Close this menu  X
Exhibition showing
all bottles


Part III:
The Rising Importance
of the Collector

Book Menu
× Home Member's area Newsletter Past Auctions
Essays and Articles Exhibitions Video Presentations Library
Links Contact 中文

The Marakovic Collection

Hugh Moss and Stuart Sargent

Part II: Non-Imperial Snuff Bottles
The Later Phase

II61 II73 II.89

The later phase of non-imperial production offers us many types and individual bottles that we can be quite certain were made for private patrons. Many snuff bottles carry the names of the patrons who commissioned them (as with the Li Weizhi/Li Yunting overlay bottles we have already mentioned), the names of the artists, the names of persons to whom the bottle was dedicated, and even dates. We cannot always distinguish artists from patrons (and thus once mistook Li Yunting for a glassmaker); we can almost never identify the dedicatee, because most of the courtesy names or sobriquets that appear on the bottles are either very rare or very common and cannot be decisively linked to a known individual; and of course the majority of works carry no names or dates and are difficult to place with much confidence.

The scholar and merchant classes who replaced the court as the new dominant influence over the snuff-bottle arts had begun to exert their influence very noticeably even before the onslaught of wars and budget crises that reduced imperial influence to practically nothing. From the early decades of the nineteenth century, we begin to see snuff bottles in various materials that were obviously produced for a non-imperial audience, an audience that had its own tastes and demands. Eventually, snuff-bottle collectors exerted their influence alongside the waning population of those who bought snuff bottles to store snuff, and at some point collectors became the sole audience for the art form. This development is nicely illustrated by cloisonné snuff bottles.

We have already discussed the private Beijing cloisonné workshop that Maurice Jamatel described in his Émailleurs Pékinois of 1886, and we have noted Guangzhou and Jiujiang as two other centres of cloisonné production. All these commercial workshops continued to produce snuff bottles, with the capacity for high technical standards, right up to 1949, and it was from the older generation of pre-communist craftsmen that the art was revived in the mid 1950s. The revival served only the collectors’ market, and the bottles it produced tend to bear spurious Qianlong marks. The more authentic, functional products from the late Qing and into the early Republican period, when snuff was still taken from bottles, are unmarked. As with all unmarked wares, only approximate dates can be ascribed, and it is more than possible that some of the examples we discuss in this section were made before some of the later examples we have already covered.

The bottle in figure II.60, the unusual vertically lobed meiping with its original stopper, is probably from the early to mid nineteenth century. There is a special term for the quatrefoil meiping form: haitang ping 海棠瓶, ‘begonia vase’; the four-petal begonia flower has the contours of the cross-section of this form, which is an unusual one for a snuff bottle. The palette of enamels is also unusual for the period, since a choice was obviously made to use only the traditional palette, which had been in existence since the fourteenth century for cloisonné wares, and to ignore the addition of the wide range of colours provided by the early-eighteenth-century introduction of the famillé rose palette of enamels. That said, the relatively bold use of black is not typical of early wares. The designer must have made a conscious decision to make a more emphatic design while evoking an older palette.

Private workshops in various places surely would have followed various paths of evolution; since we cannot distinguish the wares of each workshop, to compare them all as if they were the works of a single artistic development would be misleading. We may get a general sense of broad stylistic development, but not more than that. The popular cylindrical porcelain shapes of the nineteenth century find an occasional counterpart in apparently private cloisonné output, such as in the bottle in figure II.61, which can hardly predate the nineteenth century and probably dates from the mid to late century. There is nothing about this bottle that would rule out the possibility that it was made by a private workshop for the court, but across a broad range of wares, one would expect to find that the existence of such production would be betrayed by the occasional reign mark, five-clawed dragon, or yellow ground; with these nineteenth-century groups, such markers are conspicuously absent.

The bottle in figure II.62 is distinctive, confirming our hypothesis that the multiplicity of workshops would produce a multiplicity of styles. This snuff bottle has a very wide mouth, leaving an unusually narrow lip, but the style and workmanship suggest a date from the mid to late Qing, so we may safely assume that the wide mouth is in response to the nineteenth-century preference among some snuff connoisseurs for wide mouths. The matching dish in this case also suggests a date from the latter part of the Qing; such dishes can rarely be ascribed to much before about 1780. Rarely do cloisonné dishes so obviously match a bottle that we can be sure the dish and bottle were originally made to be used together, but in this case they do.

The snuff bottle in figure II.63 probably also represents the work of a particular private workshop, as it is extremely unusual, with only one or two others similar to it in existence. It is not so much the decoration that sets it apart, for the themes were common enough, nor is it the colours themselves that are different – enamel colours were apparently all purchased from the same source rather than being made by each workshop separately. The use of pink for the ground is unusual, but what most excites our interest is that the body appears to be white copper. It is extremely rare to find cloisonné enamel on this alloy rather than on a normal copper ground, although white copper (baitong 白銅) was widely used in China for a variety of works of art and functional objects. (A 1736 English translation of a French history of China calls it Pe Tong; forty years later, the Cantonese pronunciation gave paaktong to the English language. It was a popular material at Guangzhou as a cheap alternative to silver.) Also rare is the replacement of the normal enamel decoration on the neck and foot with gilding. This probably represents the style of a private workshop in Beijing or elsewhere, and it was most likely made for a non-imperial market.

