The Qings’ Little Masterpieces: Snuff Bottles

This antique carved snuff bottle, which was made in China in the 19th century, stands 3 ¼-inches high. The surface is wonderfully carved with tiny people, all in movement, who seem to be waving flags, amongst a natural scene with classic Chinese rock formations and trees.

This antique carved snuff bottle, which was made in China in the 19th century, stands 3 ¼-inches high. The surface is wonderfully carved with tiny people, all in movement, who seem to be waving flags, amongst a natural scene with classic Chinese rock formations and trees.

Contact with the West greatly influenced Chinese applied arts, none more so than the culture pertaining to tobacco-related habits. But while smoking was officially castigated, the taking of snuff became extremely popular, and culminated in a miniature new art form: the snuff bottle.

When smoking was introduced into China by Portuguese traders in the early 17th century, it was immediately considered a distasteful pastime of foreigners. Smoking had, in fact, become enough of a problem that Ming emperor Chingde banned it, and chronicles dated as early as 1641 record its prohibition. In later years, the more socially acceptable snuff began to make inroads; its use was endorsed by a succession of Qing emperors and a large number of the influential minority within China. Snuff is a ground tobacco enhanced with herbs and spices, renowned for its medicinal qualities of clearing nasal congestion and easing breathing, not to mention its appealing narcotic effect.

In Europe, snuff takers carried small, ornate metal boxes to contain the spiced tobacco, but these receptacles were inefficient in the warmer variable climate of China, where the boxes were not sealed tight enough to protect the powder against humidity fluctuations and thus maintain powder quality. Nor was a box suitable for outdoor use in the wind or rain. There was the further inconvenience of carrying awkward containers, or sharp edges tearing at the nobility’s (pocketless) silk garments.

During the late Kangxi reign (1662-1722), almost simultaneously but unknowingly in distant major centers, these shortcomings were considered, culminating in three distinct forms of snuff receptacles. Guangzhou continued to produce the box shape (biyanhe); the Yangxin Dian (Palace Workshop) in Beijing adapted the flattened moon flask (biyanhu); and Jingde Zhen favored the Ming ceramic medicine bottle, creating the cylindrical biyanping or snuff vases. In time, accoutrements appeared: a small ivory or bone spoon to ladle small quantities of snuff was added to the bottle stopper; a small snuff dish was used to crush the tobacco and mix the spices; purpose-built wooden stands were sometimes carved to fit the base of a particular snuff bottle; and old brocade pouch bags or old fitted padded boxes with sliding lids or toggled hinged lids and fitted interiors for added protection accompanied old bottles. The dish, stands, old brocade bags and padded boxes with their original contents do not often come to light, and while bottle stoppers are found, they are not necessarily on the original bottle.

An undecorated and uncarved jadeite snuff bottle shows the beauty of the stone. Well hollowed out with flattened foot, the stopper has a tiny spoon to hold the snuff.

An undecorated and uncarved jadeite snuff bottle shows the beauty of the stone. Well hollowed out with flattened foot, the stopper has a tiny spoon to hold the snuff.

Within a decade, snuff boxes had gone out of fashion, outshone by the small moon flask form favored by palace workshops in the Forbidden City; soon its porcelain workshop at Jingde Zhen was obliged to follow suit. As the country’s central manufacturer of all blank porcelain, Jingde Zhen’s output was vast, having to contend with the West’s demand for high quality Chinese ceramics as well as the emerging market in snuff bottles.

Demand for the desirable Beijing bottles surged, and in time became the favored form used by local makers who imitated Imperial style. Initially, porcelain was the most common medium used to make snuff bottles, but it was not long before other materials came into production–glass, jade, chalcedony, gold, silver, ivory, copper, quartz, enamel, wood, gourd, bamboo, coconut shells and metals. In fact, any substance that could be shaped or withstand firing, be carved, painted, gilded, cast or engraved was crafted and embellished with a plethora of fortuitous wishes illustrated through mythical imagery, landscapes, genre portraits or poetry composed to inspire the bottle’s owner.

Identification of early snuff bottles can only confidently be dated to the last two decades of the Kangxi period and after. It is theoretically difficult to attribute a specific piece to a particular workshop or area based upon style. Attribution to an Imperial workshop is possible, but not the actual one.
Some of the most refined snuff bottles are those which are exquisitely carved to imitate nature–small creature, a budding flower, a pine cone—or perhaps a deity or good luck symbols. Carved in jade, jadeite, agate, ivory, quartz, fixing, stoneware, porcelain or glass, these snuff bottles are miniature art objects fetching astonishing prices on the world markets. With a mark or provenance (and not necessarily an Imperial one at that), the price becomes astronomical. The Kangxi and Qianlong Emperors were both collectors of snuff bottles, together acquiring numerous tens of thousands, many of which are still in the Imperial Collection in Beijing and Taiwan.

