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Modern Art of Snuff Bottle

Snuff Bottle: History and Main Characteristics of Contemporary Schools of Inside Painting. Part I


As inside painting is a fresh art form in the trail of snuff bottle family, only a few academic research has been done so far as to modern inside painted snuff bottle (IPSb). However, I, D.D Art discovered one of the fine essays composed by Peter A. Bentley, a senior IPSBs collector, which deserves to share widely. Regarding Peter's background, with credentials as having a Ph.D. from Oxford (even though it was in Vacuum Physics and not related to Chinese art and Culture). It gave him delicate and systematic writing skills that have contributed to the most delicate essay in the field of IPSb. Peter A. Bentley had devoted himself to fighting to promote modern work. Unfortunately, in 2020, he passed away and cannot continue his venture. Not only is it a pity, but also a considerable loss to this industry. I hope this post can be in memory of his accomplishment.

This article is entirely composed by Peter. I only made a few minor proofreading problems and subtitles of each paragraph without changing the originality. It is to improve the readability on the internet. My intention isn't to copy his work for my interest. But, it is to hope his splendid work can be read by more IPSb collectors, realizing what Peter had expected when he was alive. This decision was made with several talking to some of the collectors and reaching the same expectation. It will be ruth if it can't appear in the Google search but only in the file or hard copy.

This article comprises four parts to discuss the contemporary schools of inside painting in detail. This post only contains the upper portion due to the time-limited of our effort in composing. If you like it, please subscribe to our website. It is a massive drive for us to keep our venture in providing you with the information of IPSb. The next part of his essay will be produced soon. For the original hard copy digital file, please email us at

Go to Two Main Points:

Introduction :

As I start this article, I would like to pick up on an important point that Hugh Moss made in his presentation in Hong Kong and in his article in the Winter 2014 Journal. Although I never once discussed inside-painted bottles with Hugh, I wish to reiterate the final key point of his presentation, which is the difference between artistic and commercial inside painting, i.e., art versus craft. Anyone who knows Hong Kong well has heard of China Arts and Crafts (CAC). Certainly, CAC sells beautiful crafts, but only a small number of its sale exhibits are true art. Therefore, all art is a craft, but not all craft is art! So it is with inside painting. All inside painting is a craft, and it is wonderful to collect such beautiful miniature paintings inside bottles. This applies equally to the Early, Middle, and Modern periods, but I would go further and say that some inside painting goes beyond just craft and becomes truly an art, albeit art in miniature.

As a collector exclusively of very modern inside-painted bottles, I have devoted the great majority of my bottles to Chinese landscapes, plus a few birds, cats, and spiders. I have built my collection of over 300 bottles, most of which I bought on a limited budget, over the past ten years.

I only bought bottles if I considered them truly beautiful and for no other reason. Certainly, I have never bought for investment value. I went through the usual learning process of making lots of mistakes at the beginning. Now I buy only bottles that I think are true works of art. So instead of writing about the contemporary schools of inside painting, I want to go one step further and discuss creative works of art in a bottle rather than, as Hugh Moss aptly said, just “a ship in a bottle”-type works of craft.

Though I have lived in Hong Kong for over half my life and worked full time in China for almost thirty years, it was only ten years ago that I took an interest in inside-painted snuff bottles, despite seeing them almost every day in hotel gift shops in China. My interest in inside-painted bottles comes simply from the fact that I love Chinese landscape paintings and bought quite a few in Beijing’s famous Liu Li Chang art street during the mid-1980s. It also comes from the fact that I love miniatures. However, there is a limit to how many paintings one can hang in a small Hong Kong flat, so I was eventually forced to stop buying them.

One day in 2004, while I was showing some Western friends the Great Wall, I noticed what I thought at the time was quite a pretty Chinese landscape bottle in a souvenir shop and bought it for myself to remember the occasion. I thought I was being clever by negotiating down to US$ 100 from the marked price of over US$ 300, not realizing that it was in fact worth less than US$ 10. Anyway, it was a fun purchase.

Then I recalled that I knew a specialist shop in Beijing close to my hotel that sold inside-painted bottles. So I went back to the shop and found that it indeed had hundreds of bottles for sale and at quite reasonable prices. Many were Chinese landscapes that were much better painted than my bottle bought at the Great Wall. Then in one corner of the shop, I saw a little shelf on which there were a half-dozen bottles that were obviously many times better than anything else in the store in terms of both painting and artistic skills (but also proportionally more expensive!).

That was the first time I ever saw inside-painted bottles by real artists. I immediately fell in love with those special bottles and returned over and over again to the shop to negotiate prices, which at that time were never more than US$ 500 per bottle after negotiation, and often much lower.

