Com­par­ing wealth is a con­cept that has been around since an­cient times, and one such item by which the roy­alty of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644–1912) did so was snuff­boxes. Th­ese snuff­boxes fea­tured ex­quis­ite crafts­man­ship and unique de­signs, and thus were great

China Scenic - - Contents - By Dou Zi

As an item of com­par­ing wealth for the Qing Dy­nasty peo­ple, how did snuff­boxes first ar­rive in China? And how did they cre­ate such a fad that lasted an en­tire era?

A For­eign “Play­thing” of the Great Qing

As to whether snuff was in­vented in China, or im­ported from the West, the peo­ple of an­cient China stated very ex­plic­itly that it was an “ex­otic” or for­eign good. In 1503 (17th year of the reign of the Hongzhi Em­peror of Ming), Span­ish friar Ramón Pané ar­rived in Amer­ica on board Christo­pher Colum­bus’s sec­ond ex­pe­di­tion. While there he saw some na­tives us­ing a thin pipe to sniff to­bacco pow­der into their noses, which was fol­lowed by ev­i­dent ela­tion. So Pané tried it once, and that was enough to get him hooked. Later set­tlers also fol­lowed suit, de­vel­op­ing a fond­ness for snuff, and even­tu­ally clever mer­chants be­gan con­duct­ing snuff busi­ness in south­ern coastal China. From there Ja­panese im­ported ship­ments, some of which made their way as far as the Korean Penin­sula.

The snuff sold in China was shipped di­rectly through Lu­zon (the Philip­pines), en­ter­ing through Guang­dong be­fore be­ing dis­trib­uted through­out the coun­try, in­clud­ing the cap­i­tal Bei­jing. As Guang­dong snuff and snuff­boxes had an early start and un­der­went rapid de­vel­op­ment, they earned a strong rep­u­ta­tion among the up­per classes of so­ci­ety.

The first name of “snuff” in China was a translit- er­a­tion thereof, then by the mid-qing Dy­nasty the name had changed to a word mean­ing “nose to­bacco”, due to the fact that it was in­haled through the nose, and this is the name which has since been used.

First let’s take a look at how snuff is made and con­sumed. High qual­ity to­bacco would be ground into fine pow­der, af­ter which var­i­ous fra­grant and medic­i­nal in­gre­di­ents would be added. For ex­am­ple, North Amer­i­can na­tives liked to add ground con­coc­tions of musk, gum of trees, and the bark of red wil­low, red hard­wood, yew and sumac, whereas the Chi­nese pre­ferred to use angelica, Chi­nese wild gin­ger, mint and cam­phol, all medic­i­nal in­gre­di­ents with fra­grant aro­mas and in­vig­o­rat­ing prop­er­ties. Qing roy­als, when struck with a cold or stuffed nose, would take a few sniffs to clear up their si­nuses.

Al­though it orig­i­nated from abroad, Qing Dy­nasty doc­tors recorded the ef­fects of snuff in var­i­ous man­ners, and praised it as a fine medicine that “cleared the lungs” and “re­lieved ob­struc­tion of the nasal cav­ity”. Snuff does in­deed have the abil­ity to make one feel re­vi­tal­ized. But if one be­comes ad­dicted to it harm­ful re­sults are sure to fol­low, as de­scribed in doc­u­mented phrases such as “if con­sumed in large quan­tity, neg­a­tive side ef­fects will oc­cur”.

And al­though it was im­ported, af­ter be­ing “lo­cal-

ized” in China, its pro­duc­tion be­came a unique art. In En­cy­clo­pe­diaofnewmedicine , snuff pro­duc­tion was recorded as fol­lows: first ad­e­quate quan­ti­ties of var­i­ous in­gre­di­ents are com­bined, then ground into fine pow­der. Through­out Qing times, both of­fi­cial and com­mon sources re­searched and de­vel­oped a wide ar­ray of snuff va­ri­eties, some of the broad cat­e­gories be­ing palace-style, West­ern-style, Guang­dong-style, and lo­cal-style. The main cri­te­rion for de­ter­min­ing the qual­ity of snuff was its color. Among the most pop­u­lar snuffs on the mar­ket, ap­ple-col­ored was con­sid­ered to be the best of the best, fol­lowed in order by teal, rose, and caramel.

A Mul­ti­tude of Snuffbox De­signs

Snuff was ex­pen­sive, for good rea­son. It was made from valu­able ma­te­ri­als, its pro­duc­tion was la­bor-in­ten­sive, and its fer­men­ta­tion process was lengthy, some­times tak­ing years, a decade, or even sev­eral decades. Since snuff it­self was so costly, the bot­tles which held it were of­ten of great value. Even­tu­ally snuff­boxes be­came a com­pet­i­tive item for the wealthy who wanted oth­ers to know just how wealthy they were.

