Response and Responsibility

10 I n more than forty years of exploring the mysteries of the Chinese snuff bottle, I have published a fairly constant stream of information. Inevitably some of it has turned out to be wrong. That is the nature of research and, like the scientist, the art historian has a license to be wrong. The process of learning is one of correcting past mistakes; it may be momentarily embarrassing to do so, but it is the only way forward. Knowledge is a journey, never a destination, and unless we face these blushing moments of reassessment, that journey is likely to be painfully slow. I would be standing here until the next convention if I had to go over every mistake I have ever made, but in any case that is not necessary. Continuous publication updates responses to new data and corrects past mistakes. What I would like to do is look at two particular groups of bottles where a major reassessment now seems sensible. As so often while there is some bad news, there is also some good news. One of the groups of bottles comes under ever greater suspicion, while the other turns out to be much more important and exciting than we previously had thought. In trying to sort out these problems it is worth bearing one certainty in mind: what I say today will not be the final word on the subject any more than it was the final word on the subject when I got it wrong in the first place and still managed to convince myself that I was right. The two groups I will deal with here are the bronze bottles signed by Cheng Rongzhang and dated to the first decade of the Qing century. The popular part of the functional phase (defined as the growing innovative input of a non- Imperial production) can then be seen as occurring from around the mid-eighteenth century to the early Republican period. These phases, of course, overlap; one does not replace the other overnight. As the Beijing school of inside-painted snuff bottles demonstrates, along with other significant late Qing trends, the art was still evolving “into the first decade of the twentieth century with a market of snuff-takers in mind, even if they did not form the only market at the time. The non-functional phase, again, overlaps the latter part of the functional phase. At some time in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Chinese began to value certain old bottles and to collect them, even if they also intended to use them. At the same time foreigners began to buy snuff bottles primarily as curiosities, thereby creating a market for bottles as works of art and marking a collectors ’ phase. This collectors ’ market led to the making of some spectacular snuff bottles, including many made in Japan from 1853 onwards. The first obvious indications of the deliberate faking of earlier snuff bottles, whether for a domestic or foreign market, are from the Daoguang period, while production of bottles purely for foreign collectors intensified “during the rest of the century and continues to the present day, accelerating as values for genuine examples increase. The first dynasty, and the enameled glassware associated with the Republican faker Ye Bengqi. Before addressing these, however, it is useful to offer an overview of the evolution of the snuff bottle and, particularly, of faking. The snuff bottle was invented whenever the first Chinese snuff- taker put his snuff in a bottle; whether it was made for that purpose or was an existing container is irrelevant. Present evidence suggests that the custom-made snuff bottles was a development of the second half of the seventeenth century. From then until the mid-nineteenth century, the snuff bottle was in a continual state of evolution governed primarily by function; to whatever extent it was a work of art, a snuff bottle also had to be practical and capable of holding and preserving snuff in a suitable state. It also had to be portable and comfortable to use. Snuffing was mainly a courtly habit during the earlier part of this functional phase and remained so well into the second half of the eighteenth century. The court continued to dominate the art even into the Daoguang period, despite the rapid mid-Qing spread of snuff-taking to the wider population. The first signs of the gradual shift of the snuff bottle arts to the populace at large began, of course, long before the mid- Qing period, but in general terms this first, courtly phase (defined as a constant innovative evolution fueled by Imperial production) took place from the late seventeenth to the early nineteenth RESPONSE AND RESPONSIBILITY: REASSESSING THE PAST Hugh M. Moss Editor’s Note : This lecture was delivered at the Philadelphia convention on Tuesday, October 12, 2004.