Chinese snuff Bottles

Written by Gilles Lorin of Asiantiques


hinese snuff bottles were made during the entire Qing dynasty (1644-1912). The production was interrupted after the year 1912 but started again, as is officially acknowledged, in mainland China after the year 1949. It is also possible to find bottles dated from the 1920s and the 1930s, indicating that they were being made throughout the 20th century. Tobacco was brought to China by the Europeans (who had themselves found it after the discovery of America) at the end of the Ming dynasty (16th century/first part of the 17th century). The use of tobacco spread sufficiently in China because the last Ming emperor, Chongzhen (1627-1644), issued five edicts from 1638 through 1642 forbidding its use. Despite the very stiff punishment of decapitation for the sellers, those edicts do not seem to have been very effective. Snuff, tobacco ground into a very fine powder and eventually enhanced with flowers, spices or herbs (mint, jasmine, camphor, roses, etc.), was sniffed into the nostrils. Its use seems to have spread slowly during the last part of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century but developed tremendously after Emperor Qianlong (17361795) declared it fashionable for himself and for his court. The Chinese, even more than the Europeans, believed that tobacco inhaled in the form of snuff had medicinal qualities and could cure colds, indigestion or other illnesses. Emperor Qianlong took snuff for his headaches. It is therefore normal that the Chinese first used medicinal bottles to store the snuff. The European snuffboxes were unfit because the warm and humid climate in China caused the snuff to cake and lose its fine texture. Those medicinal bottles were first adapted by adding a small spoon attached to the cork and

the top for measuring a small amount of snuff. Progressively the shape of the bottles (cylindrical at first) evolved into many different types, as their size was adapted to their uses. Men would carry regular bottles (mostly 2 ½” to 3 ¼”), ladies would have small bottles (1 ¼” to 2 ¼”) and table bottles would reach up to 5” or 6”. Some people liked to carry twin bottles and, but rarely, multiple bottles in order to enjoy various aromas. The first users of tobacco were the people who were in contact with the Europeans in the sea harbors. But it soon developed into a habit mainly appreciated by the emperor and his courtesans. Therefore, the snuff bottles soon became small, precious objects and their use gave way to the development of a very precise “etiquette” for taking and sniffing the tobacco, as well as which type of bottle to use at what precise time. Jade and porcelain were used in winter, glass and agate in spring, bamboo in summer and so on. The snuff bottles were used as gifts or to buy favors of officials. The production of snuff bottles was done by workshops, some of which, using the most skilled workers, were established

in the imperial palace by Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722) and his successors, Emperors Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795). Several workers were involved in the production of a snuff bottle. The apprentices would cut the stone and start to shape the bottle; specialists would hollow the cavity (a very important task), then others would polish it. The most skilled workers were the ones who would create the decoration. Almost any material was used, from the most precious, like jade, to the most modest, like bamboo. Glass was a prime material for the manufacture of snuff bottles. It was either molded, blown or carved. It was appreciated both for itself and for its capacity to imitate other materials, such as precious or semi-precious stones. At first the Chinese were very satisfied with glass and stone bottles and it is only during the Jiaqing reign (1796-1820) at the beginning of the 19th century that the production of porcelain bottles developed and probably reached its peak.

Article courtesy of Gilles Lorin of Asiantiques. For more information please call (407) 362-1025, email or visit