The bottles in figures II.64 - II.65 - II.66 represent the output of a particularly productive workshop that may have been active for an extended period of time during the nineteenth century – indeed, there is no reason to think it could not have been in business in the eighteenth century; with certain nineteenth-century types that developed independently of imperial fashion, there is no way to tell when they originated. The bottles in the group are mostly ovoid, often without a foot rim, and have simple floral designs, sometimes with a butterfly or two. They are always relatively unpretentious, decorative, and charming. As a rule, they have either turquoise-blue grounds or the darker sapphire-blue ground colours.

The bottle in figure II.67 is one of two similar bottles of identical form and decoration, although the yellow enamel in one is more speckled with darker inclusions than on the other. They are obviously old, and seem to be from the late Qing, perhaps from a private factory in Beijing or elsewhere.

The last cloisonné bottle (fig. II.68) probably brings us into the twentieth century. Its unmarked base may indicate it was made for use rather than for sale to collectors or tourists who would be lured by a nice Qianlong mark, but this is not an inviolable rule. Many makers would have practiced their art without knowing or caring whether their works were destined for the few snuff-takers who were still around or for curio cabinets. The makers of inside-painted bottles produced wares for use, often inscribed with the names of the patron who would take his snuff from it, but they were also fully aware of, and no doubt grateful for, a considerable market among collectors; the same may have held true for enamellers. The bottle in figure II.68 was probably made by an early-twentieth-century craftsman, perhaps one of those who survived into the post-1949 era to teach a whole new generation of young cloisonné makers. This passing of the torch resulted in the extensive production of snuff bottles for the foreign market in the 1960s and 1970s, which has led in turn to some genuine wares being dismissed as recent copies, a problem particularly for some late-Qing and Republican wares, such as this snuff bottle. In the case of this bottle there is some natural wear on the gilt metal indicating use, and the interior copper has corroded and built up a patina of green malachite incrustation suggesting many years of dampness trapped in the bottle at some stage.

Among non-imperial cloisonné snuff bottles, this is one of the most spectacular, with its busy design of more than sixty medallions wrapped around the exterior of the bottle and carried onto the stopper. This design of seemingly random scatterings of round flower-like designs is called piqiuhua 皮球花, ‘leather-ball flower/pattern’, or tuanhua 團花, ‘ball flower/pattern’. Certain spiral or radiating designs on ancient bronzes might have been ancestral to it, but the spontaneity and sheer fun of the pattern seems to have given it its long-lasting appeal among the common people. From the last reign of the Ming through the Qianlong era it was particularly popular on porcelain and cloisonné, and modern versions of the concept are still being used on fabrics and other surfaces.

In the age of snuff, when demand for snuff bottles remained constant, new types and styles of bottles would gradually replace old ones in a regular overlapping pattern: there was always some vital new evolution taking place. Most of the standard types would have continued to some extent into the second half of the Qing dynasty, as exemplified by a Tongzhi-marked, Zhiting-school Suzhou agate bottle in the Bloch collection (no. 379; Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 27 May 2013, lot 186). It is slightly devolved, but still impressive, and we may expect similar long-lasting types to have continued to the end of the dynasty. But snuff bottles of markedly lower standards rarely appear in the better collections, for obvious reasons. Although late bottles of lesser quality are thus absent from the Marakovic collection, there are some that still have merit and can give us some idea of the state of the art in the late Qing.

Figure II.69, for instance, shows a late-Qing version of the standard cameo agates similar in carving technique to agate bottles whose subject matter we think would have appealed to members of officialdom, while the two ruby bottles in figures II.70 and II.71, of distinctively pinkish ruby material, are likely to be late-Qing versions of the few known early ruby bottles, which were presumably made mostly for the court in the mid-Qing period. To be sure, it is possible that this distinctive material simply came from a different source during the mid to late Qing, and it is even possible that the bottle is a little later than the Qing dynasty. All we know is that the ruby material is different from what we are used to in the standard mid-Qing group.

Glass and glass-overlay bottles would have continued through to the end of the century and probably beyond. We have already mentioned the Yangzhou school as we know it in the last two or three decades of the nineteenth century. The bottle in figure II.72, with an extremely unusual colour combination in spectacular double overlays, could represent a precursor style to the low-relief masterpieces of the post-Taiping period discussed in Moss and Sargent’s above-cited article on Yangzhou overlays in JICSBS, Spring 2011.

At some time during the nineteenth century, a clever faker chose to cater to the collectors’ market by inventing a group of bronze or brass bottles mostly bearing the name Cheng Rongzhang 程榮章 and precise years of manufacture ranging from 1644 to 1653. The standard type has an integral snuff dish, or at least raised flat panels that might act as such.