Snuff­boxes were not orig­i­nally called by their present and most com­mon name, which in Chi­nese lit­er­ally means “snuff pots”, in­stead they were called “snuff bot­tles”. At the very be­gin­ning, they were not so ex­quis­ite, and were more or less just like small bot­tles used to hold pills or pow­ders. Af­ter snuff­boxes grew in pop­u­lar­ity, roy­alty and high-rank­ing of­fi­cials be­gan seek­ing snuff­boxes of dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als, such as crys­tal, mut­ton fat jade (white jade), agate or emer­ald for the body, with co­ral, pearl or cy­mo­phane (cat’s eye) for the stop­per.

Based on the records left be­hind by Qing Dy­nasty painter and seal carver Zhao Zhiqian in his work Yon

glux­i­an­jie (or Re­search­es­done­dur­ings­pare­time

in­tothe­re­al­mo­fy­onglu,god­ofthenose), we can be very cer­tain of the dif­fer­ent in­fer­ences be­hind var­i­ous ma­te­ri­als used for mak­ing snuff­boxes.

For snuff­boxes made out of pearl, it was re­quired that the pearl be the size of a chicken’s egg. De­pend­ing on where the pearl orig­i­nated from, its qual­ity and thus price would vary greatly. For ex­am­ple, pearls from

most of South­east Asia were red­dish in color; those from the re­gion west of Brunei and coastal In­dia were white; while those from the Bei­hai, Guangxi Zhuang Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion had a green-black tinge to them; and those from the Songhua River in North­east China were a pale gold color. Based on the qual­ity of the pearl used to make the snuffbox, com­bined with where the type of pearl orig­i­nated, an ed­u­cated guess could be made as to where the snuffbox was pro­duced.

For snuff­boxes made of stone, there was yel­low­ish stone from the me­te­orite crater in Xi­uyan County, Liaon­ing, Jinzhou stone which re­sem­bled sar­donyx, and Yun­jin stone from Yun­jin Lake. Ap­par­ently out of 10,000 such stones, it was dif­fi­cult to find a sin­gle one suit­able for a snuffbox. But if such a stone were found, it would be a ver­i­ta­ble mas­ter­piece of na­ture. Stones from out­side the Cen­tral Plain re­gion were also very suit­able for carv­ing, in­clud­ing Manas jasper from the deserts be­yond Ji­ayuguan Pass, and aven­turine from Italy. The Ital­ians em­bed­ded aven­turine with glass, which re­sulted in a par­tic­u­larly lovely ef­fect when used in craft­ing snuff­boxes. In 1725, such a snuffbox was of­fered to the Yongzheng Em­peror as a gift by Pope Bene­dict XIII.

For wooden snuff­boxes, typ­i­cally pi­geon pea seeds were used. Tree galls were best if a rus­tic tex­ture was de­sired. Even more greatly fa­vored than pi­geon pea seeds was fos­silized wood, with elm ap­par­ently ag­ing the best, fol­lowed by pine, and san­dal­wood also be­ing suit­able ma­te­ri­als.

Ce­ramic snuff­boxes were a spe­cialty among Chi­nese crafts­men. From the Kangxi era (1661–1722) on­ward, Jingde Town be­gan pro­duc­ing ce­ramic snuff­boxes in a dizzy­ing ar­ray of de­signs.

Snuff­boxes were dec­o­rated with im­ages such as “100 chil­dren”, court ladies, Bud­dhas, flora and fauna, and so on, all of which re­quired very metic­u­lous carv­ing work. The im­ages were highly de­tailed, stun­ningly re­al­is­tic, and dis­tinc­tively cap­ti­vat­ing.

Col­ors of snuff­boxes found at Qing mar­ket­places in­cluded red, yel­low, blue and green. In terms of hue, they had to be as white as porcelain, red as fire, yel­low

The pop­u­lar­ity of snuff to­bacco brought force to a boom­ing snuffbox in­dus­try. Crys­tal, white glazed porcelain, glass, blue-and-white porcelain, jade and many other ma­te­ri­als were ap­plied to pro­duce snuff­boxes with ex­quis­ite carv­ing and paint­ing, mak­ing them bril­liant art­works, not just sim­ple uten­sils.

as am­ber, blue as sap­phire, and green as jade, and need­less to say were all exquisitely beau­ti­ful.

