Master in a Bottle

The Works of Ding Erzhong (1865-1935)

Since the latter part of the twentieth century Ding Erzhong’s reputation as a master in the art of painting snuff bottles has been well established.  His lofty position was based partly on the obvious quality of his painting and calligraphy but also upon the discovery that he was a scholar and possibly an Official serving the late-Qing Court.  His new status set him above the other artists of the Beijing School of Zhou Leyuan of which he was a part, and until we learned more about the literati origins of the art form in the mid-Qing period, seemed to set him apart in the art-form as a whole.  Today we are aware that the art originated among scholar-artists of the mid-Qing period, and that the first prominent artist was also probably a scholar-artist (Yiru jushi, also known as Yunfeng, Banshan and Zhongchang).  Following him, the Lingnan school in Guangdong province was made up of known scholar-artists and we know now that it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the art form descended into commercialism for the first time.  We can also now raise the possibility of other scholar-artists working in the Zhou Leyuan school, Ziyizi among a small group of others (although as yet we have no solid proof of this). 

In the late-twentieth century snuff bottle enthusiasts were just beginning to recognize the high level of artistic input in their art-form, and we were still fighting the dismissive attitude of a Chinese art world that didn’t take our subject very seriously, if it bothered with it at all.  Ding’s lofty status as a literatus was something to which we could cling tenaciously.  Such was his perceived status, that when we came to realize that he was a commercial painter, accepting commissions and selling his snuff bottles, we felt we had to apologise for what we described in Treasury 4, as his ‘feet of clay’ defending him by saying that they did ‘nothing to diminish his own art.’  Today we are also able to see the entire picture more clearly and better understand  the scholar-class and the professional-class in late-nineteenth-century China. 

While a clear distinction between these two classes certainly existed to a much greater extent in earlier times, in the Qing it did not.  Such class structures had broken down almost completely by Ding Erzhong’s time and had become largely irrelevant in artistic terms.  Many merchants were highly educated and joined in the lofty pursuits of the literati (and were immensely influential in the snuff-bottle arts in the late-Qing); while many literati were commercially inclined, running businesses and producing art commercially.   Zhou Leyuan, for instance, was a life-long professional painter who arose out of the mid-nineteenth century Beijing Commercial School - the first school of inside-painters to produce thoroughly indifferent art - but he acted like a scholar-painter throughout the latter part of his immensely influential career (Ding Erzhong being among those he influenced).  On the other hand, we now know of a number of other artists who either certainly were, or appear to have been, scholars who produced snuff bottles commercially on a regular basis (eg. Zhou Honglai, the glass engraver1 ). 

Today we can move beyond the simplistic, anachronistic, and misleading belief that Ding had in some way debased his art by commercialism, while Zhou Leyuan rose above his commercialism to create high art.  Today we can judge the paintings with a clearer perspective and without prejudices based on earlier social realities and see Zhou Leyuan and Ding Erzhong as fellow masters of the school which arose out of the former and gave us the latter. 

Ding, like Zhou, remains one of the great masters of the medium, and his works command the respect they deserve.  At the Grimberg sale at Sotheby’s, New York, 14 September 2010 one of his masterpieces (lot 35) was bought by the collector Robert Chang for a price of US$170,500 - a record for Ding’s work, and the second most expensive inside painted bottle ever sold, surpassed only by Ma Shaoxuan’s portrait of Hao Shouchen from the J & J Collection.2

We first learned of Ding’s scholarly status from the biographical dictionary edited by Yu Jianhua.3  Today we have several more sources to add to Yu’s brief biography.4   We also have a record of a large group of his known works (well over one hundred in all, including paintings, calligraphy, seal-text carvings and bamboo fan-frames).   The main legacy of his status as a scholar is that he was recorded more seriously than commercial artists.  There are no literary records of Zhou Leyuan’s life or career - the lingering prejudice of an earlier age still favoured literary interest in the scholar class above commercial artists - but there are several of Ding’s.  Because of this we know more about him than about most artists in the field (the exceptions being Ma Shaoxuan, whose life is well-recorded by his grandson,5  and Ye Zhongsan and his family (one of his sons, Ye Bengzi was interviewed over a period of two weeks by Hugh Moss in Beijing in 1974 and further details have since been added by his surviving students).  