The bottle in figure II.73 has just such an integral snuff dish on one main side; the panels on the other three sides are convex. But this snuff bottle is baitong, not bronze or brass, and it has a matching snuff dish, though we cannot say for sure that the two were paired originally. Moreover, it does not bear a spurious date—it bears no mark at all. Therefore, this example could be from any time in the Qing dynasty, and it could be the sort of simple metal form that may have been seen and emulated by whoever made the Cheng Rongzhang bottles. If it is from the nineteenth century, we would not be wrong in supposing, in view of the absence of any mark, that it was made honestly as a plain white-copper snuff bottle with no pretence at being two centuries older.

A range of organic materials would have continued into the later Qing, but they find representation in this collection only if they were of decent standard. The bottle in figure II.74 is a black-lacquer snuff bottle with a wood core. It could be dated to the second half of the Qing dynasty simply on its form, the tapering neck being rather innovative—even strange, but definitely original, as any later attempt to taper the neck by removing lacquer would have exposed the wood. There are many nineteenth-century lacquer bottles with incised designs and inscriptions produced by scholars and by craftsmen aping scholars. The designs were carved by the ‘iron brush’ of the seal-carver (small metal chisels, although for harder materials, diamond, corundum, or some other hard material was used for the business end of the tool). This plain bottle looks as if it were produced for such additional decoration but never received it.

Nature’s great natural container, the gourd, may have been used to hold snuff throughout the snuff-taking period. It is simple enough to hollow out a small gourd and add a stopper, perhaps a neck and lip as well. The only way to date such a gourd, however, without decoration or documentation, is to take into account the patina and, perhaps, the additional lip. Here (fig. II.75), the patina is not the rich, dark colour one would expect of a Kangxi gourd or anything like it. The ivory disk that forms the lip is also barely discoloured, whereas a century or so of use for snuff would have darkened it considerably more, surely. We suspect this is a late-Qing example, but if it escaped use or if we are misjudging the degree to which an earlier gourd bottle would have patinated and darkened, it could be from any time in the dynasty.

The bottle in figure II.76 is made from a natural material that figures prominently in nineteenth-century snuff-bottle arts: coconut shell. The coconut-shell bottle, with its rustic simplicity of material and form, especially when, in the most common method of construction, two saucer-dome-shaped sections of the outer spherical wall were sliced off and joined together with glue and, usually, bamboo pins, ideally suited literati sensibility. The Marakovic bottle in figure II.76 is rather more complex in its structure, with various sections joined to make a more capacious shape. This may or may not indicate that it was professionally made. It lacks decoration but can be attributed to private patronage and to the later Qing dynasty.

The spread of snuffing beyond the court and beyond North China led to a range of mass-produced ceramic bottles being made at Jingdezhen. The court still ordered large quantities of pottery from Jingdezhen in the Jiaqing and Daoguang eras, as we have seen, but at the same time a flood of private wares came from the kilns there to serve the growing non-imperial market. Porcelain could be made cheaply and in great quantities. Moulded porcelain was especially easy to mass produce; better yet, it was possible to create any number of shapes with moulds, and the glazes and painted decoration could be altered to produce even richer variety. Blue-and white-porcelains, with the designs beneath the glaze painted in cobalt oxide, were among the most popular types. Thousands of blue-and-white snuff bottles survive, representing both the highest quality and the lowest, so they must have appealed to snuffers in all walks of life. It is quite likely that the really cheap, poorly produced ones were made simply as disposable containers for the real commodity, which was snuff, and that only the poor or aesthetically unconcerned would have given them a second thought. Few major collectors bother with such bottles, and there are many of them.

Fortunately, there were also many porcelain snuff bottles of good quality made for the market. From the Daoguang era onwards there was demand from collectors wanting Qianlong-, Yongzheng-, or even Kangxi-marked porcelain bottles, as we shall see, but apart from bottles made for them (and for the court), there were snuff bottles made to be both functional and pleasing in one way or another to a wider snuff-taking audience. Sometimes these carried private studio names, sometimes they were without markings; sometimes they had token ‘seals’, such as a leaf, on the foot; and occasionally some element of the design on the rest of the bottle might be hidden within the foot rim.

When we find a private studio name, or a name, such as on the bottle in figure II.77, it might indicate a commercial conceit by the pottery, adopting a literati-sounding name, but it could also be the name of the patron who commissioned the bottle. This bottle is inscribed, if one starts in the upper left and reads clockwise (which is very unusual), Yang Junyan zhi 楊峻岩製 (‘Made by/for Yang Junyan’). Yang Junyan is a possible name, but we have been unable to identify a late-Qing individual who used it. We may assume this is a private product but can throw no further light on it, other than to date it probably to the Daoguang era.

