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snuff bottle

Name for a kind of small flask, usually flat in shape and formerly used in China, where it is called biyan hu (鼻烟壶), to hold powdered tobacco, somewhat similar to a western snuff box, which in Chinese is known as biyan he (鼻烟盒). It can be made from a variety of materials, such as porcelain, jade, ivory and so on, though most commonly they are made of glass or crystal, often inside-painted, i.e. with illustrations and often Chinese calligraphy hand-painted on the inside surface of the glass (fig.), which must be produced in reverse fashion by manipulating a specialized bamboo pen through the neck of the flask held upside-down, and requires both skill and patience. It also makes each flask unique. Most paintings feature characters from Chinese folklore, religion and mythology, as well as Chinese landscapes and animals. The use of snuff bottles became popular during the Qing Dynasty, when the smoking of tobacco was illegal, but the use of snuff was allowed, as it was considered to be a remedy for certain illnesses, such as the common cold. Snuff bottles were initially used by the upper class in Peking, but later spread into the rest of China and into all social classes, soon becoming objects of beauty and status (fig.). With the establishment of the Republic of China, their use decreased and eventually faded away. However, replica snuff bottles made of crystal are still being produced today, most commonly as inside-painted bottles. The earliest snuff bottle artist on record was named Ganhen, who produced his first work of art in 1816 and retired in 1860. Since then, there have been less than a hundred fulltime masters, and with this few masters, original snuff bottles are nowadays rare and exquisite. See also nei hua.