Ding Erzhong’s original name (ming) was 丁尚庾Ding Shangyu (also written as丁上庾Ding Shangyu), but he often used the sobriquet for much of his art he was signed with his alternative name (zi) 丁二仲Ding Erzhong.  According to one website, he had a studio called the 梅花山房 Meihua shanfang (‘Prunus Blossom Mountain Retreat.)6  This studio name does not appear on any of his snuff bottles although two others do (see below).  He lived from 1868-1935 (although Julia Murray and some websites gives his date of birth as 1865 suggesting an alternative possiblity).  His ancestral place of origin is Shaoxing in Zhejiang province.  His father served as a sub-official functionary in Tongzhou, Hebei, where the family lived while Erzhong was a child.  As he matured, he became fascinated by the art of calligraphy, and was interested in poetry.  Since Tongzhou was very near Beijing, he went there to find a teacher.  The Ding family was not wealthy, so as he sought training as an artist, he took to painting inside snuff bottles to make a living, since at that time the art was at a zenith of popularity in Beijing.  Inscriptions on Ding’s bottles establish his activities in the Capital by 1893 at the latest7, suggesting that by his mid-twenties he was already selling his inside painted bottles in Beijing.  The demand for inside painted snuff bottles was impacted by events in 1900 when the Allied Forces landed in Tianjin and marched upon Beijing, but it also impacted upon Erzhong specifically since his father was ordered to join the forces of resistance and was killed in the fighting.  With his father dead and commerce in Beijing in a slump, he took his mother south to Nanjing to look after her at the home of a maternal uncle, while he made new plans for the future.  At about the same time, cigarettes were becoming so popular that snuffing was beginning to fall out of fashion, so Erzhong turned from bottle painting to the painting of fans to earn a living.  It is also worth noting that the demand for inside-painted snuff bottles was much greater in and around Beijing, where they were produced in such large numbers, than it was elsewhere in the country.  Beijing had always been the centre of the snuff-bottle world, whereas Nanjing was in the Jiangnan area, a favourite of the literati where seal carving was probably much more in demand in the early years of the century than were inside-painted snuff bottles.

With radically reduced demand, his output of inside painted bottles slowed down from this time onwards, although he carried on producing bottles regularly until 1904, he only produced the occasional bottle thereafter.  There are single examples from each of the years 1905, 1906, 1908 and 1914, and nothing later. 

It was during the early 1900s that he began to concentrate his creative activities in other areas (calligraphy and painting, including fan painting) and, although the sequence of introduction awaits further research, seal carving and the carving of bamboo fan-frames, all of which bear his signatures.  (Ivory snuff dishes decorated with an engraved inscription bearing his name do not seem to be by him but by another contemporaneous micro-engraver using his name for unknown reasons, and there are also other more recent fakes in various media.)   His biographer notes several fans which ‘whether flowers, plants, or landscapes, all were done with the same kind of spontaneous brushwork, while the calligraphy, mostly 篆隸 zhuanli (characteristics of both seal and clerical scripts).’  He is also noted as emulating inscriptions on ancient sacrificial vessels from the Zhou dynasty, the 波磔bozhe (long downward to the left and right strokes) quite obvious.  His calligraphic style, again according to his biographer, was close to that of Li Mei’an (李瑞清 Li Ruiqing 1867-1920).   During the last years of the Qing dynasty, Mei’an served in Nanjing as Superintendent of Superior Normal Schools for the Liang-Jiang region (Jiangsu, Anhui, and Jiangxi) and concurrently as Commissioner of Education in Jiangning (Nanjing), which is why his reputation as a calligrapher became better known there and influenced Ding.  It was then that Erzhong improved his skill in making fan ribs (fan frames) so as to increase his range and income.  Already an accomplished writer of seal script, he learned to carve script on bamboo and sandalwood fan ribs, using the grain to enhance the effect.  He also began carving seal texts and became a major figure in this art-form in his day.  People praised him for his unrestrained boldness and new and unusual overall special effects, rarely found among earlier seal carvers.  In 1944 郭楓谷 Guo Fenggu in his 楓谷語印 Fenggu yuyin (Fenggu’s Views on Seals) said of Erzhong: “He is so crazy and unconventional that little in what he does can serve as a model for emulators.”    鄧散木 Deng Sanmu in his essay  齊白石與丁二仲  Qi Baishi yu Ding Erzhong (Qi Baishi and Ding Erzhong [1959]) says that the four seal carvers he most respects are 吳缶翁Wu Fouweng, 趙古泥Zhao Guni, Qi and Ding and that Qi and Ding went straight to nature and thus managed to escape from the set patterns of predecessors, so that their works show not the least sign of human artifice.  He added that Erzhong managed to salvage from the wreckage of tradition something utterly spontaneous and exciting in the way he freely worked concave and convex strokes in materials to form a new school of his own.  If one looks at the two seal impressions appended to Deng’s publication, 金石書畫巢 Jinshi shuhua chao (Metal and Stone Calligraphy and painting Nest) and 種桃仟館 Zhongtao qian guan (Planting Peach Trees in the Thousands Hall), the knife work is clear and strong, his talent for precision quite distinct, so it is readily apparent that Erzhong was an heir to the Zhe (Zhejiang) school of seal carving.  However, he was quite capable of working innovatively within that tradition so that occasionally with clear-cut force he carves away with such complete disregard to appearance that he lets the material determine the results.  As for his knife work, just as Deng says, “He sinks his knife into the empty spaces and makes interlaces of strokes.” 