When a design painted in cupric oxide was fired in a reducing environment to produce the beautiful red of cuprous oxide, potters were able to achieve the superb underglaze results we saw in the bottle in figure I.285. Large numbers of private bottles in the nineteenth century combined both underglaze blue and red, and some may have been made in the same kilns as the few known imperial examples. It is doubtful that the imperial kilns at Jingdezhen remained under government control after the destructive years of the Taiping rebellion, when they were razed to the ground ,but private potters had plenty of kilns up and running that were not destroyed. The bottles in figures II.78 and II.79 are typical examples, probably from the mid century. The first illustrates Chapter 72 of Journey to the West. The Tang monk Tripitaka has been captured by seven female sprites. Bajie (Old Hog or Idiot in Anthony Yu’s translation and Pigsy in Arthur Waley’s) tries to teach them a lesson as they are bathing in the pond, but he is overcome by the webs they cast—surely he is the figure in the pond surrounded by five of the women. Pilgrim (Monkey) rides to the rescue, of course, as the Sha monk (Sandy) and Tripitaka’s white horse approach in the background. Bajie uses his rake as a weapon in the novel, so that must be him, drawn in quick, lively strokes, on the foot.

The second bottle shows a gate with the name Erligou 二里溝 (Two-Mile Ditch) above it. Erligou is a neighbourhood in Beijing. A story about a ghost leading a camel to Erligou became one of several Beijing folk-tale themes that appeared on snuff bottles around the end of the nineteenth century.

One could collect nothing but these late-Qing underglaze snuff bottles and rarely run out of variety of subject matter, although forms were limited. Figure II.80 shows one of a delightful series, obviously made in several sets, where the conundrum as to what is and what isn’t imperial is encountered yet again. These five-cockerel bottles are also found with both Daoguang and Guangxu reign marks, so they were made over a twenty-five year period at the minimum if the earliest were late Daoguang, which is likely. They also appear with versions of a common phrase denoting a precious object, usually 珍玩 zhenwan (‘for treasured enjoyment’) but in this case 玩賞 wanshang (‘for treasured appreciation’). The reign-marked versions may have been made for the court, probably for distribution as gifts, but whether those with other marks were private products is another matter. The five cocks, wu gongji 五公雞, are symbolic of Five Lords, wugong 五公, and represent high office, making the subject a suitable gift for an aspiring official. If private kilns had taken the trouble to master fancy designs for the court, they would surely repeat them to sell privately, marked more appropriately for a non-imperial audience.

Another such general mark of appreciation is found on the bottle in figure II.81: 金玉珍藏 Jin yu zhencang (‘To be treasured like gold or jade’). The inscription around the bottle is from a poem by Weng Sen 翁森, a late-thirteenth-century survivor of the Mongol conquest who founded an important Confucian academy in his native Xianju 仙居, which is situated in a valley in the mountains of central Zhejiang province. The poem, on spring, is one of four under the title Sishi dushu le 四時讀書樂 (The Joys of Reading in the Four Seasons). The set was probably familiar to students in the late Qing; it was included in a middle-school textbook of the early Republican period. The four poems all have the odd rhyme scheme aaxabbcc, but the aaxa part is a normal quatrain format, and those four lines are what appear on our snuff bottle:


Light from the mountains shines on the railing,
a stream winds round the porch.
‘Singing as we return from the rain altar,’
we smell the fragrant spring breeze.
Lovely birds on the branch-tips
are also boon companions;
Fallen blossoms on the water surface
all form a pattern.

The second line alludes to a passage in the Analects in which Confucius describes the end of a perfect outing in the late spring. The word in the last line translated ‘pattern’ is a rich one, with meanings ranging from ‘cultural system’ to ‘essay’ to ‘pattern’.

Clearly, the post-Taiping potters were adjusting quickly to their new literate and private upper-crust audience, producing bottles that would appeal to the literati aesthetic. Enamellers began to paint in the style of literati painters, inscribing and signing their names and adding ancient texts.

A wide range of strange marks begin to appear on snuff bottles in the late Qing. The bottle in figure II.82 is marked on the foot with the cyclical date 戊戍仲春 wushu zhongchun (‘mid spring of the year wushu’), which almost certainly corresponds to 1898, since 1838 is too early for the enamels, and 1958 is out of the question. 1898 is, of course, a pivotal year in the history of late imperial China, for in June of that year the Guangxu emperor officially called for educational, cultural, and political reform and restructuring, inaugurating the abortive Hundred Day’s Reform. This bottle was made in spring, before the movement had received official imprimatur, but the sense of crisis in China had reached a peak after Germany, Japan, Russia, France, and England had established control over bits and pieces of Chinese territory (as large as and including the island of Taiwan, which would remain Japanese until 1945). Thus, the use of the cyclical date in place of an era name may have been a signal that the potter knew the end was in sight for the dynasty. There was a longstanding belief that the iconic poet Tao Qian 陶潛 had used era names in writing dates up through 419 and cyclical dates thereafter to show his displeasure over the founding of a new and, in his eyes, illegitimate dynasty in 420. The controversy over whether this is historically correct or not was not resolved by the Qing dynasty, which meant that the idea of using cyclical dates to distance oneself from the regime in power was available to snuff-bottle makers. Unfortunately, there is no way to know what motivated a potter to put a cyclical date where an era name would normally go. Cyclical dates were in everyday use, so if putting one on the bottom of a snuff bottle was a subversive act, it was a subtle one.

