China, Qing dynasty (1644-1912) snuff bottle, ivory, glass, silver. Gift of Mr and Mrs Augustus L Searle

Snuff bottles use traditional Chinese art practices such as painting, porcelain manufacture, jade and stone carving and enamelling.

The function of a Chinese snuff bottles was twofold: to contain snuff in a convenient manner, and to be a beautiful handheld object. Snuff, or ground tobacco, was introduced to China by England in the 16th century and became embraced by elite members of society. While the English used boxes to contain their snuff, the Chinese developed the snuff bottle as a smaller, more convenient method of transporting snuff, that also kept moisture out with their typically very small openings.

These bottles are usually perfectly sized to fit in the palm of one’s hand, and have a stopper with a tiny spoon attached. Beyond these commonalities, they can range widely in their material, colour, size, method of decoration, and the motifs themselves. Chinese artists and snuff bottle users alike saw these bottles as fertile ground for artistic and personal expression, and borrowed motifs, themes, and techniques from traditional Chinese art practices (painting, porcelain, lacquer ware, and so on). Because of this, the world of snuff bottles can be fittingly described as Chinese art in miniature.

Chinese Snuff Bottle Society

The International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society ( is holding its annual convention at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) this September. Mia’s large collection of over 300 Chinese snuff bottles makes it an ideal location for such an event. An installation of over 100 of the very best bottles will be on display, curated by Dr Liu Yang, Mia’s curator of Chinese art.

Most of the collection was gifted to the museum by Mr and Mrs Augustus L Searle in the first half of the 20th century, and captures the huge range of decorations used to turn these bottles from simply functional to tiny works of art. Some are carved from ivory, others are shaped like fruits and flowers, some hand painted with dramatic battle scenes, some inlaid with precious stones and mother-of-pearl, some have Buddhist or Daoist inspired imagery. One can imagine a snuff-user pulling one out of his pocket during the Qing dynasty, and allowing the bottle to say something about his character and taste.

The installation will be divided up by the Chinese snuff bottles’ general motifs. For example, there is a group devoted to snuff bottles depicting landscapes (fig 1). Landscapes are a major genre in traditional Chinese painting, and are typically monumental in scale and rendered in ink on paper, meant to depict the vastness and wildness of nature while simultaneously portraying the artist’s inner self expression.

While these tiny bottles are far from monumental, they still manage to express that vastness of the natural world. The one pictured here is ivory and etched with a rocky, mountainous scene scattered with trees and tiny temples with a river flowing in the background. Interestingly, the artist seems to have mimicked the spontaneous style of ink landscapes, using brushstroke-like lines to render the leaves on the trees and the outlines of the mountains.

Crystals and Stones

Another group in the Chinese snuff bottles collection is called ‘Crystals and Stones’, and features bottles that were carved out of rocks to showcase their natural colouring and distinct patterns (fig 2). The artists expertly shaped different types of stone – jade, agate, quartz, malachite – into smooth, handheld bottles, hollow inside with tiny openings. In these bottles, the purity of the stone is not emphasized so much as the naturally occurring flaws. In some cases, the artist took inspiration from the shapes of those flaws and incorporated them into an image. For example, the snuff bottle shown here is decorated with two fish (an auspicious symbol for marital happiness) created using the imperfections in the outer layer of rock.

Several Chinese snuff bottles in the installation show the ‘Children at Play’ or ‘One Hundred Boys’ motif (figs. 3, 4). Children – usually boys – are common, auspicious motifs in Chinese art that signify a happy, flourishing family, which was and remains an important value in Chinese society. The children on these snuff bottles are engaged in a variety of activities: playing blind man’s bluff, fishing, dancing, picking flowers, or climbing trees. Children also tend to draw up ideas of innocence, purity, and optimism. A snuff bottle with this motif might be an auspicious object for the user to carry around, sparking notions of happiness and prosperity.

Qing-dynasty Bottles

In Qing-dynasty China, these bottles were used frequently enough throughout the day that their decoration was significant, and transformed snuff tobacco from merely a drug into an act of expressing one’s character, values, and social standing. The motifs mentioned here are only a fraction of the countless symbols and motifs that can be found on snuff bottles. The techniques used in snuff bottle production were often extremely time-consuming and required a great amount of skill, and the materials – including gold, jade, horn, ivory, and even bean pods – were usually of great value as well. These objects were clearly created with the intention of being treasured by their users.

Today, snuff has become almost completely obsolete, and therefore, the production of snuff bottles has as well. However, these bottles are still highly valued by collectors, precisely because of their valuable materials and the endless types of decorations and concepts. Because of the endless variants of different types of bottles, collectors can find their favourite motifs and materials to hunt for. These bottles provide a glimpse into the visual language of Qing Dynasty China, and the study of these bottles allow for a better understanding of not only Chinese art and tradition, but different preferences of individuals as well.

This special exhibition of Chinese snuff bottle at Mia will allow visitors to explore these fascinating concepts, and will be a fitting backdrop for the Snuff Bottle Society events this September. Each snuff bottle is very different from the last, and with over 100 on view, the viewer will be able to immerse themselves in different aspects of Chinese art, tradition, and culture, while learning about different religions, symbols, and techniques – all contained on the surface of tiny handheld bottles.


Minneapolis Institute of Art, from 14 September to 7 June, 2020,