Among Ding’s other accomplishments were, presumably, mastery of the qin as it is recorded that in 1920, when Erzhong was invited on a temporary basis to teach this instrument at the Superior Normal School in Nanjing, students so admired his seals that they begged him to carve seals for them.  He drank heavily late in life and thereby hastened his death. 

His seals were published posthumously by the brothers 朱喬岳 Zhu Qiaoyue and朱華岳 Zhu Hua yue as the [?]園印譜  [?] yun yinpu (Seal Catalogue from the [?] Garden) – we have been unable to trace this work anywhere, or trace the rare character giving the name of the garden.

We have suggested that he may have been an official, implying that in the late-Qing he achieved some success in the civil-service examinations but no such appointment is recorded and we may be misinterpreting his own terminology.  We made the assumption based on an inscription on a bottle in the J & J Collection(8).  In the ninth month of the year jiachen (1904), he states that he was ‘about to leave for a new post in the Eastern Feudatory Administrative Office.’  We took this to imply the possibility of government service, but he may be referring to a teaching post.  However it is interpreted, he was presumably posted away from Nanjing rather than Beijing at the time.

In Treasury 4 we looked at the extensive range of Ding Erzhong bottles in the Bloch Collection, tracing his beginnings from four surviving bottles from 1893.  They are too accomplished to have been training exercises, so it is likely he did his learning the year before and, being a serious artist, did not release any of his earlier attempts to master the art.  Three of the four indicate no date within the year, and on the forth, if there was a date indicated it was not recorded and we have no photographic record of the bottle, so it is possible that all date from late in the year and that his training may have taken up the earlier part. 

Both the painting and the calligraphy of some of these earliest works exhibit some hesitancy compared to his later works, but still surpass the standards achieved by many of the more commercial artists of the Beijing School of Zhou Leyuan at their best.

When writing at the capital, Ding often used the term ‘sojourning’ but this is standard practice for someone from elsewhere, even if they have settled for some time.  Despite the occasional travels elsewhere for whatever purpose, we can date his stay in Beijing from 1893 until he moved to Nanjing.  In two bottles dated to 1895, one dated to 1896 and one dated to 1898, he also identifies the district of Beijing as being Xuannan, the area to the south of the Xuanwu men, one of the ancient gateways to the city in the southwest of Beijing.  This is also where Zhou Leyuan had his studio.  Ding was obviously influenced to take up the art by Zhou’s success, as were all the artists of his school once he had lifted it out of the lowly commercial production of the mid-century Beijing Commercial School, but he was more specifically influenced by Zhou Leyuan, suggesting the two were known to each other, and possibly that Zhou even taught Ding the art in some manner.  Several of Dings subjects were borrowed from Zhou Leyuan, but more to the point, Ding produced at least two works which were actually signed with Zhou’s name, one making no pretence at his style, the other imitating it and doing so very well (see Ding Erzhong homage to Zhou Leyuan).

Ding began to paint during the last years of Zhou’s career, probably taking to the art around 1892 or early 1893.  He lived in the same part of Beijing as Zhou; he also borrowed both subject matter and style from Zhou Leyuan.  His popular still-life scenes incorporating auspicious objects, appearing on many of his earlier works, are drawn directly from Zhou’s idea and in many cases his style, although always with Ding’s own distinctive brushwork and individual variations.  The cockerel on a rocky outcrop which was part of Ding’s repertoire is taken directly from Zhou’s oeuvre.  Even Ding’s subject of cranes on a rocky outcrop with the pine tree above and peonies growing around the rock, can be seen as borrowed from Zhou, despite the individual style superimposed upon it.  Alerted to this possible source, we find many instances of a debt to Zhou Leyuan in all but his landscape paintings. 

