Confusion from the Grave

CONFUSION FROM THE GRAVE Hugh M. Moss Over the years I have frequently heard snuff bottles described as dat– ing from well before the snuff-taking period (which broadly coincides with the Qing dynasty). The usual rationale for this is that the bottle was an earlier medicine bottle pressed into later ser– vice by a snuffer. 1his r.ationale has al– lowed the overenthusiastic optimist– or the villain- to represent any bottle that happened to look very old be– cause of material ancVor style in such a way as to impart a Ming, Song, or sometimes even Han resonance to an otherwise often unexciting work of art. The same r.ationale has been ap– plied more broadly to a wide range of porcelain bottles made in the mid- to late-Qing period that bear no marks. These have frequently been dated to the Ming dynasty. Both groups have been claimed as medicine bottles. Over the years I have looked at these so-called medicine bottles and invariably found them to be perfectly str.aightforward Qing productions fol– lowing the ubiquitous Chinese– tice of looking to the past for stylistic inspir.ation. A certain kind of nephrite pebble, of green and brown tones, so fulfilled this archaizing aesthetic that it earned the description, which survives today, of 'Han jade,' and was a recognized material reference to a golden past. Archaism (the use, refinement, and reinterpretation of ancient decorative motifs) permeated Chinese art from the Song dynasty onwards and was fa– vored by the influential minority that defined and patronized art. It was nat– ural for a piece of material that might pass as ancient, such as so-called 'Han jade' or any other pebble of nephrite the calor of which made it look like material that might have been used centuries earlier, to be decorated with an archaic motif. Immediately the stage is set for the uninitiated in the subtleties of archaism (and it is one of the most arcane of languages in Chi– nese artistic communication) to be– lieve they are handling a bottle made long before the introduction of snuff to China. Set a stage before a large group of collectors, mOSt of whom would far r.ather something they owned was Han or Song than mere Qing, !Jow– ever illogiCal that might be in fact, and it will soon be overflowing with actors holding their precious pre– Qing 'snuff bottles.' With my interest in the entire range of Chinese arts and as I am now col– lecting anything from Neolithic pot– tery to twentieth century paintingS, my view of what is and isn't possible or likely in snuff bottles is not based on the field of snuff bottles alone. When looking at a bottle for which a Ming or earlier claim is made, I am therefore in a position to say not only that it is likely as a Qing product but that it is not likely or, sometimes, not possible as a Ming, Song, or Han work of art. On this basis, I have always considered such claims to be unfounded. My attitude has been, for at least Fig. 1. 'Amber bonle.' 28 the last twenty years, t1,at although small bottles might have been used prior to 1644 for a variety of purposes, those that could be confused with snuff bottles are extremely rare. In– deed, my own experience suggests that medicine bottles, which certainly existed for they are frequently la– belled with the type of medicine con– tained, insofar as they might be confused in form with snuff bottles, evolved to that form because of the popularity of the snuff bottle in the Qing dynasty. In short, very little pre– dating the snuff bottle period of the Qing dynasty could reasonably be confused with a snuff bottle. Even conversions of pre-Qing carv– ings, such as handling pieces and pa– perweights, to snuff bottles are in my experience quite rare. Most such con– versions appear to be of quite late carvings, predominantly of the snuff bottle period. I have made a point, over the years, of searching through archaeological publications from China for anything excavated from a pre-Qing tomb t1m might be mistaken for a snuff bottle -a pr.actice I still follow. In twenty years I have not come across a report of anything that, were it hiding in a snuff bottle collection, would be mis– taken for Qing dynasty. Indeed, I have come across very few small bottles of any kind that might have been the presumed 'medicine bottles' of earlier times. Until now! Ab well, the best of theories, unless so gener.alized as to be virtually worthless in our everyday lives, seems doomed always to be replaced by another if we wait long enough. Wim Wu, one of two regular jour– nals of archaeology published in China, blew my theory out of the wa– ter in short order by publishing (Wim Wu, No. 11, 1987) an amber bottle,