SNUFFBOX: SMOKING WITH A TINY BOTTLE
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
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
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