From ancient Chinese medicine bottles, the snuff bottle was born. Small containers with small openings, these were used to hold various medicine, then when tobacco (as well as opium) was introduced to China in the 17th century, these containers became wildly more popular.

“Expanding trade contracts in the T’ang dynasty (618-906) resulted in Buddhist monks entering China, bringing with them a knowledge of medicine in India. Their influences led Taoist alchemists to develop the double gourd shaped bottle which also became the symbol of a Taoist medical practitioner.

During the Sung dynasty (906-1279) great advances were made in medical science and the use of powedered herbs and drugs became widespread. Ceramic bottles were made in large quantities, a major production centre being Ch’ang-nan, in Kiangsi province, which was later renamed Chingtechen and is a renowened pottery producing area. These early medicine bottles were not designed to be works of art but to meet the everyday needs of the people. Ting ware and “soft “Chun” ware were the most common types, with the shapes and colours being influenced by Taoist concepts of “purity and simplicity”.

Medicine bottles shapes and sizes changed little until the early part of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). About this time, the small pot like containers for storing remedies began to change shape and became more sophisticated in design. They were ofthen decorated in underglaze blue and white, among the most popular colours for decorating porcelain during the Ming period, with the quality depending on the availability of the Mohammeden blue pigment.

Towards the last half of the Ming dynasty, the cylindrical medicine bottles became taller and more slender, while a flask shaped type also emerged. Both types had narrow necks and small openings. These openings were covered with a small cloth and tied with string or thread. Besides the more common porcelain bottles, some examples of metal and cloisonne containers from the sixteenth century are known.

The snuff bottle had a great influence on the making of medicine bottles and these utilitarian containers even became status symbols, with a degree of artistry of the medicine bottle being an indication of the social level of the user.  The bottles variedin quality under the different emperors, with some of the finest being made during the reigns of K’ang Hsi (1162-1772), Ch”ien Lung (1736-95) and Tao Kuang (1821-50). The more elaborate bottles used folk tales, operas and poetry as decorative themes, with a popular design being repeated many times.”  –George Ingraham, Chinese Medicine Bottles- Offspring To The Snuff Bottle, Chinese Snuff Bottle Discussion Forum

Though some scholars disagree that these containers were used to contain opium, my guess is that they were knowing how addicts are and how they try to hide addictions. Its the perfect cover up to say that you just need your snuff… They were produced in vast numbers, partially because they were small enough to be given as gifts and used as bribes to officials. Supposedly after 1911 and the fall of the Qing Dynasty snuff bottles were no longer made, but even today on Ebay from China are small newer glass containers used for perfume or ?? that are often worn around the neck and other small glass bottles with new corks in them.


Because these Ebay sellers all use the exact same photograph to sell an antique item- not new from a factory- it is yet another piece of evidence that they are either all working together or all the same person even using different aliases. Because they all use the exact same photo, it also allows scam artists to use the photo, and take people’s money without delivering product. Since the sellers are in China- it takes up to two months for buyers to realize they aren’t getting their goods, and by then the sellers have already unregistered on the Ebay system and you can’t even contact them. Ebay does have a money- back guarantee, but only within 30 days, meanwhile it often takes at least that long to get items from China. If they don’t send it and you don’t figure out that they’ve ran within a certain amount of time- the Ebay system won’t even allow you to see what you’ve purchased from the people who apparently ran off with your money, and you get something that looks like this:


No photos of the items, no name of the item, no looking up the items with hyperlinks, no nothing. The Ebay system just tells you a number and it tells you how much you sent the seller who ran off- in the case above it was $5.97 and they don’t even give you a link to try to get your money back.


These horn snuff bottles are a throwback into tribal times and probably aren’t Chinese, but Tibetan. Though many are labeled as ox-horn, they could just as well be yak which do better at the higher altitudes of the Tibetan Plateau. The filigree detail work as well as the red and blue turquoise stones are characteristic of Tibetan silver and gold smiths and closely related to jewelry made in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Though people across the board in the China were persecuted and robbed, murdered and enslaved, opium addicts as well as the Tibetans have disproportionately had it brutally hard, and it certainly shows in the numbers of items of theirs being sold en masse by Chinese sellers. Tibet is a place with the population the size of France, yet 50-80% of Chinese antique dealers’ stock on Ebay seems to come from there instead of China proper, with many, many things people probably wouldn’t have ever sold like personal Buddhist shrines and prayer beads. Please see our sister site for more on the looting of Tibet:


This set of four naked ladies on snuff bottles was painted by hand on the inside of the crystal bottles, a common but difficult technique for birds and flowers and other designs. The bottles below in contrast were hand painted on the surface.