This glazed porcelain snuff bottle is crafted in the shape of a squirrel holding onto a fruit. Made some time between 1796 and 1840, the mouth opening is fitted with a stopper.

This glazed porcelain snuff bottle is crafted in the shape of a squirrel holding onto a fruit. Made some time between 1796 and 1840, the mouth opening is fitted with a stopper.

The Qianlong Emperor penned more than eight hundred poems about his fabulous jade collection, which was produced in the Beijing workshops and at Suzhou (the hard stone carving center of the Empire), as vast deposits of nephrite from a neighboring jade-producing vassal state were supplied twice yearly between 1760 and 1862, when supply was cut off. But not before numerous objects had been produced for the Emperor. Single-colored and flawless jade was favored, with carving kept to a minimum in order for the natural stone to be displayed. It was a philosophy applied equally to snuff bottles carved from the various hard stones (agate, the striped chalcedony, quartz, realgar, jasper, amethyst, crystal, etc). The slightly translucent and opalescent jade is called “mutton-fat” jade. The most common is a light gray to green color, called “cabbage jade” by the Chinese. As many as eight Imperial workshops were devoted to producing jade carvings at the height of jade’s availability.

The creation of the Yangxin Dian (Imperial workshops) in 1680 ensured a burgeoning of the art. Kudos belongs to the Qing dynastys (Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong) who were avid arts patrons, as well as snuff devotees. The Kangxi Emperor established more than 20 workshops where Jesuit (missionary) artists and designers supervised the nation’s top artisans. The highest standards of workmanship and taste were applied to snuff bottles made here, with Court artists creating highly refined designs which were meticulously crafted and worked by lapidaries, carvers and other artists.

Away from the Imperial scene, local workshops were run by organized family groups. Usually the founder was the artist, and his designs or patterns tended to become the trademark of his wares; often it was a successful venture, the business being carried on for generations. Pride and a strong commitment to their art ensured creative life would be infused into the most mundane materials, despite the commercial repetition of wares. The workshops sold to shops, which supplied porcelain, jade, agate, wood, bamboo and painted snuff bottles to the populace. Palace craftsmen set the standard artistically and technically, making life difficult for the local workers who needed to produce similar bottles as attractively yet inexpensively enough to make a profit.

Nevertheless, a number of refined snuff bottles in the Imperial style did come from some of these smaller workshops. One possible reason might be explained by the Court practice of having elite craftsmen recruited to serve in the palace workshops for a term and then allowed to return home. Having experienced work at the highest level, they must have learnt invaluable techniques and ideas, which they no doubt practiced upon return to their home.

Unlike many Chinese arts, which were hampered by age-old customs and traditions dictating every aspect of design and manufacture, the snuff bottle began with a clean slate; its only function being to keep snuff fresh and dry. To this artistically oriented society, the possibilities proved endless, as the snuff bottle could be created from any number of materials, and crafted in its purest form or be as intricate as the craftsman’s skills allowed; it was a novel gift with which to extend good wishes to another, or on a more spiritual level became the means of expression and perception to guide one towards society’s universal tenet of “consciousness.”

Local craftsmen slavishly imitated Imperial style, which always had the edge due to superior workmanship, better quality media and demanding aesthetic standards. However, the humble folk-craft snuff bottle is today appreciated for its individual artistic qualities which might be every bit as worthy as another produced in salubrious surroundings. Indeed, the receptacles owned by the first snuff takers in China, the Manchu (Qing) military celled “bannermen,” were uncultivated yet functional; this being well before the rule applying Imperial standards of aesthetics.
One of the most popular images found on snuff bottles is the long dragon, which is a portent of good luck, living in the air, on land and in the sea; he is also a symbol of rain. Physically, he is a fantastic hybrid, with a camel’s head, deer’s antlers, cow’s ears, snake’s neck, scales, and tiger claws, the number of which varies between three and five. There are also variations such as the lizard-like chi, and kit dragons. Characteristically it seems they spew forth flames which form vapor clouds, or chase flaming pearls as a carp appears in the waves below. This latter image represents the aspirations of a scholar (the carp struggling upstream), while the dragon symbolizes the influential elite who has successfully completed the Imperial exams and is guaranteed status and wealth. The Ming and Qing dynasties revered the dragon motif, which adorned every form furniture, sculpture, porcelain, clothing and decorative arts.

