For well over two thousand years, since the time of Confucius, the epicenter of the philosophical movement in China has been the scholar’s desk. Much of the country’s greatest art and literature has originated from the austere confines of this simple platform of learning and contemplation. By the time of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), the array of utensils to be found on the scholar’s desk had been codified to include more than the traditional “four treasures”—the ink stick, inkstone, brush, and paper. Among the new accoutrements were scroll weights, paperweights, table screens and stands, scholar’s rocks, water pots, brush washers, and bitong (brush pots).
This bitong exemplifies the extravagant style and intricate workmanship so characteristic of the late eighteenth-century ivory studios in China. The exterior of the cylindrical vessel is deeply carved in relief to depict a group of luohans (immortals) among the bridges and pavilions gracing a dramatic, mountainous landscape. The borders above and below the central scene are filled with stylized leaf and meander patterns, and the spaces are filled with a plethora of animal imagery. Because ivory was difficult to obtain and therefore expensive, vessels such as this became symbols of an imperial power that had reached the farthest corners of Asia.