Chinese snuff bottles

Snuff bottles are a relatively recent product considering China’s long history; it was only toward the end of the 16th century that tobacco reached China, about the same time that it reached England.  There are many different theories about who brought tobacco into the country – the Russians, Manchu, Portuguese, the Jesuit Priests . . . but most likely it came from many areas and many different groups of people at roughly the same time.

Exactly when tobacco was transformed into snuff is also difficult to pinpoint, but customs records show that it entered the country by 1685.  Once it had arrived, however, it quickly became very fashionable in and around the Beijing court, and rich landlords, merchants and other members of the upper class turned its usage into something of a ritual.  The Chinese believes that snuff was medicinal and helped a wide variety of physical complaints from colds, migraines, sinus and tooth pain to asthma, constipation and digestion problems.  They did, and still do, add mint, camphor and jasmine to snuff.

Smoking tobacco was illegal in China at that time, but using snuff was perfectly acceptable.  Like other medications, it was dispensed in bottles instead of the boxes employed by European snuff users, and these bottles became more and more popular with the spread of the use of snuff.

In the 1700s, snuff bottles became conversation pieces and collectables; it was a passion that eventually swept up all of the classes throughout the nation by the end of the 18th century.  Snuff bottles were tiny masterpieces that showed exceptional versatility in style, technique and material as well as fine craftsmanship; they quickly became one of the most notable and accessible representations of artistic skill in the Qing Dynasty.

Snuff bottles were made out of every material used by Chinese artists: glass, porcelain, jade and other hard stones, ivory, coral, lacquer, amber, wood, gold, silver, mother of pearl, turquoise and many other exotic materials.  Glass, however, was the most popular choice and most surviving snuff bottles are made of this material.  At that time, the Chinese handled glass much differently than it is handled in the West or is treated today; they cut and polished it like precious stone. By mixing metal oxides into the material, the subsequent glass could be turned into fabulous glass sculptures.

Traditionally the bottles were made small enough to fit in the palm of the hand, and in general they came with a small spoon fixed in the stopper and capped with a hemispherical piece of jade.  The bottles often bear the maker’s name or the date they were made, but rarely both.  Quite a lot of bottles bear the mark of Ch’ien Lung, but actually were made much later, during the reign of Tao Kuang (1821 – 1850) or even later.  In addition, those bearing the K’ang Hsi reign mark were almost always made much later.  All the bottles with interior painting date from much later and were in production until the early part of the 19th century.

Snuff bottles with interior painting were painted from the inside out by first painting the interior with iron oxydal mixed with water to create a milky white surface suitable for later painting.  Then these surfaces were painstakingly painted in a day or less with intricate brushwork, often featuring flowers and landscapes.

One of the most famous painters who painted these scenes was Ma Shao-hsuan, who worked from 1895 to the mid-1920s.  Other great artists who created snuff bottle paintings were Chou-Lo-yuan, Ting Erh-ch’ung and Yeh Chung-san.  By WWII in China, most of the best artists had stopped working.  There are, of course, many snuff bottles still on sale in Beijing markets, but these were for the most part created rather recently and the artwork is considered to be of poorer quality. 

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