Chinese Snuff Bottles
By most terms of history in China, snuff bottles are a relatively recent development. Tobacco reached China toward the end of the 16th Century. Similar in time to its’ introduction into England. When tobacco was converted into snuff is hard to say but by the mid seventeenth century seems to be likely. Customs records document that by 1685 snuff was entering China although it possibly may have been in use prior to that date. Snuff, however, did not come into common usage and was largely a habit of the upper classes. The Jesuits introduced its use at court and soon it became increasingly common among the court, rich landlords and merchants.
The Chinese believed that snuff possessed medicinal qualities and that its use helped to dispel colds, cure migraine, sinus and tooth pain, relieve throat trouble, cause sweats and counter asthma and constipation. Snuff was believed to be particularly an aid to digestion. Beijing was always the center of snuff usage in China. The “Hsiang tsu pi chi”, a document written in the early 18th Century, notes that snuff was being manufactured in Beijing at this time. Mint, camphor and Jasmine were and still are added to snuff in China.
It was not until the eighteenth century that snuff-bottles began to be made in large numbers. The traditional shape for snuff bottles were that they were small enough to fit in the palm of the hand. Generally they were provided with a small spoon fixed in the stopper and capped usually with a hemispherical piece of jade. This later touch is undoubtedly a creation of the Chi’en Lung period. Snuff bottles are most probably an evolution of the small medicine bottles that are common from an earlier period and the earliest dated piece is 1653. Snuff bottles often have either the maker’s name or the date but rarely both are present together. A large number of Chinese snuff bottles carry the mark of Ch’ien Lung, but most of these were really made during the reign of Tao Kuang (1821-1850) or later. Further, most of the snuff bottles with the K’ang Hsi reign mark were made significantly later. All of the bottles with interior painting date much later and were made into the early years of the nineteenth century.
Snuff bottles are made of a wide variety of materials. These include coral, ivory, jade, jadeite, mother of pearl, lapis lazuli, quartz, malachite, agate, turquoise as well as gold, silver and many more exotic materials. Despite the number of exotic materials to chose from, glass remained the most popular substance to use and most surviving models are from this material. Glass was treated much differently by the Chinese during this period than it is today. The Chinese cut and polished it like a precious stone. By mixing metal oxides, the subsequent glass could be turned into exquisite glass sculptures. The glass for these works generally originated in Shantung although the cutting itself was done in Beijing.
The most charming and truly fascinating snuff bottles are those with paintings painted on the interior walls. These were painted from the inside out through a technique that first painted the interior with iron oxydal mixed with water. This created a milky white surface suitable to take the paints, which were applied subsequently. Snuff bottles of this genre include landscapes, flower pieces and other works. These were created in a day or less of painstakingly intricate brushwork and are truly works of art. The earliest examples of these date from the 1880s so this form was a relatively late development.
One of the most famous painters of these scenes was Ma Shao-hsuan who worked from 1895 to approximately the mid 1920s. Other famous artists who worked with snuff bottle paintings were Chou-Lo-yuan, Ting Erh-ch’ung and Yeh Chung-san. Lesser artists who are mentioned in several of the studies of this form of art are Kuan Yu-t’ien, Po Lang-Ch’en, Pi Chung-su, K’uei Te-t’ien, T’ang Tzu-ch’uan, Meng Tzu-show and Ch’en Chung-san. By the start of World War II in China, most of the best artists had ceased work. Many works in present day Beijing markets, of course, date from much more recent dates and in general the quality of these paintings is much inferior to earlier works.