Peking glass is a traditional glass made in China which was extremely popular among the upper classes during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1736-1795).

The first palace glass workshop was set up in 1696 by order of the Kangxi emperor (reigned 1662-1722). It was run by a German Jesuit priest called Kilian Stumpf, a skilled glass-maker. The glass workshops made objects such as vases, cups, bowls, snuff bottles, plant pots, incense burners and items for the scholar’s desk. These were used in the palace or given away as gifts. These didn’t come from just anyone’s closet, but from the treasuries of Chinese aristocracy which were robbed of everything they had by their government. This is why there are so many that are all for sale at once for such low prices.


Blue color was produced by adding cobalt oxide to clear glass.

(Note: many of the original snuff bottle lids were lost when dug up from the grave, confiscated, stored or redistributed and often have been replaced by caps that may be unrelated in time or culture. Most seem to be Tibetan in origin and 19th to 20th century.)

Something like this may have originally been carved of crystal and been an old design for a medicine container- the goat was long considered important and sacred- but with the advent of glass mass production of these containers became easier with similar results.

Elephant snuff bottle carrying a ruyi (a ruling scepter) in its trunk, and stepping on yuan bao (ingots).

Many of these snuff bottles would have only been owned by the wealthy and the elite- which were sworn enemies of the communists- and though many were undoubtedly confiscated from their persons and their homes, many also have tell tale signs of being robbed from the grave- like the glass elephant above- with rocks stuck in his ear and a muting of the shine of the glass which is no longer translucent- like sea glass gets- after being exposed the elements for many years. The numbers of these items being sold, with dirt and rocks still attached, indicates this wasn’t just one or two graves or grave robbers, but a systematic cleaning out and exhuming of hundreds and thousands, if not millions of people’s last resting places. The Chinese communists are not a people who apparently have a lot of respect for others- dead or alive.


See this auction: sold 10/13/2016 for $30.00 by dfc_greatdealer

Chinese overlay glass ( called Tao Liao Ping in Chinese) is made using one color as a base, then dipping in contrasting colors and carving to reveal the colors underneath.

Above is a bat and cloud design while below is a design with the 8 auspicious Buddhist signs, it appears these were created at the same time and the carved seals on the sides match (if you know what this says please comment below). The first layer of these snuff bottles is crystal or a glass made to emulate it (which would have been very expensive to begin with and carve by hand), followed by green glass for contrast then white.




The snuff bottle above featuring an idyllic scene of goldfish in a lotus pond, complete with a golden jumping frog is both Peking glass which has been carved into a design and painted on top of that. The top appears to be made from ruby and may or may not be original to the piece.

The accent color glass of this snuff bottle with a landscape scene is green- a fact more easily seen on the bottom or top- and the top is agate- it also appears to have the same characters on the bottom as the previous example and from the same time period. Painted with gold these would have been only available to the very wealthy at the time in China, and an example of the high craftsmanship being done at the time, as well as decadence of some people’s lives.

Another example of carved glass that has then been painted below in an imperial yellow or gold color that is also favored by high people like Dalai Lamas in Tibet. It has a deer- a symbol of longevity and one of Buddha’s first audiences auspiciously featured on it.



Agate also called onyx and carnelian, though much harder than jade, was highly prized- particularly by Tibetans- since time immemorial, a love that is also seen in their dzi beads and malas.


These agate bottles may be as old as medicine itself and certainly predate tobacco in the old world. Though the symbolic motif of a beast or lion with a ring in its mouth is seen today in China, Tibet and Nepal- if you look closely at these bottles whose lids may have long ago rotted away, it appears this ring  in the mouth may be an inset for a stone or crystal and not a ring at all. It is only when you take the ball away from the dog or cat that it becomes a ring. One can only speculate on what may have been inlayed into these bottles since rubies, emeralds and a diversity of other precious and semi-precious stones were quite common apparently in Tibet and China.

Long ago there was the Hongshan Culture and this sort of design with two beast heads on the sides of a vessel or dish or bottle would have been very familiar to them. They probably were the culture responsible for domesticating dogs to begin with (of which this may depict instead of a dragon or tiger) and a depiction of a dog with a ball- something you might never see in nature- must have seemed almost magical and a grand achievement perhaps of their time and wealth to even own such a creature.




This snuff bottle almost looks like Chinese overlay glass, but is carved from a single piece of agate and painted in gold highlights afterward. Another carved snuff bottle below painted with gold, which also maybe made from Shoushan stone- which would have been extremely expensive when first purchased.