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In 1986 when British Queen Elizabeth II visited China, the Chinese government presented her with an elaborate inner-painted glass bottle adorned with a colorful portrait of the Queen on one side, and a recreation of the painting Homeland Water (the original in White Swan Hotel of Guangzhou) on the other. The snuff bottle art form emerged 300 years ago in China and diverged into four varying styles based in Beijing, Hebei, Shandong and Guangdong, respectively.
From Container to Art
Snuff was first introduced to China by foreign missionaries during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and peaked in popularity during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Back then, snuff was usually mixed with borneol (camphor) and musk and sold in drug stores as a medicine.
Chinese users employed small bottles to take the place of metal boxes popular in Europe to prevent powder from leaking and the smell from fading. By the reigns of Emperor Yongzheng (1723-1735) and Qianlong (1736-1795), its popularity amongst the wealthy and aristocratic classes produced various exquisite snuff bottles. By the late Qing Dynasty, snuff bottles with inner paintings had become common.
Artists painted the inner wall of an egg-sized snuff bottle with one of two specially designed brushes. One was a writing brush with a tiny nib of weasel’s hair. The other was a long, thin bamboo stick with a sharp, curved end.
When the inner paintings of snuff bottles began employing art elements from Chinese calligraphy and painting, the commodities transformed from practical ware into works of art. “Though small they are, they feature a variety of designs such as poems, calligraphy, painting and stamps,” notes 69-year-old Liu Shouben, an inheritor of snuff bottle paintings as a national intangible heritage. “Of course, the stamp is also drawn onto it. The bottle is a micro painting. It is mini art and can be appreciated in the palm of the hand.” Liu began learning the inner art from masters of the Beijing style at the age of 16.