Chinese Snuff Bottles




The story of Chinese snuff bottles stems from a curious and interesting cultural development that occurred during the last years of the Ming Dynasty (AD 1368 -1644). In 1639, Emperor Chongzhen (who reigned as the 17th and last Ming Emperor from 1627 to 1644) issued a national ban against smoking tobacco and stipulated that tobacco addicts faced death penalty. In 1673, Qing Dynasty Emperor Kangxi expanded the death penalty even to those who simply possessed smoking tobacco.


Curiously enough, possession and use of snuff (powdered tobacco, sometimes mixed with herbs and spices) was considered exempt from these prohibitions, as the Chinese considered snuff to be a medicine rather than an addictive substance, a remedy for common illnesses such as colds, headaches and stomach upsets. Snuff became then immensely popular and was carried around (much like other medicines) in a small bottle. 


The snuff bottles we have selected for this catalogue are masterpieces of great artistic accomplishment and beauty. As in all Chinese arts and crafts, motifs and symbols play an important part in decorative detail.


Symbols on these snuff bottles are derived from a multitude of sources such as legends, history, religion, philosophy, and superstition.


The ideas used are almost always directed toward bringing wealth, health, good luck, longevity, even immortality to the owner of the artefact. Mythological creatures and animals feature extensively in this selection. Bamboo is also a frequent motif, because of its durability and evergreen nature associated with ideas of longevity.


Each of these bottles is a work of art: an accomplishment of a master carver, a master painter, or of a master artist. Still today if the connoisseur invests time in studying these artefacts, they became veritable gateways to the world of the Qing Dynasty.