The latest of the ceramics in the Marakovic collection (fig. II.83) is of a small, distinctive group that harks back to an earlier imperial style with hints of Tang Ying in the landscape painting and, often, this sort of abbreviated pink border. They are often marked with the studio name found here, 敬善堂製 Jingshan tang zhi (‘Made for the Hall of Respect and Goodness’), and appear to be from the Republican period. At first glance, the mark seems to refer to a shantang, a charitable institution that typically provides care for young children or old people. Sun Yatsen speaks of wealthy families in Macao and Hong Kong giving half their income to these institutions to keep it from being squandered by their descendants. There were several institutions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by the name Jing shantang, ‘Respectful Hall of Goodness’; often they were one of a series of shantang affiliated with religious groups or cults that were occasionally suppressed by the government.

However, it is much more likely that this bottle was made for an establishment in the Xuanwu 宣武 district in Beijing: the Jingshan tang, the Hall of Respecting Goodness. This was the home and school of the Cao family of Kunqu 崑曲 performers (Kunqu is the basis for what we know as Peking Opera). The musical and theatrical circles of Beijing were loyal snuffers. The Jingshan tang must have commissioned a series of bottles with the name of the school on it. This could have been any time between the 1860s and the 1940s. The hall is not recorded before the Tongzhi reign, which began in 1861, but a noted performer named Zhang Zixian 張紫仙, who was born in 1860, studied there ‘when he was a young child’, so the hall did exist within five or six years of the start of the Tongzhi reign. And it was still there in 1938; Cao Xinquan 曹心泉 (b. 1864) died there in October of that year. His father, Cao Chunshan 曹春山, was also known as the Master of the Hall of Respecting Goodness, Zhingshan tang zhuren 敬善堂主人, but these snuff bottles are not necessarily tied to him individually.

The formalized lingzhi heads around the top and bottom of the body of the bottle are called ruyi yuntou in Chinese, as noted earlier; the name means ‘cloud-heads like the head of a ruyi sceptre’, and the head of the sceptre is of course based on the shape of the ‘numinous fungus’, the lingzhi 靈芝. The auspicious connotations of the bands are obvious, since ruyi means ‘as one wishes'. What is most noticeable is the way in which the normally rather bulbous lobes of the ruyi yuntou have been slimmed down almost to the point where the units resemble fleur de lis. Interestingly, in the 1850s the fleur de lis, because it marked the highly esteemed imported French snuff, was ‘still in Pekin the only sign of a dealer in tobacco’, according to priest and traveller Evariste Régis Huc.

The nineteen century saw some exciting new evolutionary developments resulting from the scholar’s involvement in the snuff-bottle arts, which produced some masterly works fashioned by scholars themselves or under their direct patronage. Soft materials that could be worked directly with an iron brush made it possible for scholar – artists to give us some of our last innovations in the field. Their works were made simply, individually, and of relatively inexpensive materials; they avoided any hint of the dusty marketplace, shunning both the vulgar display of precious stones, metals, or embellishment and the commonness of mass-produced porcelain bottles. For the lofty literatus, a piece of bamboo, coconut shell, wood, gourd, soapstone, or jet was the height of elegance, suitable for their own hand and signature—and of course, for the storage of their snuff.

The complicated process of unravelling the exciting secrets of this little group of late masterpieces continues apace, and we have a great deal to do. There are a few bottles in bamboo with panels on each main side delightfully well ‘painted’ with landscape scenes, some with inscriptions, some with signatures, but as yet we have not been able to identify the participants with much conviction. The bottle in figure II.84 is one of them. The landscape side is signed by a Wen Yuan or Wenyuan 文沅 (the two characters can be a surname and single-syllable name or just a two-syllable name), and there are a few known figures of the late nineteenth century with this name, but we have no reason to single any one of them out as the carver of this bamboo bottle. The other side is a modified Han-dynasty tile end—modified because it is oval, rather than circular, and also because we have not found the carver’s model (by the time this bottle was made, the carver may have been copying a copy of a copy of a printed rubbing from a collection of tile ends). As with others of this group, an original bamboo stopper survives.

With all this activity between the literati and craftsmen in the main craft centres of the late Qing, there was an inevitable blurring of the distinction between them. Scholars made works of art, learned crafts, possibly even invested in craft workshops; craftsmen became literate and studied ancient scripts, mixing with the literati, and the result was some delightful art forms that could hardly have existed in the Ming dynasty.

