[KS] Koreans carving snuff bottles in Beijing, ca. 1810

Dr. Stuart H. Sargent ssargent at stanford.edu
Mon Dec 17 20:51:37 EST 2012

Dear Dr. Hoffmann:

Thank you for your comprehensive examination of this issue. Based on what you have said and on what a couple of other members have offered, I think it is best to conclude that these individuals are not Korean.

Let me comment on several of your points.

Regarding database searches, I think that part of the problem on the Chinese side is that optical character readers have trouble with these names; they see these characters where they do not exist and they probably miss them where they do exist. However, there are certain databases that are not built using OCR, and the absence of anything like these names in them gave me confidence that they were nonexistent in China, even though there was nothing un-Chinese about them. I suspect that similar problems occur in Korean databases dependent on OCR.

Yes, snuff bottles were once affordable. The bottle we have been discussing, however, sold for over US$10,000. That is close to the low end of the scale. Even taking into account the changing value of money (see http://www.measuringworth.com/calculators/uscompare/index.php), they were once within reach of the average middle-class person. 

As for what kind of person carved the inscriptions on these bottles, there is a school of thought that says anyone with the skill to carve seals (a hobby for many Chinese then and now) would have had no trouble decorating snuff bottles made of materials that were relatively soft: coconut shell, bamboo, jet, and so forth. In the case of coconut-shell snuff bottles, there are a few that are made out of eight or ten pieces of shell and must have required a fair degree of craft to put together, but most of them are made from two pieces joined by glue and little dowels--they could have been made by the amateur, or they could have been made in quantity as blanks for literati to carve. In the course of this study, I found one bottle that exists two versions that are almost identical except for the fact that one is personalized. Was that a scholar who made multiple copies for his own use (the personalized one is signed by a man who signed several others), or were they made by a craftsman? We don't know yet. I am inclined to think that, as with seals, there were both do-it-yourselfers and professionals. Inkstones and brushes (and most snuff bottles in other materials) required skills that the average literati would like, in China as in Korea.

I am interested to learn that there were 비연호 made in Korea, also. I presume they were like Bavarian ones, of little interest to collectors. The Japanese started making them in ivory, lacquer, and other materials in response to the emergence of the collector's market in the late 19th century, but the Korean ones must have been utilitarian ones made for actual use and without any artistically interesting decoration.

In my research, I have been able to identify very few carvers of coconut-shell snuff bottles, but I have used known publications of the bronze-vessel inscriptions added to some of the bottles to arrive at some hypotheses. In the case of the 'Son Kyun-su' bottle, I would say that the cyclical date is probably 1815 because that is closer to the publication date of the inscription that it copies very faithfully. In 1875, of course, the same publication would have been available, but it would have been more rare, difficult to find outside of the collections of serious bibliophiles. Hugh Moss originally favoured the 1875 date because he thought this literati-bottle trend peaked later in the century, but most of the inscriptions I see copied were printed earlier. The 1850s and 1860s were probably still strong, and if we could prove Sun Yunshou was Son Kyun-su, we might push for the 1875 date based on the immigration patterns you refer to, but absent that proof, I don't think we can date the bottle to 1875 just because it would allow creation by a China-faring Korean.

This has been a very informative exchange, and I thank everyone who has brought their expertise to the table.

Best regards,


----- Original Message -----
From: "Frank Hoffmann" <hoffmann at koreaweb.ws>
To: "Korean Studies Discussion List" <koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws>
Sent: Monday, December 17, 2012 7:57:50 AM
Subject: Re: [KS] Koreans carving snuff bottles in Beijing, ca. 1810

Dear Professor Sargent:

Yes, it would indeed have fastened the ride had you started with this 
explanation. I suppose you just wanted to get a fresh look by not 
pointing that out. 

We are now aware that you must have done serious research on this issue 
already. Here are my some thoughts on the issue if 孫筠綬 and 若褱 were 
Koreans or Chinese.

