An Overview of Qing Glass

14 Hinted at in this early source is a fact which is confirmed by many later sources: the habit of snuffing was centered at court, and the ruling elite of Manchus and their Chinese civil servants played the major role in its early evolution. As late as 1774, the European missionary, Amiot, noted that snuff taking was a habit more or less restricted to Beijing. Elsewhere Amiot proves himself to be a somewhat unreliable observer, but this seems to have been generally true of the early Qing period even if, by the time of Amiot ’ s letter, the habit had begun to spread further afield than he suggests. Whatever the history of the snuff bottle prior to the establishment of the Imperial glassworks at Beijing in 1896, and whatever fate the jury has in store for the Shunzhi bronze bottles, we can be certain of the important role glass played in the evolution of the snuff bottle from the 1690s onwards. I have spent the last two years focused on Qing glass for the fifth volume of the Bloch catalogue. 2 What follows is a brief overview of Qing glass snuff-bottle production. “ Blochbuster Five, ” as it has become affectionately known, covers nearly four hundred glass snuff bottles, the history of later Chinese glass in general, and all published primary sources touching upon the subject that I have been able to find, set out in chronological order. This research has allowed me to examine the important role glass played in the evolution of the snuff bottle by approaching the subject from a chronological point of view. Few glass snuff bottles can be precisely dated, and far fewer still can be related to specific records in the Imperial archives. However, we can identify the general types produced at certain times interspersed with those rare and valuable landmarks where we can either date or place production with reasonable precision. In most cases, and especially with undecorated bottles, while we can be reasonably certain of a specific type being made at a certain time, we cannot be sure that the particular bottle illustrated is necessarily of that period. While we are as yet unable to identify with any certainty a single Imperial yellow glass bottle from the Kangxi period, Wang Shizhen ’ s publication proves that it was a color produced by 1702. Thanks to recent research by Emily Byrne Curtis and Yang Boda we know that the Imperial glassworks was set up at Canchikou, near the Xi ’ an Gate in the year 1696. There is some ambiguity over when precisely this new glassworks began producing wares, but it appears that at least some glasswares were being produced by the end of that year. I refer throughout to the “ Imperial glassworks ” rather than the “ Palace glassworks ” only because while it was situated within the Imperial City, it was outside the Palace itself, or the Forbidden City, unlike other Palace Workshops. The role the European missionaries played in the establishment and ongoing glory of the glassworks is well established by Curtis and Yang and need no longer be debated. The glassworks was situated on a plot of land granted to the Jesuits in 1693 by the Kangxi Emperor in thanks for having cured him of malaria 3 and was under the directorship of Kilian Stumpf from its inception probably until his death in 1720. Other European missionaries were involved and some European laymen, and their involvement continued until shortly before 1760, by which time only Chinese glassmakers remained. While the influence of the Missionaries is undoubted, so are the skills of the Chinese working alongside them in the early years. Co-opted from Guangzhou or Boshan, two established glassmaking centers, the numbers of these Chinese glassworkers grew steadily from 1696 into the early Qianlong period. Very shortly after the glassworks was set up, skilled Chinese workers seem to have outnumbered their European counterparts, but there were obviously certain difficult technical skills they may have lacked. In 1770, the Qianlong Emperor asked if two chandeliers designed and produced as scale models could be made, and received the reply: “ Barely. ” They were, in fact, made but inadequate workmanship prompted the Emperor to reduce the agreed fee. Yang Boda concludes that standards had fallen because the missionaries were no longer involved. 4 An important point needs to be made at this stage, which is crucial to our understanding of mid-Qing glass production. A clear picture of the development of Qing glassmaking has, I believe, been greatly obscured by a failure to separate the evidence pertaining to glassmaking from that related to glass decorating. On the broad range of carved glass, the two are entirely separate and it is possible for the former to be in decline while the latter flourishes. Yang Boda proposed that Qing glassmaking reached its peak for a brief period in the Qianlong reign, building on the steady progress of the Kangxi and Yongzheng reigns. 5 Once the Jesuits were no longer involved, he suggests that glassmaking began to decline. This is an influential opinion and has become the standard interpretation. It is true, however, only of the glassmaking technology—what happens in the way of carving thereafter has nothing to do with glassmaking technology. Surface decoration represents the skills of the lapidary or diamond-point engraver, skills that flourished at a high level long after the decline in glassmaking technology set in. We tend to judge a carved, cameo overlay glass vessel for its quality of carving rather than for the relatively simple level of glass technology it represents and may be in danger of confusing a high quality of lapidary skills with a high level of glass technology. What is clear from a study of the Bloch glass bottles is that while glass technology and the skills to produce certain massive and complex forms declined during the mid-Qianlong reign, this had no affect whatsoever on snuff bottles. The glass technology involved in the production of the vast majority of snuff bottles was such that Chinese workers could continue to produce them to the highest standards long