.


These boxes serve a similar multifunctional role today, and clients use them for the same variety of function as their original owners.


The need for storage of important documents and scrolls led to the domed document box; these are usually constructed with laquered leather on wood, with perfect proportions and a stunning aesthetic appeal.


In their original format, these boxes had a concave component in the top, designed to be a neck rest and pillow.  Security of personal papers is assured to a greater degree with them in a locked box under the head of the owner while he sleeps.


These boxes therefore originally resembled the traditional pillow found in Chinese and other Asian cultures. There is a functional connection with the West as these pillows also served the same purpose as a western neck rest, which was designed for use in the Royal courts of Europe to protect the elaborate hair arrangements of a woman overnight as she slept.


Today they are an admired adornment to a desk, a mantelpiece, dressing or side table, and are used by clients to store documents, passports, cheque-books and a variety of other personal items, including jewellery, cufflinks and pearls.


The elegant sculptural three-dimensional shape, the patina of age on the lacquered leather, combined with outstanding workmanship, make these domed boxes a favourite of collectors.


There are also a range of further boxes, from the slim and elegantly proportioned box designed specifically for the storage of papers, to the more rounded multifunctional shapes.


All grace and enhance the modern desk, while their appeal is in their functional utility, their history, craftsmanship, and their overall aesthetic impression. They are certainly more interesting than some of the dull utilitarian objects on most office desks today, and several clients use them in the more formal environment of their offices or boardrooms. 


Scholar’s brushpot and scroll pot


The role of the scholar in Chinese society has been introduced in the About Tables section of this website, and is expanded on below.


In order to appreciate scholars brushpots as a collectable item, it is necessary to understand in greater detail the context of the scholar in Chinese life, and of the brush pots in the scholar’s life.


China’s emperors ruled their vast empire through an elite group of scholar bureaucrats, who administered their particular field in line with the Emperor’s wishes and Confucian principles.


They are more commonly referred to in the West as mandarins, derived from the Portuguese word “mandar”, meaning “to command”.


Becoming a scholar was legendarily difficult, involving a brutally rigorous schedule of exams, the passing of which led to status, family security, wealth and power; the failure of which led to obscurity.


The exams were meritocratic and open to all, meaning that positions of power within the empire was not solely for an aristocratic elite. To have one son pass the exams and attain the status of a scholar was the ambition of many families, and the competition was fierce. A scholar was automatically admitted to the “shenzi” (gentry) regardless of social origins.


Education and schooling were formalised and codified over the two thousand years since the beginning of the Han dynasty(206 BC), to a point where it was rigidly set in stone.


Calligraphy and painting are regarded as the highest form of arts in China. In Chinese thinking, the calligraphy of a scholar is fundamentally associated and appreciated in the way that we in the West regard western painting. The greatest calligrapher would therefore be comparable, for example, to a da Vinci. Calligraphy is more than just elaborate writing: it is art itself, with meaning conveyed by the aesthetics and execution of the characters. It is a merger of literature and painting, with the combination of the two revealing the character of the scholar. It evokes an intellectual, emotional and aesthetic response.


The means of conveying this remarkable combination is the brush. The earliest physical examples date from 400-200 BC: originally rabbit hair was used, stiffened with goat hair, bound and coated in lacquer and finally inserted into the wooden handle.


Perfection of artistic form demanded perfection in all the instruments used in its creation, leading to the “Four Treasures” of the scholar, as defined by Wang Xiji, the distiguished scholar, general and calligrapher.