Among all th­ese ma­te­ri­als, pale pink­ish gray was con­sid­ered the most de­sir­able, and snuff­boxes made of mut­ton fat jade could achieve this ef­fect. Due to its ex­tremely high price, only the most wealthy and pow­er­ful could af­ford it. The body of the bot­tle could be as smooth as a mir­ror, or finely carved and etched. Crafts­men, while carv­ing upon the bot­tle, re­gard­less of whether it was soar­ing dragons and phoenixes or fish danc­ing in a river, they would re­main metic­u­lously within the di­men­sions of the bot­tle, an im­pres­sive feat in its own right. Finely made snuff­boxes were gor­geous to be­hold, and had carv­ings on the out­side, as well as paint­ings on the inside of the neck and body.

In­te­rior paint­ing of snuff­boxes was the art that crafts­men painted on the in­te­rior walls of a snuffbox, which rose in pop­u­lar­ity in the late Qing Dy­nasty. A skilled painter could de­pict scenery, char­ac­ters, flora and fauna, and could write text. This fur­ther in­creased the level of dif­fi­culty in pro­duc­ing snuff­boxes, rais­ing the bar to en­try for craft­ing one, and re­strict­ing the art to only the most highly skilled crafts­men. A finely crafted snuffbox was cer­tain to be a mas­ter­piece. As for the size of snuff­boxes, here’s an in­ter­est­ing anec­dote. Prior to the mid-qing Dy­nasty, smaller snuff­boxes were pre­ferred, ones that could be held with one hand, and were del­i­cately lovely. But af­ter Ji­aqing’s rule (1796–1820), peo­ple be­gan to think that larger and more pre­sentable snuff­boxes were su­pe­rior. They even went so far as to craft enor­mous agate snuff­boxes that could hold two liters of snuff. Later snuff­boxes grad­u­ally re­verted to the orig­i­nally small and more prac­ti­cal trend.

An En­try Pass to High So­ci­ety

Through­out the dy­nas­ties, the wealthy class of China have al­ways been fond of com­par­ing their wealth. Dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty, this was a com­mon oc­cur­rence among roy­als at ban­quets. They would pluck the tiny snuff­boxes from their sash, and see whose was the most ex­quis­ite and valu­able. This was no mere game; any snuffbox that was wor­thy of par­tic­i­pat­ing in such

an eval­u­a­tion was cer­tain to be ex­tremely costly.

Ac­cord­ing to rec­ol­lec­tions from peo­ple dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty, some up­per-end snuff­boxes could be val­ued at up to 200 taels of sil­ver or more, which to the com­moner was an in­cred­i­ble sum of money. To put things in per­spec­tive, for the com­mon per­son to pur­chase a rel­a­tively fine snuffbox it would re­quire about two decades of salary, whereas roy­als would “wear sev­eral on their per­son, and swap them sev­eral times a day”.

The habit of com­par­ing snuff­boxes orig­i­nated among the Manchu roy­als and high-rank­ing au­thor­i­ties, af­ter which it spread among the lower tiers of so­ci­ety. Be­gin­ning in the Daoguang era (1821–1850), even com­mon folk had be­gun to col­lect snuff­boxes. Of course there was a large dis­crep­ancy be­tween the two classes, with the ma­te­ri­als and crafts­man­ship used in com­mon snuff­boxes not com­ing close to those sported by roy­alty, and even by the un­trained eye the two could be dis­tin­guished.

The pop­u­lar­ity of snuff­boxes in Qing times was so wide­spread, that even the Guangxu Em­press (reign­ing from 1875–1908) couldn’t re­sist join­ing in the pas- time. The Guangxu Em­peror had two early-morn­ing habits, the first be­ing drink­ing tea, the sec­ond sniff­ing snuff. Then, not un­til af­ter he had set­tled down for a while would he make his way to the im­pe­rial harem, namely to greet Em­press Dowa­ger Cixi.

Cixi was also fond of snuff, as por­trayed by Bei­jing opera artist Wang Yao­qing in a man­ban move that he cre­ated called “bead sniff­ing”, namely rais­ing the sleeve and in­hal­ing deeply, which is said to in fact have been based on Cixi’s predilec­tion for snuff. Cixi was an avid lover of Bei­jing opera, and had in­vited Wang Yao­qing to per­form for her, thus he had wit­nessed her daily habits first-hand.

This vir­tu­ally ubiq­ui­tous form of so­cial­iza­tion has now com­pletely and ut­terly be­come a thing of the past. We may won­der how snuff­boxes, in all their pop­u­lar­ity, af­ter the mid-guangxu era, grad­u­ally dis­ap­peared into ob­scu­rity. So what ex­actly hap­pened?

Af­ter the mid­dle of Guangxu’s reign in the late Qing Dy­nasty, snuff­boxes al­ready ex­hib­ited signs of de­cline.

The snuff in­dus­try had be­gun to wane, and large num­bers of skilled crafts­men and pro­duc­ers left the

trade to pur­sue other en­deav­ors. As a re­sult, snuff grew all the more ex­pen­sive, and any­one who wished to con­sume it would of­ten have to pay sev­eral times the orig­i­nal price to ac­quire only a por­tion of the pre­vi­ous amount.