- The argument (you mentioned) that there are no others using these 
names in China is just as valid for Korea. Neither Google nor Naver.com 
(most popular Korean search engine) find 孫筠綬 being used … Naver 
produces only one entry for the Han'gŭl version 손균수, but that name 
is written in different characters. The names DB you do mention lists 
possible combinations. Even if you replace, as an experiment, the 
family name 'Son' with the name 'Kim' (which 19 million Korean bear), 
you will find no entries for 金筠綬. We will find entries for "김균수" 
in Han'gŭl, but very likely 균수 would be written in different 
characters. However we turn it, fact is that this is an extremely rare 
name! On that level at least there is no argument saying that this 
person might more likely be Korean and than Chinese. Nothing points 
into that direction as far as the name is concerned. Possible 
consequences from this, as regards to the name itself: either the 
family of 孫筠綬 had a very exclusive taste, or maybe he is from one of 
the many--to use a modern term--minorities of China--e.g. the 
Mongolians--and this name is one of the many sinicized non-Han Chinese 
names. Someone like Thomas Heberer might have a better take if this 
makes sense.

- As mentioned, I cannot find 孫筠綬 in any of the digital DBs that 
index classical Korean texts--including very many 'yŏnhaengnok' and 
'yŏnhaeng kasa' texts. Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence 
of absence but maybe just ignorance, as the officer in my Sunday night 
TV detective series might say. And tomorrow someone working on that 
period might simply say "here it is"--possible--but out of experience I 
doubt that will happen. Those DBs are pretty extensive. AKS and other 
Korean institutions have done a great job in this area. 

