Snuff bottles are not native to China but were reportedly introduced from the West by Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit father who worked in Beijing in the early 17th century. Yet the art of interior painting in snuff bottles was born and developed in China and unique to the country.
A popular story tells of how the art originated. In the Qing Oynasty, an official addicted to snuff stopped on his way at a small temple for a rest. When he took out his crystal snuff bottle to take a sniff, he found it was already empty. He then scraped off a little of the powder that had stuck on the interior wall of the bottle by means of a slender bamboo stick, thus leaving lines on the inside visible through the transparent wall. A young monk saw him at this and hit upon the idea of making pictures inside the bottle. Thus a new art was born.
The "painting brush" of the snuff bottle artist today is not very different from what the official in the story used at the beginning. It is a
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slender bamboo stick, not much thicker but much longer than a match, with the tip shaped like a fine-pointed hook. Dipped in coloured ink and thrust inside the bottle, the hooked tip is employed to paint on the interior surfaces of the walls, following the will of the painter.
The art became perfected and flourished towards the end of the Qing Dynasty at the turn of the century. Curio dealers began to offer good prices to collect them for a profit.
Snuff bottles are small in size, no more than 6-7 cm high and 4-5 cm wide, yet the accomplished artist can produce on the limited space of the internal surfaces any subject on the whole gamut of traditional Chinese painting-human portraits, landscapes, flowers and birds-and calligraphy. Liu Shouben, a celebrated contemporary master in this field, succeeded in painting all 108 heroes and heroines of the classical novel Water Margin, each with his or her characteristic expression, all inside of one single bottle!