The World in a Bottle in the World

4 M ost readers of this journal will have come across at some time or another the old Chinese tale about the Daoist master who sells medicine in the marketplace of the capital and disappears every night into his gourd bottle, a bottle where an entire world exists apart from our human realm. If this story has become a commonplace in the context of snuff bottles, surely this is in part because snuff bottles offer us an aesthetic realm of beauty and meticulous craftsmanship that transcends the time and place of their manufacture—a world within a bottle. At the same time, however, snuff bottles tell us a great deal about the worldly context of their manufacture, either directly, through inscriptions, subject matter, and seals, or indirectly, through their materials, shape, and decoration. Hence our rather ungainly title: at the end of the Qing empire we find a new group of bottles whose common characteristic is their explicit identification of the people who caused them to be made; the people to whom they were to be given as gifts; the people or studio that made them; or some combination of these. In other words, they tell us how they were in their world. Their world was no longer primarily that of the snuffing imperial lineage or the recipients of imperial gifts. The mid-Qing period had seen a major shift in patronage in the snuff- bottle world. From the time snuff- taking first became popular in the late seventeenth century, fostered by the emperor and those around him, the court was the major influence on snuff bottle production, types, and design. Snuffing had probably spread beyond the Beijing area not long after it took hold at the court, helped by every returning official who took the habit home with him. Along with the snuff went snuff paraphernalia, for which imperial taste set the standard during the mid-Qing period, from the second half of the eighteenth century into the Daoguang period. The Taiping Rebellion, which began in 1850 and engulfed much of the economic and cultural heartland of the empire, constituted a fourteen- year period during which the ability of the court to influence anything at all in large parts of the country was negligible. Many centers of snuff bottle production that had served the court were reduced to ruin. Nanjing and Yangzhou fell to the rebels in 1853; the porcelain metropolis of Jingdezhen, with its imperial kilns, fell in the mid-1850s. In the period of reconstruction after the rebellion was suppressed in 1864, wealthy merchants, scholars, and local officials finally replaced the court as arbiters of taste and as patrons of snuff bottle manufacture; they even joined professional craftsmen as makers and decorators of bottles. The rebellion had disrupted demand and production throughout much of central China, but by the late 1860s the situation had begun to improve. The term Tongzhi Restoration ( 同治­中興 ) is sometimes applied to the revival of the arts in this period, but the artistic renaissance continued well beyond the Tongzhi reign (1861–1875) and its ultimately unsuccessful reforms in government and modernization. In the arts, the period is perhaps better framed as a post-Taiping renaissance. It would be a mistake to think new artists and patrons appeared from nowhere to fill the vacuum left by waning imperial influence. If we look back to the mid- Qing period, we can discern that some of these significant new trends began to coalesce out of what had earlier been only the occasional and rare exception to imperial influence. Let us look first at the ways in which snuff bottles were personalized. As any experienced collector knows, snuff bottles announced their imperial origins primarily through reign marks. In actuality these were rather vague indicators of levels of imperial interest. To be sure, the Qianlong emperor notably expanded personal imperial expression on works of art with his predilection for adding inscriptions and various designations noting his level of involvement. But otherwise, snuff bottle production was largely anonymous and often lacked even a reign mark. Occasionally the emperor, a member of his family, or a wealthy official might have his studio name inscribed on a bottle to indicate ownership, but such cases were very much the exception to the rule of anonymity of both maker and user. As influence over snuff bottle production shifted away from the court, a broader group of patrons came to play a more important role. Their interest was not the projection of imperial power, although, like the court, they could demonstrate economic power through the use of expensive materials linked to exquisite craftsmanship. But there was another kind of power that could be concretized in snuff bottles made of many kinds of materials, often without specialized technical training. This power was the cultural capital that a person accumulated through education and expressed in literary or artistic achievement, the kind that was not diminished by China ’ s military weakness, crumbling infrastructure, or political incompetence. The new styles favored by these non-imperial patrons afforded, at the very least, The World in a Bottle in the World at the End of the Qing Empire. Part 1: New Patrons, New Artists Hugh M. Moss and Stuart H. Sargent