(Click here for the images to accompany the text below) In signing his inside painted snuff bottles, and much of this applies to his output in other fields as well, although we have not done so exhaustive a study of them as yet, Ding used the name 丁二仲Ding Erzhong (fig. 1 — three versions); 二仲Erzhong (fig. 2 — three versions); 丁尚庾Ding Shangyu (fig. 3); Shang (just the middle character of fig. 3), 二仲庾Erzhong, yu (fig. 4), and 二仲弚丁尚庾Erzhong di Ding Shangyu (fig. 5).  His seals were excellent, legible and reasonably numerous, as befits a master seal carver.  They include 丁Ding in various forms (fig. 6 — four versions); 二仲Erzhong (fig. 7 — three versions); 二仲印Erzhong yin (‘seal of Erzhong’ — fig. 8); 印yin (‘seal’ — fig. 9), although he rarely used this on its own as did many other artists, and 太古Taigu (‘Extreme antiquity’ — fig. 10 ).  Two studio names which appear on his snuff bottles are: 銕硯齋  Tieyan zhai (‘Iron-inkstone Studio’) and 十七樹梅花山房  Shiqishumeihua shanfang (Mountain Abode of Seventeen Prunus)

1 Treasury 5, nos. 1049-1056.

2  Formerly in the Norton and Hugh Moss Collections, sold at Christie’s, Hong Kong, 25 April 2004, lot 861, where it made the equivalent of US$224,000).

3   Yu Jianhua, ed.  Zhonggguo meishujia renming cidian (‘Biographical Dictionary of Painters and Calligraphers’).  Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe, 1981.

4  Including Julia K. Murray, Last of the Mandarins.  Calligraphy and Painting from the F. Y. Chang Collection, where she accompanies a piece of calligraphy by Ding dated to 1932 with some biographical information (F. Y. Chang was a collector and connoisseur who knew Ding Erzhong as a professional seal carver later in his career and who commissioned many seals from him); Wang Bei’er’s, Zhuanke yishu; a work on seal-text carving; and the website which appears to be related to a work entitled  近代印人傳  Jindai yinren zhuan (Biographies of Contemporary Seal Carvers).  The likely author being 馬國權 Ma Guoquan (1995) but it is not clear where this particular essay comes from; it may be from a collection of essays, perhaps 名家談篆刻 Mingjia tan zhuanke (Famous Masters Discuss Seal Carving) by 鄧散木 Deng Sanmu, et al. – edited by 馬國權 Ma Guoquan, and published in Hong Kong by 商務印書館 Shangwu yinshuguan, in 2001.  We have drawn extensively from this biography.  The Chinese text of the website information on Ding Erzhong is:





陆维钊教授昔年曾语吾友林君云:民国九年(一九二○)彼人南京高等师范攻读时,丁氏受学校之聘,课余为诸生指导琴艺;学生中有慕其印,亦叩以篆刻者。二仲之於艺,可谓博矣。晚岁嗜酒,不幸於绘制《岁寒图》时突患脑溢血,遽尔辞世。殁後,朱乔岳、朱华岳昆仲广搜遗印,为刊《□园印谱》八卷行世。(一九九五年十月十三日 马国权)





陆维钊教授昔年曾语吾友林君云:民国九年(一九二○)彼人南京高等师范攻读时,丁氏受学校之聘,课余为诸生指导琴艺;学生中有慕其印,亦叩以篆刻者。二仲之於艺,可谓博矣。晚岁嗜酒,不幸於绘制《岁寒图》时突患脑溢血,遽尔辞世。殁後,朱乔岳、朱华岳昆仲广搜遗印,为刊《□园印谱》八卷行世。(一九九五年十月十三日 马国权)

5  Ma Zengshan (translated and annotated by Ka Bo Tsang).  Inside-Painted Snuff Bottle Artist Ma Shaoxuan (1867-1939). Baltimore: The International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society, 1997.

8  Moss, Graham, Tsang, The Art of the Chinese Snuff Bottle, no. 417.

Hugh Moss |