Chinese began using inside-painted (with miniature paintings and/or carvings on the inner surface) snuff bottles during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The small snuff bottles, made from rubies, sapphire, coral, agate and other precious materials, embodied not only the creators' wisdom and imagination, but also the unique culture of the Chinese nation.
According to legend, a minor official from South China stayed in a temple in Beijing while he was on a business trip. One night, he used a needle-like stick to pick snuff left in a bottle. As a result, many scratches were left on the inside of the bottle. A monk noticed the scratches, and he burned one end of a needle-like bamboo stick, then he used a knife to sharpen the end. Then, he dipped the stick in ink, and he used the stick to paint on the inside of the glass snuff bottle. That was the embryonic form of painting inside snuff bottles.
Figures, animals, plants, flowers, scenes and/or buildings are common patterns on the inside of glass or crystal snuff bottles. Craftspeople also create patterns of scenes and figures from folk tales and historical allusions, and they integrate elements of traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphies in the bottles.
The craftspeople who create inside-painted snuff bottles fall under one of four schools: Hebei, Shandong, Guangdong or Beijing. In 2007, the craft of making the bottles was added to the list of Beijing's municipal intangible cultural heritage.
Zhang Yuhua, 67, was the first apprentice of Liu Shouben, a Beijing-school master of the craft, when Zhang began working in Beijing Arts and Crafts Plant more than three decades ago. In July 1971, Zhang, then a 21-year-old with basic fine-arts skills, was assigned to work at the plant. Within a short time, she began studying the skills of creating inside-painted snuff bottles under Liu and Ye Pengqi, China's best-known craftswomen who painted the bottles. Zhang was often so consumed with practicing the craft-making skills that she forgot to eat and sleep. Within a year, she made so much progress that many of her artworks were well received. A collector from Hong Kong bought a painted snuff bottle created by Zhang.
The next year, Zhang attended a training course, provided by Beijing Special Crafts Co. Ltd., to help craftspeople improve their painting skills. Given her diligence and wisdom, she quickly honed her skills. During the 1980s, her imitations of several master artists' paintings were so excellent that one could hardly tell the fakes from the authentic paintings.
"Zhang Yuhua stays calm, works patiently and focuses on details. Liu Shouben said when Zhang creates a painting, she sits like a nail in the chair, and she paints carefully," Leung Chihang, a collector from Hong Kong, wrote in a book, entitled Development of China's Inside-painted Snuff Bottles.
"Zhang is good at portraying people in ancient costumes, as well as flora and fauna. Based on the Beijing-school painting skills, she has developed a more elegant style in painting figures."
Sharing the same passion for painting, Zhang and one of her former colleagues, Gu Qun, fell in love with each other, and they got married several years after Zhang began working in the plant. During the past three decades, the couple has often discussed how to improve their painting skills.
Creating an inside-painted snuff bottle is time consuming, and the work requires tremendous patience. However, the couple has never given up on their pursuit of artistic perfection. With their enthusiasm for beautiful things, and their persevering efforts to improve their artistic skills, the couple has created many works of art that have captured their "vigorous vitality."
The couple's home is their treasure house, and it is filled with their art. A series of 20 inside-painted snuff bottles, entitled the Festival of Pure Brightness on the River (a famous Chinese painting by Zhang Zeduan during the Northern Song Dynasty [960-1127]), in one room, is one of the works that has given the couple their greatest satisfaction. Numerous viewers during the past few years have been amazed by the beauty of the bottles, decorated with paintings that vividly depict the bustling downtown life and beautiful natural views during the Northern Song Dynasty. The couple received first prize for the bottles during the Seventh Beijing Arts and Crafts Exhibition, which was held in 2013.
In June 2016, Beijing's Haidian District Culture Committee named the couple as district-level inheritors of the craft. The couple hopes to take on more apprentices, to promote the development of the traditional craft.
(Executive Editors: XIE LIN and GU WENTONG, Women of China English Monthly March 2017 Issue)
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