Wang Xisan – Rekindling the Lost Art of Painting Inside Snuff Bottles

If you got a chance to visit an antiques store in China, snuff bottles may be one item of interest to you. They were used by the Chinese people during the Qing Dynasty to store powdered cigarettes online buy. It soon became an object of beauty and a way to represent social status. What arouses the most interest are the pictures painted from the inside. The delightful and varied scenes only cover an area of an inch or two and are painted using a brush inserted into the neck of the bottle. Undoubtedly, this requires an extremely skilful and steady hand. On today’s show, we’ll meet one of the top contemporary artists able to paint inside bottles. His name is Wang Xisan. Zhao Yang has the story.

When Wang Xisan was a child, he enjoyed the fairs at the Temple of Heaven. He was particularly interested in the small snuff bottles on sale there. Though their mouths were barely big enough to accommodate a simple chop stick, the pictures painted inside were incredibly delicate and vivid. How on earth could someone manage to do this?

Wang didn’t know that these pictures are named, ‘Nei Hua ‘ or ‘Interior Bottle Painting’. With a history of more than 300 years from the Qing dynasty, these interior paintings can not only enhance the value of plain snuff bottles, but show the very aesthetic taste or social status of their owners.

When Wang Xisan was 20 years old, the Beijing Art and Design Institute wanted to enroll students onto a Interior Bottle painting course. Three students were selected from the 300-plus applicants. Wang was one of them.

“The institute wants new hands to hand down the art, and I seized the chance. I took the exam in 1957, and began my study there the following year. Beijing Art and Design Institute was quite some place where all master artists at that time gathered.”

There were four top interior bottle painting artists known to the world. Fortunately, Wang learnt his skills under the tutelage of one of them, Ye Zhongsan.

The technique of interior bottle painting is extremely challenging. The painter has to paint inside the bottle by inserting a long, thin brush through the bottle’s neck. He then paints the reflection of the image, which makes the process of painting much more difficult than usual.

He introduced the images of cats into the interior bottle painting. His cat images are meticulously executed and so vivid in expression that some critics say that they expect his cats leap out from the snuff bottle any second.

In the 1960s, Wang Xisan left Beijing for his home village in Hengshui of Hebei Province.

He says he was shocked by the locals’ difficult living conditions. He gave three of his snuff bottles to the farmers, who traded them for money.

“That was the first time farmers saw so much money. With tears in their eyes, they felt so grateful to me. I’ve never felt so proud of myself!”

It occurred to Wang Xisan that maybe his skills could help improve the locals’ life. He began to train villagers to paint inside snuff bottles.

“Some of my relatives opposed the idea. They worried that if I teach them how to do interior bottle paintings, I would starve myself by bringing up so many potential competitors. But I don’t agree. The traditional art is not my private property. I myself learnt the skill from artists of the last generation.”

From the initial four students to ten, Wang Xisan now has brought up hundreds of interior bottle painters. He named the team ‘Yi Hu Zhai ‘, literally means ‘One Gourd Studio’. He explains that the name was inspired by an ancient story about how a small gourd was used to help block a leakage on a boat, and saved many lives. He hopes his artwork can, out of its aesthetic value, help others.

“The idea spurs me to further improve my skills, though I’ve already managed to sell a snuff bottle for as much as thousands of Yuan in the 1970s.”

Western collectors noticed his work as early as the 1980s. When people’s average salary was significantly low, a snuff bottle produced by Wang could sell for more than 2,000 yuan, or 300 US dollars. In 1983, he was received by the International Snuff Bottle Society as its first Chinese honorary member.

In recent decades, Wang Xisan has built up an art school named after himself and has opened his own factory, producing snuff bottles.

“‘Xisan’ has become a famous trademark in our province. Good work by the students and teachers in my school, can use the brand name.”

Today in Hengshui, interior bottle painting is not only a traditional art form, but a booming industry. More than 20,000 people are working in the industry. Its annual output is valued hundreds of thousands yuan.

Wang Xisan’ painting style is recorded in textbooks as the ‘Jipai’ (冀派) school in interior bottle painting. Though in his 70s, Wang Xisan still practices his skills everyday. He says two things make a good interior bottle painter, firstly, sharp eye sight. And secondly, a peaceful and concentrated mind. He seldom watches television in order to retain his good eye sight. And whenever he sits before his work table, he says the world is reduced to just him and his snuff bottles.


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