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Celestial Cases
Antique Boxes of China

05/09/2017 - 02/12/2017


The exhibition features over 80 pieces of antique Chinese boxes dating from the Han to Qing dynasties. All are selected from nine local private collections, which comprehensively demonstrate the dynamic development of Chinese boxes.

In Chinese belief, box embraces blessings of happiness, union, wealth and wish fulfillment. They are made of a wide range of materials like jade, lacquer, porcelain and wood. Ancient Chinese made good use of different forms of box for holding food, incense, cosmetic powder or stationery. The interesting styles of these boxes are well presented in this exhibition.

Lenders to the Exhibition Buer Zhai, Kwong Yee Che Tong, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. George Lee, Songyin Ge, Jingxing Tang, Songde Tang, Xianxi Tang, Yuyin Tang, Ze’en Tang

The Perfect Box

Heaven is equated to yang and Earth yin. Heaven is round and Earth square. Combining round and square merges yang and yin to generate life force. Standard Chinese box is round, alluding to the shape of Heaven; content in the box symbolises materials of the Earth. Box must have a lid; combining the two makes a perfect unity, engendering happiness and union. Hence box is celestial creation where all substances in the universe are contained.

Twin Harmony is an interesting pair of Chinese fairies, one holding a lotus flower and the other a large box. Chinese pronunciation of lotus and box together rhymes with harmony hehe. Such auspicious combination is immensely popular for the people.

Ancestors used the twin fairy box to convey triple messages: every wish would be fulfilled; every match a happy marriage; and all seasons temperate. The box was like a treasure container filled with life-long wealth. For this reason, Chinese produced numerous good-luck boxes. They were popular gifts for happy occasions and festivals, and those made in gold, silver and jade being the most precious.

However, gold, silver and jade were far too costly. Hence large boxes were usually made of lacquer or porcelain. Since wood was less malleable to turn into round shape, most wooden boxes were often square or rectangular, most practical for containing stationery such as paper, brush, ink slab and inkstone.

As a container, a gift box could not be empty or else it would bring bad luck. The most common was red lacquer box in which special food for festivals, fruit in season and health-conducive herbs were put. As red denoted felicity, red boxes were singularly appropriate for weddings.

From the Han dynasty onward, incense was used by intellectuals and the upper class to scent clothes and eradicate body odours. In folk belief, incense had the power to ward off evil. Boxes containing incense cakes or pellets became indispensable for the upper class as well as constituting the best gift choice.

Another type of box used by ladies in ancient time was that to contain cosmetic powder for perfect skin smooth as ice and white as jade. Ideal containers would therefore be best made of white jade, followed by white porcelain imitating snow and last, green glaze resembling jade.

Chinese society underwent fundamental changes in the late Ming dynasty when affluent merchant steered both economic and art development. These merchants had a penchant for displaying wealth, but they were ignorant about paintings, calligraphy and antiques. To compensate for their limitations, they amassed contemporary objects d’art posing as art collectors.

This socio-economic transformation fuelled the demand for objects carved out of lacquer, jade, bamboo, ivory and rhinoceros horn. Craftsmanship in mounting precious stones and inlaying mother-of-pearl was further enhanced. Floral motifs continued and new themes about child at play, Daoism and Buddhism emerged, reflecting people’s wish for many offspring and divine protection.

In the Qing dynasty, large boxes were still used functionally to contain food, stationery, documents, paintings and calligraphy. Exquisite small jade boxes were manufactured in great quantity to carry incense, cosmetic powder, snuff, flowers or medicine. Their value was not related to how they were used but rather to their jade quality and craftsmanship.

These small boxes had become ornamental art. Boxes today are more varied and exciting. A cheap plastic box may contain a highly priced gold ring! No wonder Chinese are forever enamoured of boxes; they are indeed treasure boxes!

YEUNG Chun Tong


Exhibition Catalogue

Editor: Rachel LEUNG
2017, hardcover with slipcase, Chinese/English
200 pages, 26 x 27 cm
ISBN: 978-988-78196-1-5

A fully illustrated exhibition catalogue featuring 87 pieces of antique Chinese boxes dating from the Han to Qing dynasties.They are made of a wide range of materials like jade, lacquer, porcelain and wood, all selected from 9 Hong Kong private collections.

Price: HKD$200

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