BACK in 18th-19th century China the fashionable people of the time all carried snuff bottles. These delicate items made of a variety of materials were intricately designed and painted.
In addition to their functionality, the small bottles were also a form of decoration and souvenir.
They encapsulated multiple traditional Chinese arts and crafts. Though not a native invention, it became popular in China soon after being brought into the country from the West. Chinese artisans later experimented with different materials and techniques to make bottles with local aesthetics, creating a special genre of art.
One of these techniques was inside painting – hand-painting on the inner wall of a bottle made of transparent mediums like glass, crystal, and agate. The painter used a curved-tip thin brush pen for the work. Understandably, the inner-painted snuff bottle was not meant to contain ground tobacco, and purely a work of art.
Painting on the inside of a miniature container is challenging, especially when the motifs can be as intricate as landscapes, insects, and human figures. The technique had been guarded as a secret of the industry and not disclosed to the public until the end of the last century.
Favored by the Emperor
In the 17th century, a German writer published an article in Leipzig, talking of a ridiculous trend sweeping the world snuff tobacco. He said that in all countries people of all classes, from the king to the pauper, used it. China was one of these countries.
Snuff is smokeless tobacco that is inhaled into the nasal cavity. It is made of ground tobacco leaves blended with additives, such as mint and borneol. The mixture is dried in the sun, fermented, and sifted before being stored in a cellar for years to mature. It is believed to have the medical effects of clearing excessive heat in the human body, relieving pain, reducing fatigue, and reinvigorating. Snuff was first brought into China by Western missionaries as a tribute to the emperor, and immediately favored by the royal family.
The first written record of snuff in China was dated in the reign of Qing Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722). A missionary sent him several gifts, he returned them all but the snuff. At the time snuff from the West was stored in metal boxes or glass bottles. A box as a container of pulverized tobacco has the defects of poor insulation which caused faded aroma over time – and higher chances of spilling. Kangxi therefore hired a group of Western artisans to make glass bottles in the Forbidden City in Beijing, which he collected himself and also handed out to his officials as awards.
The Qing rulers after Kangxi all enjoyed snuff, and naturally, snuff bottles. For instance, Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), an art buff, was a connoisseur of these miniature flasks. He summoned the best potters in the country to make porcelain snuff bottles in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province, and personally selected the motifs and designs. During his reign, the art and technique of snuff bottle making reached a pinnacle.
Affection of the top leader fueled the development of snuff bottles. Chinese artisans exploited various mediums, ranging from precious metals to jade and wood, and applied diversified embellishing techniques, including painting, carving, enamel, and gem inlaying to create exquisite bottles.
It was a trend among Qing aristocrats to carry a snuff bottle, and fondle it from time to time. The artifact therefore became a status symbol, and its production was further improved. Those made by well-known artists were sought after at exorbitant prices.
New Techniques Developed
As the trend of using snuff extended from the royal court to the general public, so did the love for snuff bottles. But the commoners could not afford those made of expensive materials. By that time glass-making techniques had matured, which significantly brought down the cost. Glass bottles hence became the favorite option for average people. This led to the rise of painting inside the bottles.
There is no historical record about how and when inside painting began. Insiders cite a story that has been passed down in the trade for centuries: a poor scholar ran out of snuff, and had no money for more. So he scraped his snuff bottle for the remnants with a tiny spoon, leaving scratches on its inner wall. This inspired a monk who saw the bottle. Using a curved bamboo strip tipped in pigments, he drew on the inside of snuff bottles, hence inventing the inside painting technique.
The oldest snuff bottles still in existence with inside paintings are dated to 1801-1811. Paintings on the early ones are simple, because it is difficult for ink and paints to remain on the untreated, slippery glass surface. Later people learnt to sand the inner glass with silicon carbide and iron sand, making painting easier and leading to a thriving art form. Any subject matter of Chinese painting, be it landscapes, flowers, birds, or human figures, can be reproduced on the inside of a trinket that can comfortably fit into a palm. This technique dating back 200 years has been passed down to current artists.
Work of Magic Hands
A trade secret until this century, the technique of inside painting was a mystery to outsiders. The artist has to manipulate a brush through the narrow neck of the bottle that is no more than a quarter inch across and write and paint in reverse in a space only one or two inches high. It takes supreme care to keep the brush at the right angle when running it across a glass surface. A slip would ruin the whole process. People outside the trade therefore deemed the technique uncanny, and nicknamed inside-painted snuff bottles the bottle painted by goblins.
Yang Zhigang, a native Beijinger, is the fourth-generation snuff bottle painter in his family. Having practiced for 30-plus years, he said that what makes an inside painter is a solid foundation of fine arts and rigorous training.
Inside painting needs a special brush. Yang showed us a range of brushes all with a slim handle made of bamboo, wood, or silver, and the pointed tip of the brush is attached at a 80-90 degree angle. They vary slightly in size and design, each for different purposes. Yang said that inside painters make their brushes themselves to ensure the tool is suitable for individual needs.
To learn reverse painting, the first step is to learn how to maneuver the brush. It is much different from the usual way of writing or painting, in which the tip of the pen goes in the same orientation of our sight. But for reverse painting, the tip of the brush moves against the direction of sight on the inside wall of a tiny bottle, Yang explained. Deftly handling the brush is critical for reverse painting. Its not until one has full control of his/her brush to produce strokes of desired breadth, shape, and density that the artist can move on to the more sophisticated phases of inside painting study.
Yang said that inside painting is actually not as mysterious and onerous as many think. The most important quality for an inside painter is the patience to remain seated for long hours and work on fine details over a miniature space. It normally takes a dozen days to complete a work. Any faulty stroke is irreversible, resulting in rinsing the bottle and restarting the work. It is a test of the artist willpower.
Passing Down the Ancient Art
It is an artistic revolution to "transplant" ink paintings originally on silk and paper onto the inside of palm-sized glass bottles, producing a condensed version of the universe imbued with oriental aesthetics and philosophy. The snuff bottle, a mundane object, has been transformed into an icon of beauty and artistic imagination.
Yang often ponders over the question: How to introduce inside-painting on snuff bottles to more people and recruit youths to learn the technique so that the ancient art can be inherited by future generations? So when he got the news in 2005 that inside painting on snuff bottles was applying to be listed as an intangible cultural heritage, he suspended all other work to join the application team.
Prior to that, inside painting on snuff bottles was no more than a job for me, and I had never given a second thought to the historical stories told by my master. In the days when I combed through files to trace the entire process of its evolution, I realized its value and cultural significance, Yang said.
In 2007, the Beijing-style inside painting on snuff bottles was nominated an intangible cultural heritage of Beijing; the next year, it was included on the national intangible cultural heritage list. This boosted Yangs confidence to pass down this ancient art.
In cooperation with the intangible cultural heritage preservation center of Beijing's Xicheng District, Yang regularly gives inside painting courses, and makes presentations at local schools. He has also taken on 16 students, all young people who have an interest in inside painting on snuff bottles. Still Yang believes that more has to be done to help the art survive and thrive in the new era.
(Compiled by China Today)