One art form was wire inlay, a technique that was revived in the late Qing. The two brothers responsible were Tian Zhimin 田智緡 (1863 – 1939) and Tian Zizheng 田子正, from Weixian 濰縣, in Shandong province. They were key artists in the Guangxu-period revival of this art, which they learned from an expert imitator of Han-dynasty gold and silver work, Yao Xueqian 姚學乾. They were also privileged to have access to the collection of rubbings from ancient vessels amassed by the important collector Chen Jieqi 陳介祺 (1813–1884; a native of the same county). The excellence of their work brought the Tian brothers far-reaching fame and caused a fashion for this sort of inlay, a fashion that is reflected in the snuff-bottle world by a series of late-Qing snuff bottles, usually of black-lacquered wood with silver- or gold-wire inlay and bearing a number of different names. The bottle in figure II.85 is not one of the signed examples. The design of a tile end and a band of fu characters does not require great learning to put together or comprehend, but the intellectual wit of the rhymed inscription on the other side is the kind of thing that would appeal to a scholar. It reads,

Hu fei hu, yan fei yan, huzhong bieyou tian 壺非壺,煙非煙,壺中別有天
The bottle is not a bottle, the snuff is not snuff;
Within the bottle there is another universe.

The seeming paradox in the first line reflects a common way of talking about the highest degree of artistry: ‘the snuff bottle is not merely a snuff bottle; there is something beyond its simple materiality’. It is also related to the Buddhist notion that one starts not knowing the Way, progresses to studying the Way, and ends with not consciously seeking the Way. The second line alludes to the idea of a separate world existing within a small bottle, a motif in many old Daoist stories often alluded to in snuff-bottle lore.

Jet, along with its cousin amber, was one of the materials that attracted the iron brushes of the literati. The surface of jet is soft and, for all practical purposes, without grain, so it is an ideal surface for achieving the same sort of expressiveness one expects of calligraphy or painting with a brush. The bottle in figure II.86 is one of the masterpieces of the genre. The style of this work, and of several of the other known literati jet bottles, is similar to that of a group of mid- to late-nineteenth-century painters who worked in the Jiangnan area and particularly in Shanghai. The bottle is ‘painted’ on one main side with prunus branches in bloom and an oval seal bearing the name Shouping 壽平, and on the other main side with Wang Xizhi 王羲之 strolling with a fan while his attendant follows holding a staff and a goose in a cage, with a rectangular seal bearing the name Ziyu 子羽. Wang Xizhi, the great fourth-century calligrapher, is often identifiable in art by the presence of a goose; he always seemed to have a great many geese around, and many stories are told about his life in which the birds figure in one way or another.

The name Shouping on the prunus painting refers to an important painter of flowers (among other subjects), Yun Shouping 惲壽平 (1633–1690). Ziyu, the name in the seal on the portrayal of Wang and his goose, is a common courtesy name. Here, given the subject matter of the ‘painting’ on this bottle, we think it designates Zhang Chong 張翀, a late-Ming – early Qing painter of figure subjects and a native of either Nanjing or Yangzhou. Works by him survive with the dates 1628 and 1645. On both sides of the snuff bottle, then, the carver has either copied from or emulated an artist of the past, using the artist’s own seal to identify the source. This was a common practice among Chinese carvers. A significant proportion of all known bamboo and wood wrist-rests, for instance, and many brush-pots as well, are decorated with copies of paintings or calligraphy by known artists, rarely put there by the artists themselves. In the case of this snuff bottle, both painters whose putative works are depicted were individuals who lived through the violence of the Qing conquest (Yun Shouping was from Changzhou 常州, also in the hard-hit Jiangnan region) and did not hold office under the Manchus (in Yun’s case, extreme poverty forced him to depend on painting to make a living). Their identities are certainly more tied to their artistic legacies, and they are not famous as loyalists to the Ming dynasty, but one wonders whether the designer of this snuff bottle in the waning years of the Qing wanted us to recall the historical context of their careers.

All of these late literati bottles are noteworthy, many are masterly; but perhaps the most impressive as a group are the inscribed coconut-shell bottles. The bottle in figure II.87 exemplifies the group, with its lovely engraving of prunus blossoms on one side and a copy of an ancient bronze inscription on the other. The side with the bronze inscription includes a dedication to a person we have not been able to identify and a token seal, yin 印 (seal). It is signed by Lu Jun 陸均, whose name appears on no fewer than eight coconut-shell snuff bottles, half of them with this token seal, most of them with archaic inscriptions like the one we see here. Based on an examination of those bottles, we think Lu was active in the middle of the nineteenth century in Suzhou or nearby cities. The inscription on the Marakovic bottle is based on a collection of archaic bronze inscriptions called Lidai zhong, ding, yi kuanshi 歷代鐘鼎彝款識 (Inscriptions on bells, tripods, and ritual vessels through the ages), compiled by a twelfth-century scholar named Xue Shanggong 薛尚功; there are several editions of this work, but the unique formulation of the fourth character in the inscription on this bottle comes from the edition published by Ruan Yuan (mentioned above as the compiler of a similar work) in 1797. The four characters of the archaic inscription, which are transcribed into standard characters by Xue as Bo zuo baoyi 伯作寶彝, are extremely common, occurring on a variety of bronze vessels; they probably mean ‘The earl (bo) has made a precious vessel’. The first line of Xue’s commentary on the inscription is copied by Lu Jun to the left of the archaic inscription: ‘We observe that, with ancient vessels, a great many have inscriptions by a bo’. However, Lu makes one change. He substitutes ming 名 (name) for ming 銘 (to inscribe; inscription): ‘We observe that, with ancient vessels, a great many have Bo as a name.’ If this is not simply a mistake (homophone errors are the hardest to avoid or detect in any writing system), it may indicate that Lu Jun considered himself learned enough to correct Xue or rewrite the commentary as his own.