Snuff had been ex­pen­sive to be­gin with, and now it had risen even more in price, thus draw­ing it out of reach of the av­er­age con­sumer. This is when cigars and rolled to­bacco ap­peared and quickly took over the mar­ket. Cigars were much more af­ford­able than snuff, more pleas­ing to smoke than snuff was to sniff, and were gen­er­ally ti­dier, as one didn’t have to worry about hav­ing pow­der all over one’s nose and lapel. Snuff was also hard on the nasal cav­ity, re­sult­ing in fre­quent nose blow­ing, and af­ter each sniff the nos­trils and the area be­low would be cov­ered in mu­cous. This was not highly con­ducive to the pref­er­ences of high so­ci­ety. One was trou­ble­some and un­pleas­ant in ap­pear­ance, while the other was con­ve­nient and re­lax­ing; this was likely one of the main rea­sons for which so­ci­ety grad­u­ally aban­doned snuff in fa­vor of smok­ing to­bacco.

To­day only a very small num­ber of peo­ple use snuff, but the tra­di­tional crafts­man­ship of snuff­boxes has been pre­served, and is greatly adored by many, as snuff­boxes are in­deed truly in­cred­i­ble works of crafts­man­ship, and are highly suited for col­lect­ing. Many of the pre­cious snuff­boxes owned by Qing roy­alty have made their way into the hands of the pub­lic, en­rich­ing the an­tique mar­ket, and giv­ing any­one the chance to own one. Many of th­ese were given as gifts or re­wards to one’s ser­vants, while many oth­ers changed hands due to war and other tur­moils. Con­se­quently, when­ever some­one holds a finely crafted snuffbox, which usu­ally has a time-worn yet still spec­tac­u­lar ap­pear­ance, one will most likely pon­der the pas­sage of its ex­is­tence, how it was used by its first owner, then who it be­longed to af­ter­wards, and won­der with amaze­ment at what the lives of those peo­ple must have been like.

The birth of a so­phis­ti­cat­edly crafted snuffbox is the re­sult of the ar­ti­san’s in­ge­nu­ity and heart­felt de­vo­tion. In the photo, an ar­ti­san is paint­ing on the in­ner wall of a snuffbox. With a tiny paint brush stick­ing into the tiny open­ing of snuffbox, the ar­ti­san can mag­i­cally add all kinds of vivid minia­ture im­ages and cal­lig­ra­phy on the in­ner wall of the snuffbox. Photo/ FOTOE


This is a por­trait of Ger­man com­poser Wil­helm Richard Wag­ner pinch­ing some snuff­ing to­bacco from his snuffbox and look­ing for­ward to a mo­ment of leisure. Photo/ Imag­ine China

An In­dian sorcerer is in­hal­ing pul­ver­ized to­bacco. To­bacco orig­i­nated in Amer­ica, and then was in­tro­duced to the world by Span­ish colonists. The way of con­sum­ing it was by sniff­ing. Il­lus­tra­tion/ FOTOE

Qing Dy­nasty White glazed porcelain snuffbox Wuhan Mu­seum

Qing Dy­nasty Crys­tal snuffbox with mon­key-carv­ing Wuhan Mu­seum

Qing Dy­nasty Porcelain snuffbox with col­or­ful paint­ing and cal­abash pat­tern Bri­tish Mu­seum

Qing Dy­nasty Blue-and-white porcelain snuffbox with sea­wa­ter and dragon pat­terns Bei­jing Haid­ian Mu­seum

Qing Dy­nasty White back­ground and red glass snuffbox Palace Mu­seum

Qing Dy­nasty Carved lac­quer­ware snuffbox Sichuan Univer­sity Mu­seum

This water­color paint­ing was painted dur­ing the 19th cen­tury. It de­picts a Qing Dy­nasty ped­dler sell­ing snuff to­bacco. Dur­ing this time, the preva­lence of snuff to­bacco gave birth to an en­tire com­mer­cial chain. Il­lus­tra­tion/ FOTOE

Chi­nese Wild Gin­ger

Dahurian angelica root


Pul­verised to­bacco


Photo/ Imag­ine China

The photo shows a snuffbox and snuff­ing to­bacco from the fa­mous “Yidecheng” Store of Tianjin.

This Qing Dy­nasty ivory snuffbox was fash­ioned into the shape of a fish hawk and is now housed in the Palace Mu­seum. Photo/ Dong­maiy­ing

The snuffbox was also fash­ion­able in other coun­tries. This emer­ald and gold-in­laid snuffbox once be­longed to Fred­er­ick II of Prus­sia. Photo/ Dong­maiy­ing

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