The aesthetic tradition abounds in Chinese culture. Traditional pattern elements were reproduced in different combinations on all wares, and the snuff bottle proved a perfect medium. Motifs and patterns from the golden ages’ were venerated symbols, which encoded a series of personal and social targets common to many individuals in Imperial China: long life, official position, wealth, happiness and male progeny. Flowers, fruit or creatures represent a wish for protection from evil spirits, while peaches “of immortality” mean longevity, and the cicada signified immortality; bats and clouds convey messages of good fortune, while five bats represent the five blessings of a rich and full life, longevity, wealth, happiness, love of virtue and a natural death. Images of large numbers of children is an analogy for spring, and the three “Friends of Winter” were a pine tree, prunus and bamboo. Traditional deities, sages and venerated worthies are also popular subjects. The ubiquitous (taotie) masks and rings which abound on “handles” of Qing snuff bottles are an archaic decoration of warning against greed (in a frenzy of gluttony this mythical creature consumed itself). The genre subjects and treasury of mythic emblems are very familiar to Chinese people, but far more arcane to most Westerners.

The subject matter which embellished each snuff bottle was of a high standard and increasingly innovative throughout the reigns of Emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong and Jiaqing, but lost direction during the Daoguang period (1821-1850). An innovation of the later Qing was the use of the once popular natural pebble form to make snuff bottles. They were made in huge numbers, with hollowed out interiors, but were rarely carved on the outside.

Imperial ceramics produced at Jingde Zhen followed palace workshop process and production. The Imperial factory at Jingde Zhen was oriented around the court schedule—a long-winded bureaucratic business of designing, placing, costing, approving orders, and delivering the wares by boat along the canal system which was the main commercial artery of the Empire.

Although a busy metropolis, Jingde Zhen was less innovative than Beijing, where impetus came from the Emperor, who took an active interest in all his workshops. Palace artists strove to outdo each rather in their quest for the next innovation which would earn Imperial praise. Success ensured that the new designs would be refined within the workshop and emulated without. Beijing set the artistic standard for the European-introduced painted enamels on porcelain, metal and glass, which was a refined art under the Kangxi Emperor. The palette had been built up to include a vivid array of colors not previously seen by the Chinese, and this became known as famille verte due to the predominance of different green shades; when used against a black ground it became famille noire, or yellow, famille jaune. When the complete palette was used it became known as famille rose, and this new palette, when mixed with white, created a range of pastel colors which offered greater potential for subtlety and delicacy. The effect on industry was stunning, so that within a decade of being introduced, the new colors eclipsed the old faithful few. At the same time it was introduced in Guangzhou, the other main enameling center, and not long after at Jingde Zhen.

Excellence was the rule, maintained eminently by the Jesuit artists and the cream of the Imperial artists who worked alongside them, and all under the Emperor’s close scrutiny. Superior snuff bottles were a hallmark of the Jesuits’ artistic and technical expertise, most being actively involved in manufacture. Intent on propagating the faith to the populace at large (which, alas, they ultimately failed to accomplish), the Jesuits set about making themselves indispensable, holding influential positions overseeing the Imperial workshops. The Jesuits’ influence is evident in some exquisite snuff bottle decoration, particularly in the formalized floral subjects, with the detailing and illusionistic rendering of the flowers, often seen with a European style of flora and fauna. While clearly objects of beauty, such pieces sometimes lack the inherently elegant Chinese expressiveness of line, and the energetic play of brush-point upon the painted surface.

The depth of Imperial patronage towards snuff-taking and its widespread use in influential Qing society raised it almost to a cult status—a fact supported by the quality of snuff bottles produced. Like no other art object previously, it acquired multifarious innovations which set it apart technically and artistically—a triumph of tactile quality, innovative techniques, uncompromising craftsmanship and aesthetics. Appreciation for these exquisite little bottles has exploded in the past three decades, with some superlative examples ensconced in well-known private collections. Once in abundant supply, quality snuff bottles are now the stuff of dreams, fetching healthy prices at auctions as dealers and buyers alike vie for that extra special piece.

by Christine Kannard,
with information supplied by Wayne Ricketts and Sunnie Jia Shene

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