In some ways, Lu Jun seems to have been like the inside painters to whom we turn next: he had a certain degree of learning; he made bottles for presentation to others; and he signed his works. The question is whether he was a commercial artist whose name was a valuable addition to a bottle ordered by a patron for presentation to the patron’s friend (as with the inside painters) or whether he was purely an amateur artist who had a knack for carving bottles to give to his own friends. At present, we think the latter is more likely, but serious research on the full panoply of coconut-shell snuff bottles is still in its infancy.

The plum blossoms on the bottle in figure II.87 seem to be dipping into water, which may seem like a peculiar touch, but we suspect this represents their reflections in a pool. It is undoubtedly inspired by the cliché descriptive phrase associated with plum blossoms since the eleventh century: an xiang shu ying 暗香疏影, (‘secret scent and sparse reflections’).

In the realm of inside-painted snuff bottles, nothing approaching art or exploiting the full potential of the medium was produced between the Lingnan artists and around 1880, although the art was kept alive, if artistically insignificant, apparently in Beijing. The key figure in returning the art to its former glory and to the status of high art, and the most influential inside-painted artist ever prior to the modern period, was Zhou Leyuan 周樂元 (fig. II.88, dated 1891). Although a commercial painter, almost certainly arising out of or inspired by the commercial school at Beijing, and, as far as we know, not working within the ranks of the literati, he worked throughout his career at the loftiest levels, never compromising, never slipping below his best for commercial reasons, and never repeating a composition (although he favoured certain popular subjects). It was this unwavering artistic integrity and, no doubt, its commercial success that inspired others to take up the art and to aspire to his lofty standards. Among them was Ma Shaoxuan 馬少宣 (figs. II.89 and II.90, dated 1897 and 1898, respectively), a more commercial artist, with the studio assistance of his brother and a nephew all signing under his name. He was willing to compromise, and he produced a string of studio-painted, decorative works alongside what are technically and artistically some of the most impressive paintings in the medium, including, of course, his famous series of portraits. He may never have been the incorruptible artist Zhou Leyuan was, but he was an extraordinarily skilled one when he chose to be, which was often enough to establish a solid body of masterworks, which is what matters in the world of art history.

The pictorial design on the bottle in figure II.89 is representative of a type of Chinese design known by various names: jipo hua 集破畫/吉破畫 (gathered/lucky broken-object paintings); bapo 八破 (eight brokens); jizhen 集珍 (gathered treasures); duanjian canpian 斷牋殘篇 (torn-off letters and damaged books), and so forth. Nancy Berliner’s ‘The “Eight Brokens”: Chinese Trompe-l’oeil Painting,’ Orientations 23, no. 2 (February 1992), 61–70, is perhaps the first major study of this design type. Ma Shaoxuan used the concept frequently; by some accounts, the subject of burnt and damaged documents was a rebus for longevity: numerous (bai 百) broken (sui 碎) documents and pictures evoke the phrase baisui 百歲, ‘one hundred years’, making the design a wish that someone might enjoy a long life. This is one of Ma Shaoxuan’s finest examples of the subject in an exquisitely shaped crystal bottle from his earlier years.

The heterogeneity of the documents depicted is startling. In the top row from the top right, we have a book of commentaries on the Four Books (possibly a miniature edition—one by this title printed in 1889 has recently come to light); a piece of red paper bearing the name Zuo Zongtang (1812–1885, a talented official who became well known among Westerners during the Taiping Rebellion and later eradicated independent Islamic regimes in the area that became Xinjiang province in 1884); and a coupon that can be exchanged for cash. In the second row, the white paper on the right is a quatrain by Tang poet Meng Haoran 孟浩然 (680–740); the white-on-black text on the left is a passage from the Tang emperor Taizong’s praise for Tripitaka upon the monk's return from his famous trek to India in search of Buddhist learning. It is said that the text was inscribed on a stele using the characters of the great Wang Xizhi, laboriously taken from the great collection of his writings in the imperial library; therefore, this white-on-black format is what one would expect to see in a book of models for calligraphy. The fan is signed with the sobriquet of Yun Shouping, Nantian.

