Coconut-Shell Snuff Bottles

Fig. 1. Signed by Yunshan. 4 C oconut-shell Chinese snuff bottles present special challenges to the connoisseur when it comes to dating and attribution. Part of their appeal lies in the fact that they seem to have been carved and signed by ordinary members of the literate elite and not by anonymous artisans working in imperial or private workshops. Indeed, the relative simplicity of their construction, most of them being made of two curving segments of coconut shell held together by glue, bamboo pegs or a combination of the two, makes it conceivable that they were constructed, in many cases, by the same persons who carved them: do-it-yourself snuff bottles for personal enjoyment or presentation to friends. The research on Yangzhou overlay-glass snuff bottles we published recently in these pages 1 provides an instructive contrast. Those snuff bottles clearly required a specialized workshop to produce them, and workshops require patrons or customers. The names and seals that appear on the glass-overlay bottles generally belong to the patrons who ordered them, probably over the course of several years, not to the glassmakers who made them; these people were obviously wealthy enough to order personalized snuff bottles, and it is no surprise that with persistence and good luck we can identify many of them, for they were office holders, rare-book collectors, owners of well-known gardens, philanthropists, and businessmen, and any one of these identities would be enough to leave traces in the rich documentary record that Chinese civilization seems to produce as part of its genius. Coconut-shell snuff bottles, because they so often feature the names of both the carver and the person to whom the bottle is to be presented, would seem to offer even more clues to tie them to particular people, dates, and places, but in most cases the courtesy names or sobriquets used are either not found in the written record or, equally vexing, are associated with individuals so numerous and mentioned so fleetingly in the texts available to us that there is no way to decide which, if any, is our “ person of interest. ” For example, there are two known bottles signed with the name Yunshan (one written 云山 , one 雲山 , but both probably by the same person), a name that is known to have been used by approximately twenty late Qing and early Republican individuals. One bottle ( fig. 1 ) is dedicated to a Rongsheng 榮生 , giving us the tantalizing hope that if we can identify a Rongsheng who lived at the same time as one of the people using the name Yunshan and, ideally, place them in the same location at some point in their lives, we would know who carved the bottle for whom. This matching of individuals was our first tack in researching coconut-shell bottles. In this case we found that among the people who used the name Yunshan, there was a Wang Du 王度 who lived from 1896 to 1978; he was a sculptor who decorated buildings around the lower Yangzi Delta; he was also a painter and studied woodworking. So here was an artist who was at home with cutting tools. Among the people who used the name Rongsheng was an inkstone carver named Chen Jie 陳介 (1892–1959), commonly called Chen Duanyou 端友 . He lived in Shanghai, although he was a native of Changshu 常熟 , near Suzhou. We note that the bottle is dedicated to “ fourth elder brother ” Rongsheng and that Chen Jie was four years older than Wang Du and they were active in the same general region and shared an interest in the plastic arts. Therefore, this is a possible match. We are far from proving that Wang Du knew Chen Jie, however, and if Yunshan was such a common name among identifiable people, we have to assume that there were many other Yunshans unknown to us who could have carved this bottle. An additional consideration is that, as with several other bottles we have examined for this study, if we accept these identifications for this particular bottle, we push the practice of carving coconut- COCONUT-SHELL SNUFF BOTTLES, PART I Hugh Moss and Stuart Sargent