By Margaret Wong

The first Sunday Tea of 2020 presented by Chinese Heritage Foundation Friends on February 16 was a fascinating scholarly exploration of what you might regard as a simple collectible object. About forty guests and members gathered at Paul Kwok’s bright and cheerful studio in the Traffic Zone galleries on North 3rd Avenue in Minneapolis. The presenter was Dr.Yang Liu, the Curator of Chinese Art and the Director of Asian and African Art at Mia (as the Minneapolis Institute of Art is now called).

Dr. Liu’s perhaps surprising subject was Mia’s collection of Chinese snuff bottles. Originally a utilitarian personal accessory for carrying snuff (powered tobacco), they became an object of display for Chinese gentlemen of means. The art form began in the 18th Century when taking snuff by way of the nose became fashionable in China. The practice of the art flourished into the first half of the 20th Century, and is still practiced, and the works are certainly collected, to this day.

Mia has several hundred snuff bottles in its collection, but no group display has occurred in living memory, largely because art scholars and historians have traditionally dismissed the snuff bottle as mere decoration and its creators as artisans or craftsmen. Dr. Liu, whose education includes a Ph.D. in Asian Art from the University of London, was intrigued by the Mia snuff bottle collection, and undertook a study of the pieces. From them, he selected about 100 to be displayed in the Chinese gallery (around the corner from the Scholar’s Study for those of you familiar with the Museum’s layout). He titled this exhibit “Worlds in Miniature”. These examples were the subject of Sunday’s talk and Powerpoint slide show.

We learned that we can approach Chinese snuff bottles on many different levels. For example, we could begin by cataloging the varied materials and techniques that have been used. While most of us today associate snuff bottles with reverse (interior) painting of glass or crystal bottles, snuff bottles have been made of jade (meaning both jadeite and nephrite), coral, ivory, carved lacquer, gold and other metals, turquoise, cloisonné, porcelain, exterior painting, various stones or, of course, any combination of materials. Even the shape of the object is not restricted to the familiar glass bottle, but may take the shape of a standing human figure, a reclining lady, an animal (real or imagined), or an entire garden in relief.

We may group specimens by subject matter. Some strongly reflect a specific element of Chinese culture. For example, some bottles clearly exhibit Confucian values with depictions of officials at work at the desk, family groups or references to family lines of heritage. Daoist-themed bottles often show flora and fauna of nature. Buddhist bottles of course will typically show the Buddha or refer to Buddhist stories.

Landscapes and pictures of flowers and birds are common themes and not necessarily Daoist. Particular species may be chosen for symbolic or homophonic meaning, or the subject matter may represent nothing deeper than a simple decorative choice.

Literature is another common theme for Chinese snuff bottles. The scenes are usually easily identified because a scene from Dream of the Red Chamber, for example, will include a quotation from the book. Unsurprisingly for an accessory predominantly carried by males, one other common subject for snuff bottles is referred to as “Beauties”, usually meaning historic court ladies famed for their beauty.

All in all, Dr. Liu’s talk was informal, informative and a great pleasure to attend. He spoke for over an hour and held the audience’s complete attention. We all came away not only with a totally new appreciation for snuff bottles, but with a personal list of elements of Chinese culture and history to explore further.

Yin Simpson, as always, arranged a table of Chinese snacks for the attendees. And a special
“Thank You” to Paul Kwok for the loan of his studio, a perfect site for an intellectual Sunday afternoon.

And by the way, if you aren’t familiar with Paul Kwok’s watercolors, you really should find a time to meet him at his studio. He has created a totally unique fusion of a traditional Chinese esthetic with a wet-on-wet process that produces textures that are abstract and impressionist at the same time! Really beautiful works! He has no webpage, and no printed catalogs, so the only way you can experience it is in person.