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Part III:
The Rising Importance
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The Marakovic Collection

Hugh Moss and Stuart Sargent

Part I: The Imperial Phase
The Last Eras, 1851 -- 1911

The last of the Taiping rebel leaders was killed in 1868, after tens of millions of people had died of starvation and disease (or in combat), major agricultural areas had been depopulated and left fallow, libraries and art collections had been destroyed, and the emperor’s treasury had been depleted. The Opium War (1839 – 1852), in which antique muskets, swords, and foot soldiers had proven to be no match against the rifles, naval artillery, and waterborne strike forces of the British and their Indian troops, had already put the court in a position where it would be obliged to be use the private fortunes of high officials to pay foreign indemnities. Bannermen were subject to cruel indifference and shameless scapegoating on the part of Beijing; they staged protest riots in Manchuria, southern China, and the lightly occupied territories to the north and west. New provincial defence forces formed to resist the Taipings when they began to move out of the southwest toward Nanjing in 1852, but it would be a long time before reconstituted armies would defeat the Taipings; in the meantime, the Arrow War, which involved looting and destruction at the summer palace and the Yuanming yuan at the hands of the British and French and led to the crippling provisions of the Convention of Peking (18 October 1860), ensured that the Qing empire would eventually crumble despite the eventual suppression of the Taipings. Before the Taiping Rebellion, the empire was still a conquest dynasty; after the rebellion, it was directed by civilian governors with regional power bases, reformist aristocrats allied with military men with modern training, and a small number of foreign appointees. The court had given away much of its taxing power and its military authority, leaving it powerless in the face of international rapacity.

With barely any recognizable exceptions, there were no imperial developments in the snuff-bottle arts that one could point to and claim any degree of vitality for from about 1850 onwards. There may have been the occasional development in ceramic snuff bottles, but they were so minor as to be barely noteworthy. All the major developments of the last sixty years of snuff-bottle evolution during the Qing dynasty came from the private sector.

Admittedly, our knowledge of the imperial output of later reigns is limited. One reason is that there are fewer reign-marked examples to go by (porcelain being an exception); another is that few major collections offer the art historian much in the way of imperial bottles from the late reigns, as they are usually not that impressive by comparison with their earlier counterparts.

There is no late reign-marked snuff bottle in the Marakovic collection, and there are very few undated bottles of an imperial nature where we would have any conviction in claiming a specific Xianfeng, Tongzhi, Guangxu 光緒, or Xuantong 宣統 attribution. It is possible to argue that the Hongxian 洪憲 era of 1915 – 1916, when President Yuan Shikai 袁世凱 (1859 – 1916) briefly established a new dynasty, was an extension of the imperial age, but it lasted only six months. There are some imperial porcelain snuff bottles that can be attributed to the era, although Yuan may have been deceased by the time the order was fulfilled. In any case, none is in the Marakovic collection.

So we can bring to a close our review of the imperial side of snuff-bottle evolution and shift our attention to the non-imperial side. We shall find that, in contrast to imperial bottles, which get more difficult to date as we move into and through the nineteenth century, non-imperial production is progressively easier to date. Most of the signed, dated, and otherwise inscribed non-imperial bottles we can point to as landmarks are from the mid to late Qing, culminating in the Zhou Leyuan 周樂元 school of Beijing artists painting on the inside of bottles, where it was standard for the artist to sign and date his works, and often to note also the name of the patron.