According to the archives of the imperial workshop in Beijing (zaobanchu), it was ivory workers who were originally responsible for applying lacquer. Keenly interested in lacquered objects, the Qianlong emperor set up a lacquer manufactory in Suzhou in order to meet the growing needs of the court. While the majority of the carved lacquer works from that period came from Suzhou, the designs for their motifs, like the carp and waves adorning this box that belonged to William Van Horne, were supplied by the zaobanchu.
The cover is decorated with five fish jumping among the waves and small designs that have auspicious significance. The carp plays a major role in Chinese culture. The word for it, liyu, is also a homonym for wealth (liyu). According to legend, carp could turn into dragons by getting through the dragon’s gate (long men), meaning that perseverance leads to success.