|A mottled bamboo fan (Shanghai Daily)|
For Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), a Peking Opera master in modern history, a folding fan was more than just a decoration for his performances. He adored them, especially the ones with a framework of mottled bamboo or xiang fei (湘妃).
In China, bamboo is considered a symbol of strength, integrity and personal virtue. But the most rare and expensive bamboo is mottled bamboo.
Found in Hunan, Henan, Jiangxi and Zhejiang provinces, mottled bamboo has light brown trunk with marks of varying shades of reddish-brown. The shades looks like flowers or ink diffused on paper.
Stories of the value of mottled bamboo are legendary.
Master Mei, known for his elegant demeanor, is said to have once engaged in bidding war for a mottled-bamboo folding fan at an antique shop in Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu Province, with Chen Julai, a renowned artist.
The price soared from 1,500 silver coins to 3,000 during the bidding.
An old Chinese saying states, “an inch of mottled bamboo equals four tael of gold.” A tael is an ancient Chinese measurement equaling 50 grams.
Mottled bamboo is often used for furniture or musical instruments, and also is made into small objects like the framework of a folding fan, an incense holder and items in a stationery set.
Beginning in the Ming Dynasty (1386-1644), mottled bamboo became highly prized among collectors, especially refined scholars. Even ivory and red sandalwood were considered tacky by comparison.
During the Republic of China period (1912-1949), Zhu Jiaji, a prestigious collector, wrote about his attempt to buy an ancient, exquisite small armrest for writing made of mottled bamboo from a scholar.
“We begged piteously and negotiated faithfully, offered a handsome amount of money, (but) even flush with excitement, the owner just went away,” he said.