The close ties between the Ryūkyū kingdom and the Ming Dynasty of China are clearly reflected in the motifs of this exquisite mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer box. A single phoenix symbolized the empress, good government, and happiness; when used in a pair, as on this box, phoenixes symbolized faithful love.
The marks on the interior—a fan-shaped symbol and the Chinese character “tian” (heaven) in an archaic script—may identify these pieces as belonging to the seventeenth-century Ryūkyūan king and queen.
Fabric ties were attached to small rings on either side of the bottom section to secure the box and its contents. This box may have been a gift from the Ryūkyūan monarchy to a Japanese lord or lady, as seventeenth-century Japanese nobility particularly fancied such Chinese-styled objects.
Artist Ryukyuan, Japanese
  • Box with Design of Phoenixes and Lotus Blossoms
Date early 17th Century
Medium Lacquered wood with mother-of-pearl inlay and metal
Dimensions Overall: 3 1/4 × 17 1/2 × 5 1/8 inches (8.3 × 44.5 × 13 cm)
Credit Line Founders Society Purchase with funds from an anonymous donor
Accession Number 1983.5
Department Asian Art
Not On View
Marks Interior cover: Chinese character "tian" (heaven) mark in seal script, fan-shaped mark. Ryukyu imperial markings.
Tokugawa, Yoshinobu, LACQUER OF THE RYUKYUS, 1977, no 113

SHIKKOSHI, vol 1, May 1978, p. 122, ill. no 45.

Tokugawa, Yoshinobu, "Lacquer wares with "(tian)", Fan and Weight Shaped Marks - a study into the possibility of the use of marks by the Ryukyu Monarchy," SHIKKOSHI, vol 2, Dec 1979, no 53.

Tokyo National Museum, EXHIBITION OF FAR EASTEN LACQUERS, (Commemorative Edition), p 163, no 191.

Mitchell, S., "A portfolio of East Asian lacquers," APOLLO, vol 124, no 298, Dec., 1986, p 78, (ill).

Reference to the Detroit Box is made in Tokugawa, Yoshinobu, "Lacquer Wares with Seal Marks of "(tian)", Fan and Hand drum shapes - objects newly found and their significance in the Ryukyu Monarchy," SHIKKOSHI, vol 17, Nov 1994, p. x.