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Asian art

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Brush pot decorated with a scene from 'Sima Guang breaking the water urn to save his friend'; a carved Tang dynasty poem by Zhang Ji (c.756-c.779)

19th century-20th century


Unknown Artist


The story behind the carved design relates to how Sima Guang (1019-1086), the famous statesman, historian and writer of the Song dynasty, rescued his friend. When Sima Guang was a child, he was playing with his friends in the village, when one of them accidently fell into a huge water urn from a tree above. As the urn was almost full, the boy was drowning until Sima Guang cleverly picked up a rock and broke the vessel, releasing the water and saving his friend.

The poem of ‘Feng ‘Qiao Ye Bo’was written by Zhang Ji of Tang dynasty (active 1662 – 1722).
The poem reads:
When the moon is down, the raven crows with sky frostbite,
The bank maples and the fishing flares see a sleepless night.
At Hanshan Temple outside Suzhou the bell chimes deep and strong,
Midnight echoes reach the roamer’s boat lone and long.

Asian Art Department, AGNSW, June 2012.

Bamboo Carving:
The earliest mention of a bamboo brush pot in literature appears during the Song dynasty (960-1127). Zhu Yizun of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) wrote in his 'Bi Tong Ming' ('On Brush Pot'): “Brushes that lie on the desk randomly are like people who don’t have proper deportment. When they are put in a brush pot, like guests finding a home, they become proper.”

Starting from the late Ming dynasty, the literati of the day stressed the cultivation of 'ya' (elegant, refined distinguished) style in their life. This style was expressed in their studies, carved bamboo ornaments, including brush pots ('bitong'), arm rests ('bige') and incense tubes ('xiangtong'). These were highly sought after because bamboo was considered as one of the four symbols for 'gentleman' whose integrity should be like the sections on bamboo trunks that go higher and higher.

The art of bamboo carving, probably started as early as the Tang dynasty, and became a unique art form. At its apogee in the early Qing dynasty (1644-1911), bamboo carving eclipsed all other similar forms of art and craft.


Place where the work was made



19th century-20th century

Media category


Materials used



16.2 x 13.1 cm


Gift of John Yu, in memory of George Soutter 2012. Donated through the Australian Government Cultural Gifts Program.


Not on display

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Where the work was made