By about 2008, I had bought a dozen bottles from the Beijing shop and a similar specialist shop in Shanghai. I, therefore, started to study this special Chinese

art form more seriously and regularly travel to Hengshui and Shijiazhuang, besides attending many exhibitions in order to meet the artists in person. I also got to know Jill Guojie and her husband, Li Hui, from whom I also have bought many excellent bottles at very affordable prices. However, although I now have over 300 bottles, I still consider myself a novice in this field.

I will now introduce the Contemporary Schools of Inside Painting and, in particular, my personal area of interest, Very Modern Inside-Painted Bottles. I will address four points in this article:

  1. The History and Genealogy of the Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting.

  2. The Main Characteristics of the Five Schools.

  3. Quantum leaps in painting skill over the past fifty years.

  4. Quantum leaps in painting creativity over the past twenty years.

The first two points are covered in this issue of the Journal. The last two points will be covered in Part II of this article, which will appear in the Autumn 2015 issue of the Journal. There are currently five Schools of Modern Inside Painting (fig 1):

The Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting snuff bottle. D.D Art.
Fig.1. The Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting

  • The Ji School, which is by far the biggest Modern School, is based in Hebei province in the cities of Hengshui and Shijiazhuang.

  • The Jing School, which is the original and oldest Modern School, is based in Beijing.

  • The Lu School is based in Shandong province, principally Zibo city.

  • The Yue School is based in Shantou city, Guangdong province.

  • The Qin School, the newest of the five, it is based in Xian. There is no magic in the names of these five schools.

They are simply the abbreviated Chinese names for the five provinces in which the cities are located. Should you have not heard of some of these cities, they are shown on the map in figure 2, which gives you a perspective as to the overall location of the schools.

Fig.2 Locations of the Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting snuff bottle. D.D Art
Fig.2. Locations of the Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting

The History and Genealogy of the Five Schools of Modern Inside Painting :

For simplicity, I have divided the history of Inside Painting into six periods, rounding to the nearest approximate decades:

  • EARLY 早期 : 1800–1860

  • MIDDLE 中期 : 1880–1930

  • TRANSITION 過度期 : 1930–1960

  • EARLY MODERN 近代早期 : 1960–1980

  • MODERN近代 : 1980–2000

  • VERY MODERN現代 : 2000–Today

The dates of these six periods are not definitive. As I am not a specialist on the Early and Middle periods, I defer to others regarding the nineteenth century if there are any significant errors (fig. 3).

Fig.3.  The Middle Period of Inside Painted snuff bottle. D.D Art
Fig.3. The Middle Period of Inside Painting

Fig.4.  The Transition Period of Inside Painting snuff bottle. D.D Art
Fig.4. The Transition Period of Inside Painting

After the Early and Middle periods comes what I have very loosely described as the Transition period. It roughly runs from 1930 to 1960 and covers the years of World War II and the Chinese War of Liberation (fig. 4). Some collectors may object to giving any name at all to these intervening years because inside painting virtually stopped from 1930 to 1950 and only really got going again toward the end of the 1950s. (One could even date the start of the Transition period back to 1912, when Ye Zhongsan started training his sons, Ye Xiaofeng and Ye Bengqi, overlapping the tail end of the Middle period.). Therefore I do emphasize that the term “Transition period” is only intended to serve as a convenient way to bridge the gap between the end of the Middle period and the start of the Modern period. Finally, and most important for this commentary, we have the Modern period, which only for the sake of clarity and convenience I have divided into the Early Modern, the “True” Modern per se, and the Very Modern periods (figs. 5, 6). These, I repeat, are just terms I have coined myself for the purpose of making the historical development of the five Modern Schools easier to understand.

Historical experts may feel that some dates should be changed slightly, e.g., to 1932 when Ma Shaoxuan stopped painting or to 1957 when Wang Xisan started training. Some collectors may also consider the Early Modern period to have actually began in 1950. You may have noted that in Hugh Moss’s article, his cut-off date for all pre-Modern period bottles is 1949. If so, the dates might look better as listed below:

  • EARLY 早期 : ~1790~1860

  • MIDDLE 中期 : ~1880–1932

  • TRANSITION 過度期 : 1932–1950* (*1957?)

  • EARLY MODERN 近代早期 : 1950*–1980 (*1957?)

  • MODERN 近代 : 1980~1995

  • VERY MODERN現代 : ~1995–Today

However, all these exact historical dates do not really matter for the purpose of this article because my main focus is on the Very Modern period. Much more important is the question of when the Very Modern period started. Was it year 2000 or 1995 or even as early as 1990? I prefer to use the year 2000 to mark the beginning of the Very Modern period because it is an easy date to remember, and it coincides with the great burst of new painting activity and styles that have blossomed since the start of the twenty-first century (fig. 7).

