The Movement of Snuff

by Jennifer Chen-su Huang

Collectors around the world are often enamored by the intricate details of Chinese snuff bottles. These carefully crafted bottles were made of many different materials including porcelain, jade, rhinoceros horn, ivory, wood, tortoiseshell, glass, metal, among others. While this artform is largely associated with the Qing Dynasty, snuff bottles owe their existence to international contact and trade.

Enamel-on-glass snuff bottle by Ye Bengqi, circa 1938, from The Chepsted Notebook: A Collection of Chinese Snuff Bottles

Snuff, or powdered tobacco, has its origins in the Americas. European explorers and traders, particularly the Spanish and the Portuguese, spread the cultivation of tobacco across the globe. By the 1500s, snuff already had many royal patrons in Europe, including Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France and wife of King Henry II. The Queen was introduced to tobacco by the French scholar, Jean Nicot, whom Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus would later name the tobacco plant after, hence the name of the chemical ingredient found in tobacco, nicotine. It is unclear when snuff arrived in China. Some claim that tobacco was introduced to Asia in the late sixteenth century, when the Spanish brought the crop to the Philippines. Other sources state that tobacco was introduced to the royal court in Beijing by the Portuguese during the mid to late sixteenth century. In either case, by the seventeenth century, tobacco had become a regular import in China with the use of snuff and snuff bottles being especially popular among the elite. By the late eighteenth century, snuff had spread to every social class throughout the country, thereby boosting the production of decorative snuff bottles.

Snuff bottles were adapted from snuff boxes commonly used in Europe during that time. While European aristocrats kept their snuff in small gilded boxes, this sort of container did not suit the humid climate in Asia. In order to keep moisture out, the Chinese turned to miniature bottles to hold their snuff. These bottles were most likely adapted from Chinese medicine bottles that had a small mouth and smooth edges, which prevented the dried tobacco from spoiling quickly or becoming damaged by the sharp corners of the box.

Even though smoking tobacco was illegal during the Qing Dynasty, snuff quickly became a regular staple of Chinese society. It was considered to be a remedy for colds, headaches, and stomach disorders, and nearly everyone carried a small snuff bottle with them. It was common to offer snuff as a way to greet friends and relatives. Thus, decorative snuff bottles became coveted commodities and markers of wealth and status. 

Many of these detailed snuff bottles created during the Qing Dynasty feature tiny mythic symbols alongside calligraphic inscriptions. As they were made to be held, snuff bottles were accessed by their tactile qualities as well. In addition to being visually appealing and materially valuable, it was important that the snuff bottle also be pleasant to touch. As a result of these qualities and characteristics, snuff bottles required a great deal of skill and time to craft. Though the use of snuff decreased in popularity after the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, these snuff bottles are still highly valued and have become collectable art objects.

View and read about an assortment of intricate snuff bottles through our books.