Snuff, a mixture of finely ground tobacco leaves and aromatic herbs and spices, was introduced to China by European missionaries, envoys, and merchants in the second half of the seventeenth century. With its medicinal and stimulating effects, it soon caught on with officials and even the emperor at the Qing dynasty (1644—1911) court. The increasing use of snuff led to the making of snuff bottles, small containers with a corked stopper that were easily portable and airtight to preserve freshness and flavor.
The ateliers of the imperial household, which were established on the palace grounds by order of the emperor, began manufacturing snuff bottles for court use during the reign of the Kangxi emperor (1662–1722). Among their early products were glass and metal bottles with painted enamel colors that were inspired by European art and, in fact, made under the supervision of European artists. Production continued for the next two centuries or so, and the variety of bottles expanded to include almost all mediums of art—stone, porcelain, ivory, lacquer, metalwork, and even painting and calligraphy—and to reflect artistic developments over five millennia of Chinese civilization. The exquisite miniature masterpieces made during the Yongzheng (1723–35), Qianlong (1736–95) and Jiaqing (1796–1820) reigns were particularly prized for their technical virtuosity and artistic sophistication.
The use of snuff spread slowly and steadily, and by 1800 it reached practically every level of society in the vast Chinese empire. Snuff and its bottles became an indispensable part of social interaction. While bottles were used as domestic ornaments, personal adornments, expensive gifts, or rewards, they also came to manifest social standing and refined taste. At the same time, their techniques and artistic styles reflected the frequent contact between China and the West.