Reflected Glory in a Bottle

INTRODUCTION When the English merchant adventurers gained access to the avenues of trade at Canton in the late seventeenth century, they found a demand in China for snuff. The introduction of snuff and tobacco from the New World had laid the foundation for a habit that would engross the Chinese for nearly three centuries. The mandarins devel- oped the ritual of taking snuff into a fine art; the Chinese artisan responded by producing lovely little containers known as snuff bottles. Chinese snuff bottles have been described as a microcosm of Ch'ing works of art, and those with interior-painted portraits might be considered microcosms of China's twentieth-century history. The portraits were contemporaneous likenesses reflective of the social and political history of the period, portraits of men trying to preserve China in a world of new and urgent challenges. The portraits appear to have been copied from photographs of the subjects, who were well enough known to need no identifying inscriptions. Only recently, through their photographs, has the author been able to properly identify the figures on the bottles. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, one of the artists working in this medium, Tzu l-tzu, began to paint portraits on the inside of snuff bottles. For this he used a narrow bamboo pen, with a sharp right angle near the tip, and painted in water colors through a hole in the top of the bottle. Four other artists—Ma Shao-hsuan, Ma kuang-chia, Yeh Chung-san the Elder, and Meng Tzu-shou—are also known to have produced interior-painted portrait bottles. Snuff bottle collectors have always wondered why these portraits were done. The accompanying inscriptions do provide an occasional clue. Two examples clearly offer congratulations on the occasion of the recipient's fiftieth birthday. Another bottle was a souvenir of an exhibition in Kyoto. The Oakland Museum's portrait bottle of Li Yuan-hung'. came from San Francisco's 1915 Panama Pacific Interna- tional Exhibition. Some were presentation pieces and given as gifts to friends. Other were inscribed with specimens of archaic script, exam- ples of which were always highly prized by the Chinese. One can only speculate on the rest, and marvel at how successfully these portrait bottles illustrate two traditional forms of Chinese art-painting and calligraphy. ix