The inscription on the other side is a composition by an inscription by Wei Zheng 魏徵, a renowned advisor to Taizong in the early Tang. It was composed for the Sweetwater Spring at a palace that the emperor had remodelled in 631. Wei's text was transcribed by the noted calligrapher Ouyang Xun 歐陽詢 (557–641) and engraved in stone; rubbings from the stone remained models of calligraphy for centuries afterwards. The portion here may be translated

In the first summer month of the sixth year of Zhenguan (632) the emperor escaped the heat at the Jiucheng Palace; this is the place that was known as the Renshou Palace during the Sui dynasty. Its halls capped the mountain; the ravine was stopped up to make a moat. Astride the stream….

Oddly, the inscription breaks off in the middle of a sentence, as if Ma Shaoxuan expected the reader to know the rest by heart from having studied calligraphy using rubbings of the text in Ouyang Xun’s calligraphy. But this is a frequent phenomenon in various arts of the time, especially micro-engraving and inside-painting: texts are treated as characters that fill space on the artwork, patterns that can be cut off where it makes sense visually, not where it makes sense in terms of the content of the text.

Ma Shaoxuan has inscribed the bottle in figure II.90 with the same piece by Liu Yuxi that we saw in clerical script in figure I.119a.

It is interesting that Ma breaks the text in the middle of a word (corresponding to ‘can’ in line 11) when he continues it from the first side to the second side. Of course, the page breaks in printed books also generally fall wherever the number of characters per column dictates, with no regard for the content. And the inscription in figure I.119a breaks the same text in the middle of a sentence (though not in the middle of a word). But as we noted in regard to the bottle in figure II.89, Ma’s tendency to end an inscription in the middle of a sentence indicates a trend towards treating text as primarily a design element.

There are two masterpieces by Ding Erzhong 丁二仲 in the Marakovic collection (figs. II.91 and II.92, dated 1898 and 1900, respectively). Erzhong was the courtesy name of Ding Shangyu 丁尚庾 (1865 – 1935), a native of Shaoxing 紹興 who supported himself in Beijing as a young man with his snuff-bottle painting but moved to Nanjing later, where he taught at a college and established his reputation as a painter, calligrapher, seal carver, and bamboo carver specializing in fan frames. Many of his other works survive, and he is recorded in various sources.

The bottle in figure II.91 is one of the masterpieces by Ding that feature ancient documents, tiles, or inscribed bricks. It has one of his rarer long clerical-script inscriptions, the content of which is a passage from a letter by the Tang poet Li Bai (Li Po) to a potential patron:


I was a commoner from Longxi [in the northwest] who drifted to the Han River [where it joins the Yangzi] in the Chu region. At the age of fifteen, I was fond of swordsmanship and sought audiences with the various regional lords. When I was thirty, I became accomplished in the literary arts; I paid calls one by one on the high officers of the realm. Although I was less than seven [Chinese] feet in height, my heart was more robust than ten thousand men. The princes, dukes, and important people were impressed with my mettle. These feelings from the past, how can I dare not respect [sic] Your Eminence?

The final clause, ‘how can I dare not…’, is written in smaller characters in double columns; again, there is no particular reason for this from the point of view of the text, but it adds a sense of closure visually. There is also no reason for writing a letter, especially one from Li Bai, in clerical script. Perhaps Ding thought the boastful tone (Li Bai made his mark in Tang society by evincing a bold and carefree persona) suggested a script suited to monuments, or perhaps he simply wanted to show off his versatility and virtuosity. In the last line, jing, ‘respect’, is an error for jin 盡, ‘to convey completely’. This is a homophone error insofar as Chinese in certain regions cannot easily distinguish between final ~n and ~ng, but we cannot tell whether it is Ding’s error or an error in his source that he failed to recognize.

Zhou Leyuan and Ding Erzhong are an intriguing counterpoint to each other at the top of their art form. Zhou was a craftsman whose character lifted him to the lofty heights of the incorruptible artist, and he was the most successful artist up to that point; Ding was a lofty scholar who, impoverished, was forced to create art commercially in order to make a living. Approaching their art from different ends of the social spectrum, they ended up doing precisely the same thing: creating works of art that transcended their commercial impulse to become masterpieces of the genre. Zhou began to paint in the very late 1870s but did not paint on a regular basis until the early 1880s. For some reason, he stopped abruptly in 1893. Ding seems to have taken up the art in that same year, 1893. He continued painting sporadically while in Beijing, although producing far fewer works than Zhou Leyuan. He moved his family at some time in 1900 to Nanjing and thereafter painted far fewer bottles, mostly for friends or patrons. From 1902 onwards, only sixteen bottles by him are known, and most of those are from the earlier part of that range; his last known work is dated 1914. While in Beijing, Ding had lived near to Zhou Leyuan, who inspired him; it is likely that they knew each other and possible that Zhou taught Ding the art.