Home>>>Chinese culture>>>>Chinese Craft

China's interior paintings

form that is very special to China. With a special paintbrush at a 90-degree angle used to paint inside glass or crystal objects, such artists can achieve exquisitely unique paintings. Interior paintings require painstaking efforts, and artists usually hold their breath when painting, exerting all of their strength through the wrist. As a result of its superlative craftsmanship, interior painting has been praised as a peculiar and magnificent treasure for collectors. 

 Origin and development

  China's interior paintings originated from artworks inside snuff bottles. During the Jiaqing Period of the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) -- 400 years after the introduction of snuff tobacco to China, the art of interior painting soon followed. After many years of exploration and development, the artworks were expanded to include interior-painted furnishings, perfume bottles, wine utensils, beads, lighters, etc.

  In recent years, the birth of neo-interior paintings have injected fresh blood into this burgeoning art. Against the widespread practice of plagiarism and lack of creativity, neo-interior paintings attach much importance to modern sense and novel thought about the art, advocating natural beauty with real emotions. Representatives of such artists are Liu Yizi, Dongxue and Suojing, whose artworks express their own understanding of the universe and nature. Through creative art forms, they infuse the traditional art with a new vision, which also marks a significant transformation in interior painting from a traditional folk art to a modern one.

  With its special artistic charms, interior painting is now attracting thousands of people from home and abroad, becoming a top collector's choice.

shapes and patterns are made of glass, crystal, agate, etc, through carving and grinding. Using a special paintbrush, the artists paint the inside of a bottle through a narrow mouth, incorporating the whole process of composition, delineation, wrinkle removal and coloring. Unlike traditional painting techniques where the artist begins with the background and moves outwards, the interior-painting artist must paint the foreground first. Such talented artists must study for many years to become masters.

  There is a legend about the formation of interior painting. In the late years of the Qinglong Period in the Qing Dynasty, a minor provincial official went to town on business. As an upright official, the man aspired to achieve his ends the honest way. However, due to the low efficiency of the state government and shortage of bribes to related officials, his business was delayed time and time again. Without money or food, the official used a tobacco pick to scrape the inside of his snuff bottle when his supply was running low, leaving many nicks and scratches on the inside of the bottle. His snuff bottle caught the eyes of a conscientious monk, who later painted the inside of snuff bottles using a bent and tipped bamboo pick and ink. And this is how this peculiar painting technique emerged.

  In the early stages of interior bottle painting, since there were no transparent glass bottles and the inside walls were very sleek, only a few simple pictures could be painted, such as grasshoppers, cabbages, phoenixes and simple landscapes. Later on, craftsmen learned how to fill the bottle with water, iron sand and emery, making the inside walls like Xuan paper -- delicate but not sleek. As a result, artists could paint the insides of bottles with great detail, and snuff bottles were later developed into a kind of artwork featuring a combination of poetry and painting.

Interior painting subjects range from flowers and birds, to clouds and waterfalls, to historical figures and stories, which are shown vividly in the works. The art, therefore, was dubbed "the work of ghosts and gods", winning the hearts of the royals and nobles of the Qing Dynasty.

  The most interesting characteristic of Chinese art is the implication of its paintings. The themes usually come from Chinese folk legends, historical stories, religion and philosophy (Confucianism, Taoism and Chinese Buddhism). The painted subjects are not purely decorative: Usually they indicate good wishes and people's expectations for good fortune and happiness, justice, good crops, health and longevity. It is believed that a snuff bottle with a painted Taoist magical figure can protect the master from danger.


  There are mainly three schools of interior-painted snuff bottles:
1) Jing (Beijing) School:
Artists of this school are generally highly accomplished in literature and the arts and their artworks have a strong literary flavor with profound connotations and an array of artistic concepts.
2) Lu (Shandong) School:
Subjects from this school include the 108 Liangshan heroes, horses, beasts, etc, and their works often have a heroic flavor with bright, local characteristics.
3) Ji (Hebei) School
Interior paintings of the Ji School are mainly portraits, featuring far-reaching concepts as well as a subtle layout.

  Each of the three interior-painting schools has its individual characteristics and unique styles, with the Ji School playing the most important role in promoting interior paintings. Hengshui, a county in Hebei province, is known as the home of interior painting.

Interior-painted artworks fall into three categories according to the materials used -- natural crystal, glass and manmade crystal. Apart from the traditional round works, interior paintings have been expanded to include a variety of over 50 shapes. Interior-painted works have been presented as national gifts by State leaders to foreign politicians and friends and some of them have been collected by "the China National Arts & Crafts Museum", "Linton Museum of Germany," etc.

  At art exhibitions held in America, Germany, Thailand, Canada, and so on, interior-painted works have been honored as "shining pearls in contemporary art", enjoying a sound reputation worldwide.

  From a pecuniary point of view, a first-class interior-painted snuff bottle can cost as much as 500,000 yuan (US$60496.8). A factory in Hengshui that specializes in interior paintings has hit a net profit of 200 million yuan (US$241,987.2). With many new innovations, the demand for interior-painted works far exceeds supply. Most of these works are exported to foreign countries where they are also given as presents or national gifts.

Snuff bottles are not native to China but were reportedly introduced from the West by Fr.Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit father who worked in Beijing in the early 17th century. Yet the art of interior painting in snuff bottles was born and developed in China and unique to the country.
A popular story tells how the art originated. In the Qing Dynasty, an official addicted to snuff stopped on his way at a small temple for a rest. When he took out his crystal snuff bottle to take a sniff, he found it was already empty. He then scraped off a little of the powder that had stuck on the interior wall of the bottle by means of a slender bamboo stick, thus leaving lines on the inside, visible through the transparent wall. A young monk saw him at this and hit upon the idea of making pictures inside the bottle. Thus a new art was born.

The "painting brush" of the snuff bottle artist today is not very different from what the official in the story used at the beginning. It is a slender bamboo stick, not much thicker but much longer than a match, with the tip shaped like a fine-pointed hook. Dipped in coloured ink and thrust inside the bottle, the hooked tip is employed to paint on the interior surfaces of the walls, following the will of the painter.

 The art became perfected and flourished towards the end of the Qing Dynasty at the turn of the century. Curio dealers began to offer good prices to collect them for a profit.

Snuff bottles are small in size, no more than 6-7 cm high and 4-5 cm wide, yet the accomplished artist can produce, on the limited space of the internal surfaces, any subject on the whole gamut of traditional Chinese painting- human portraits, landscapes, flowers and birds- and calligraphy. Liu Shouben, a celebrated contemporary master in this field, succeeded in painting all the 108 heroes and heroines of the classical novel Water Margin, each with his or her characteristic expression, all inside one single bottle!

Related Links: