China / Beijing

Snuff bottle

Introducing the Snuff bottle (Bi Yan Hu)

Snuff bottles were used by the Chinese during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) to contain powdered tobacco. Smoking tobacco was illegal at that time, but the use of snuff was allowed because it was considered to be a remedy for common illnesses such as colds, headaches and stomach disorders. Therefore, snuff was carried in a small bottle like other medicines. Tobacco was introduced by the Portuguese to the imperial court in Beijing in the middle of 16th century. It was originally smoked in pipes before the founding of the Qing Dynasty. The use of snuff and snuff bottles spread through the upper class, and it had become a part of social ritual to use snuff at the end of the 17th century and continued to the 18th century. Eventually, the trend spread into the rest of the country and into every social class. It was common to offer a pinch of snuff as a way to greet friends and relatives. Snuff bottles soon became an object of beauty and a way to represent social status.

One of the most famous and collectible types of snuff bottles is the inside or reverse painted one. These little masterpieces are painted by reaching down through the neck of the bottle with a tiny curved brush or piece of bamboo. It has been said that a skilled artist may complete a simple bottle in a week while something special may take a month or more and that the best craftsmen will produce only a few bottles in a year. The earliest inside painted bottles are thought to have been made from 1820 to 1830, because the beauty of a snuff bottle was more important than utilitarian consideration at that time. And considering this, few would have been used for holding snuff.

Like other types of snuff bottle, the range of subject matter used on inside painted bottles is without limit. There are scenes, fish, birds, poems, even portraits. They are testament to the skill and inventiveness of Chinese craftsmen. Inside painted bottles are still being made today, expensively for collectors and inexpensively as souvenirs.

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