Fig. 5. The Early Modern Period of Inside Painting snuff bottle. D.D Art
Fig. 5. The Early Modern Period of Inside Painting

For the genealogy of the five Modern Schools we must first go back to the Middle period, which began in Beijing with famous artists whose names are well-known to all: Ye Zhongsan, Zhou Leyuan, Ding Erzhong, Ma Shaoxuan, Yan Yutian, etc. (see fig. 3).

Bi Rongjiu also started in Beijing but then moved back to his hometown of Boshan in Shandong, just a few kilometers south of Zibo. Sadly, none of these artists had pupils who continued the tradition of inside painting except Ye Zhongsan who died in 1945 and Bi Rongjiu who died in 1925 (see fig. 4).

Next we enter what I have loosely termed the “Transition period” from roughly 1930 until the decade 1950 to1960, during which time Ye Zhongsan’s baton was picked up by his two sons, Ye Xiaofeng and Ye Bengqi. Meanwhile, in Shandong, Bi Rongjiu’s skills were passed on to Zhang Wentang and then later indirectly to Xue Jingwan. So were founded the first two Schools, the Jing and the Lu.

Somewhat later, toward the end of the 1960s, Wu Songling independently started what would later become known as the Yue School in Shantou. The School followed a different art form known as the “Lingnan style,” which partly explains why the Yue School developed in its own unique direction. The Yue School was officially founded in 1972 after Wu Songling retired (fig. 5).

At the start of what I have loosely called the “Early Modern period,” the Ye brothers in Beijing during the late 1950s took on Ye Bengqi’s daughter, Ye Shuying, as a student. The Yes also mentored Wang Xisan, Liu Shouben, and Ding Guiling.

In Shandong, Zhang Wentang and Xue Jingwan passed on their skills to the next generation of the Lu School, in particular Li Kechang, Chen Dongshun, Wang Jiquan and Zhang Guangzhong. Meanwhile, Wu Songling took on Lai Yining as a senior pupil. It was Xue Jingwan who in 1958 invented the brush pen. Previously, a fine wooden stick pen had been used to paint. The brush pen was introduced to the Jing School in the early 1960s.

The next major development took place when Wang Xisan founded what came to be known as the Ji School in Fucheng, Hebei province, in 1967. This new School eventually moved to settle in Hengshui as its home base in 1977. The rest, as they say, is history (fig 5).

Thus were born the original four Schools in what I have termed the “Early Modern” period from roughly 1950–1960 up to 1980. Please note that I am cutting a lot of corners and leaving out a lot of famous artists’ names from the Early Modern period in order to keep this genealogy as short and simple as possible.

This now brings us to what I have loosely termed the “Modern period” per se, which lasted from about 1980 to 2000 (fig. 6). During this period several leading Ji School artists moved to live in Shijiazhuang, although they continued to regard themselves as part of the Ji School under the leadership of Master Wang Xisan. Liu Shouben took over as the Master of the Jing School. Zhang Guangqing, the younger brother of Zhang Guangzhong, took over as the Master of the Lu School, and Lai Yining took over as Master of the Yue School.

Fig. 6. The Modern Period of Inside Painting Snuff Bottle, D.D Art
Fig. 6. The Modern Period of Inside Painting

Fig. 7. The Very Modern Period of Inside Painting Snuff Bottle. D D Art
Fig. 7. The Very Modern Period of Inside Painting

Meanwhile, in 1988 Master Zhang Tieshan moved to Xian from his hometown of Hengshui and started the fifth Qin School (fig. 6).

Therefore, as we enter what I have loosely called the “Very Modern period,” we now have the current five major Schools: Ji, Qin, Jing, Lu, and Yue (fig. 7). This history is shown in a simplified way in figure 8. There are a lot of names and historical dates to digest, but I feel it’s important to understand the historical and genealogical background of the five Modern Schools, at least in outline form.

Even though they are not perfect, these historical charts should be helpful to collectors in general. As far as I know, no one before has attempted to illustrate the history of the Modern Schools pictorially. Please remember that I only broke down the Modern period into three broad categories: “Early” Modern, “True” Modern, and “Very” Modern for clarity. These are not generally accepted terms, although I would like to think that they might eventually become so.

Fig. 8. Simplified History of the Five Modern Schools. D.D Art
Fig. 8. Simplified History of the Five Modern Schools

Main Characteristics of the Five Schools :

The Ji, Jing, and Qin Schools are very similar in style because of their shared history. Generally speaking, Jing School painting is more conservative compared with Ji School painting, which is more free flowing, innovative, and full of color

(fig. 9).

As an offshoot of the Qin School, the Ji School’s style is very similar and has become especially so after several Ji School artists from Shijiazhuang and Hengshui have moved to Xian over the past five years (fig. 10).

