Monday, 21 October 2013

Chinese Snuff Bottles by Clare Lawrence

        Snuff was introduced into China from European sources at the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Tobacco from which snuff is made, is said to have arrived in Beijing from either the North of China or through European trade routes encompassing the Philippines, Japan and Korea. In contrast to tobacco leaf, snuff was regarded as a medicinal substance and was said to ‘clear the eyes, and had the property of banishing infection’ (Wang Shizhen, 1705).
        However, the predominant reason that snuff-taking became so fashionable was that it very quickly became an Imperial habit. Emulating the pretensions of the Imperial Court, the habit seeped downwards through the class, from aristocrat to scholar to merchant, until men and women throughout China partook of snuff.
So, what were the functions of snuff bottles within the Qing Court of the eighteenth century? Snuff is powdered tobacco, a drug, and very addictive, It was also socially acceptable, endorsed from its early development by a succession of emperors and, by the eighteenth century, other influential imbibers. Once the attention of the influential minority became focused on the bottle as an art form, it acquired further potential as a civilized form of bribery. Within the Chinese bureaucratic system of the Court, it was used socially and politically to curry favour, to gain audience to those in power, and to show appreciation for favours received. Those who had gained rank and prestige were able to show their superiority by dispersing snuff bottles as gifts to those their magnanimity.

Hence, the artistic production of Chinese snuff bottles was the result of a fashion that took root as the addictive habit of snuff-taking swept through the draughty corridors of power in Beijing in the late seventeenth century. At Court, snuff containers were of the highest quality, reflecting the development of the artistic endeavours of the period such as glass production. Thus, while the emperors and the Qing Court surrounded themselves with the exotic, the fanciful and the innovative, the aesthetic essence was differently defined for the scholar and again for the merchant classes.

Enamel on copper, painted with European women, Imperial with Qianlong nianzhi mark

Dentritic agate with a design of a goose in flight, 1740-1870 

Nephrite, black and white, carved with Mi Fei worshipping a rock, Suzhou School, 1740-1850  

Glass, single overlay, carved with two grass-cloaked fishermen crossing a bridge over a stream, 1740-1820 

Ivory, carved with figures in a canopied boat, Imperial, 1760-1795, Beijing

Jadeite, plain bottle, milky emerald green colour, 1800-1900


No comments:

Post a Comment