Fig. 9. Some Examples of Jing School Paintings. D.D Art
Fig. 9. Some Examples of Jing School Paintings

Fig. 10. Some Examples of Qin School Paintings. D.D Art
Fig. 10. Some Examples of Qin School Paintings

The Lu School has tended (at least in my opinion) to focus on rather intricate painting with — so to speak — several different themes within one painting as opposed to pure detail per se. But it is also a fact that many Lu School masterpieces are indeed very detailed. Unless one has studied Lu School inside-painted bottles in depth, this description may not make much sense. But those who have studied the Lu School will understand my general meaning, however imperfectly phrased it may be.

However, this statement regarding the Lu School is a very broad generalization and there are as many exceptions as there are paintings that follow that assertion. Figure 11 illustrates examples from the earlier Lu School period among which one can see the characteristic highly detailed and intricate style of Li Kechang. In the later Lu School period there is much more variety. Figure 12 includes two paintings by Master Zhang Guangqing. It is hard to imagine two more dissimilar bottles than these masterpieces painted by the same artist! Another feature of Lu School bottles is that sometimes the artists use very ornately carved bottles as in the example by Li Huiting. Also in figure 12 I show a recent example by Zhang Luhua, the son of Zhang Guangqing, who has developed his own unique free style although in characteristic Lu tradition it is still both intricate and detailed. Zhang Luhua is closely associated with the Very Modern abstract style pioneered by Liu Yizi, whose work I will discuss in Part II of this article.

Fig. 11. Some Examples of Earlier Lu School Paintings
Fig. 11. Some Examples of Earlier Lu School Paintings

Fig. 12. Some Examples of Later Lu School Paintings snuff bottle. D.D Art
Fig. 12. Some Examples of Later Lu School Paintings

The only School that is completely distinctive is the Yue School whose bottles are completely different both in shape and painting style from the other Schools (fig. 13). However, very recently Master Lai Yining has started painting using more conventionally shaped bottles as in the last example of figure 13. So what about the Ji School? I will give some examples of Ji School paintings in Part II of this article but for now I will just provide some statistics regarding the number of artists in each School — in particular, the Ji School.

Fig. 13. Some Examples of Yue School Paintings
Fig. 13. Some Examples of Yue School Paintings

When I first really started to research Modern inside- painted bottles in 2008, I began by downloading pictures of bottles from websites beginning with Bill Patrick’s amazing website, Then I started to buy as many books and catalogues as I could get my hands on regarding the Modern School and scanned them. Eventually my downloads and scans grew to such a point that I decided to create a complete data base using both Pinyin and Chinese characters to help me research and understand the Modern inside-painted bottle field in depth.

Six years later, having spent approximately 4,000 hours, I have still only halfway completed my mission. I still have dozens of books, journals, and catalogues to scan and enter into my database. There are many more hours of work remaining; meanwhile new books and catalogues come out almost as fast as I can scan them. So far, the database is 12 GB and includes several thousand pictures of bottles listed by artist. All are coded according to which Modern School the artist belongs to and also, wherever possible, the original source material.

The use of art names (or pen names, as they are often called) makes it even more complicated because every artist has to be listed under as many names as he or she has used in his/her painting career. Additionally, all the various art names must be cross- referenced to the artist’s actual name. Some artists have several art names, which is a feature of inside painting that started as far back as the Early period. Gan Xuanwen, for example, had at least three art names. I think the record is seven among Modern period artists.

Apart from enabling one to navigate freely the wide expanse of Modern inside-painted bottles from just a simple thumb drive (USB stick), this database has proved to be an invaluable research tool and I, therefore, used it to analyze the number of artists in each of the original four Modern Schools (fig 14).

Fig. 14. The Number of Artists in the Modern Schools
Fig. 14. The Number of Artists in the Modern Schools

The number of Ji School artists, even discounting those who once were students and gave up training, is quite amazing — over 500! It’s a great tribute to Master Wang Xisan that he achieved so much in his lifetime. The Ji School and in particular Wang Xisan’s own pupils (and their pupils in turn) are his long-lasting legacy.

In my humble opinion, this is even more of an achievement than his own inside-painted masterpieces. Previously, I showed the main characteristics of all the Schools with the exception of the Ji School. However, I cannot realistically go into any depth to illustrate the Ji School in this short article because there is such a large number of famous artists. Many of these artists were personally trained by Master Wang Xisan as you can see from the list of generations of his pupils (fig. 15). Furthermore, this list does not even begin to show the many famous modern artists who were trained by direct pupils of Wang Xisan, thus in effect becoming his indirect pupils.

Fig. 15. Wang Xisan Pupil Generation
Fig. 15. Wang Xisan Pupil Generation

The best way I can illustrate the richness and depth of the Ji School is to use examples from some leading Ji School artists to demonstrate my last two points: the quantum jumps in painting skill and creativity in the past decades within the Modern Schools of Inside Painting. This will be covered in Part II of this article, which will appear in the Autumn 2015 issue of the Journal.

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