- An art historical perspective (as always personalized, my version of 
Werner's Korean War tank story, so to say): 
With 17, coming from an inland farming village to the 'Waterkant' in 
1980, getting a job as a dock-worker at Hamburg Harbor (fortunately 
only for a short time, soon advanced to being a department store 
salesman) I had a co-worker, an old-timer, and if he did not talk about 
women he would explain his snuff bottle collection to me. I quickly 
figured out that what, at the time, was right above stamp collecting in 
the social hierarchy of hobbies was the collection of Chinese snuff 
bottles and/or Japanese Netsuke 根付. Don't know what happened to that 
harbor co-worker, but my direct department store co-worker who used to 
recite Brecht and Karl Kraus while selling electric knifes or hair 
dryers is now a star at the Burgtheater in Vienna, and I see her 
sometimes in my Sunday night TV detective series. Snuff bottles and 
Netsuke, I suppose, were so immensely popular among pennyless 
collectors, as collectibles for workers and lower middle class people, 
because these objects are small in scale, would thus fit into any 
apartment into some small shelf or in a drawer, and because they could 
also be acquired for very reasonable prices. (Private collectors and 
museums would then buy the most exclusive ones, of course.) For the 
collectors from the lower classes it sure was a way to fulfill some 
exotic desires also. All the used book stores were at the time full of 
catalogs and books on snuff bottles and Netsuke. Tobaco had been 
introduced to China (and spread from there) in the late 16th century 
after Christopher Columbus had introduced it to Europe, and it spread 
from there to other areas, also Korea and Japan, and became popular 
among all social groups, it seems. Maybe that is another reason why the 
snuff bottles became such popular collectibles for all social groups. I 
had mentioned the Waterkant before because it seems to me snuff bottles 
and Netsuke were specifically popular objects in the large harbor 
cities in Europe and the East coast harbor cities in America--such as 
Boston or even Salem. These are the cities where shipments from the Far 
East originally had arrived. The West coast cities, closer to the Far 
East, seem to have been busy with other things (keyword gold 
rush)--that kind of culture seems to have come much later (today even 
the museum in Oakland, in my former direct neighborhood, has a 
collection of more than 700 Chinese and Japanese snuff bottles). But 
Salem, for example, so European that it even tried out witch burning, 
has with what is now renamed Peabody Essex Museum also a beautiful 
large collection of Chinoisery and Japonism collectibles--all the art 
objects (porcelain, fans, snuff bottles, etc.) that were particularly 
made in East Asia for the European and North American market, often 
specifically designed for these Western markets. Koreanists may note 
that its Korean collection is based on a donation by the famous Korean 
reformer Yu Kil-chun (1856–1914)--that just as a side note. To come 
back to snuff bottles: China, as usual, has clearly been the model for 
the making of snuff bottles. In Korea snuff bottles were also produced, 
just that the ones imported from China seem to have been valued 
higher--different from e.g. objets like celadon (Koryŏ ware), where 
Koreans had achieved early on a high or higher technical skill level 
and artistic mastery. Snuff bottles as such, obviously related to the 
introduction of tobacco, were new import items to Korea. If you look 
through either Korean publications or Korean museum collections of 
snuff bottles you will mostly find collections of and literature about 
Chinese (Qing) piyŏnho 鼻煙壺 (비연호) resp. 코담배 병 (k'odambae 
pyŏng), which seems a new Korean term becoming more popular these days. 
There is hardly anything on once produced in Korea during historic 
times. Certainly, there are Korean snuff bottles also. From what I have 
seen, the materials used for Korean ones are more restricted. In China 
snuff bottles were and still are made of an amazing variety of 
materials: porcelain and other ceramics, glass, precious stones, horn 
and other products from animals, jade, amber, wood and lacquer, 
mother-of-pearl, precious stones, etc.; and now Dr. Sargent even 
mentions coconut-shell. In Korea, from what I have seen, it is mostly 
glass and ceramics. (To be sure, I refer to the local production here, 
not to the imports from China which seem to have been popular.) That is 
in line with many other handicraft objects: the variety in material is 
far wider in China if compared to Korea. For once, coconut palm trees 
did not grow in Korea, but there are several other reasons for the 
limitation in the use of materials in Korea vs. China (that would be 
good for another discussion thread). As another side note, in current 
NORTH Korea, you will find that a lot of materials are now being used, 
more and more being added, for the production of handicraft items that 
were and are all used in China, and that use is responsible for a 
amazing style changes that will get you easily disoriented as of where 
you are :) Same applies to the Korean-Chinese handicraft items from the 
Chinese North East provinces. In the context of the question Dr. 
Sargent is concerned about my point is this: there are two scenarios, 
two possibilities, (a) if Korean, the maker of this coconut-shell snuff 
bottle, 孫筠綬, visited China with some delegation but was otherwise 
based in Korea, and (b) if Korean, 孫筠綬 was permanently living in 
China. For the early 19th century we would *not* really expect to see 
Korean immigrants to China there--that only became a typical case from 
the 1860s onwards. As pointed out, his name is not being listed 
anywhere as regards to delegations to China, and secondary works such 
as Yi Sŏng-mi's _Chosŏn sidae kŭrimsogŭi sŏyanghwabŏp_ (2000), mostly a 
summary of Western research on the topic of Korean relations to the 
Chinese court as regards to art and painting--covering all art related 
connections though--do not mention him either. Still, if (a) is the 
case here, then what makes me more suspicious is the material and the 
style this bottle is made in. You will not find anything that comes 
close that was made in Korea. If that person was in China as part of a 
delegation, then we really need to look at how this new art of snuff 
bottle production was executed in Korea itself in the 19th century, and 
here it clearly does not fit into that picture. Neither material nor 
style does--with the large Chinese seal script forming a circle of a 
non-circular object, all this on a brownish base--and this in the 19th 
century, this looks anything but Korean to me, not for the late Chosŏn 
period. Would I have seen this object without any information provided, 
my immediate and strong response would have been pointing to China, and 
maybe checking our Japanese bottle of that time to compare, but not 
Korea. On the other hand, there are always surprises--certainly--yet, 
stylistically this would then be an atypical work if made by a Korean 
artist (who otherwise lived in Korea), especially highly atypical for a 
19th century work. Further, if 孫筠綬 as maker of that snuff bottle was 
an otherwise Korea-based person, then I do not think he could have been 
a literati, as you assume. I understand that in China literati did 
produced their own snuff bottles. And I cannot guarantee that this was 
not also the case in Korea (anyone has evidence on this?), but to me 
that would be another surprise. Even items such as inkstones or 
brushes, clearly objects a literati would handle with great respect, 
major tools of a Confucian scholar, were not being produced by yangban 
themselves. That would have meant a major physical task. Dr. Sargent 
argues that, I quote, "the construction of coconut-shell bottles would 
certainly not be beyond the capacity of a scholar-carver, nor a 
distasteful, messy, industrial task such as carving jade." I would 
appreciate some input on this from specialists on Chosŏn Korea and 
Confucian society; to me this statement is already questionable if it 
comes to Korea (but perfectly fine when talking about China). Were 
there any literati doing carving of any sort in Korea? I at least doubt 
it for the period before the late 19th century, but cannot exclude it. 
Dr. Sargent, is there anything on that bottle that would suggest that 
this is not 'just' an inscription composed by 孫筠綬 but executed by 
some other unknown handicraft person? "孫筠綬為若褱四弟寫"--seems not 
to verify that the same person actually executed the mechanical tasks 
involved. I suppose you say this in the context of how and BY WHOM 
snuff bottles of that period with inscriptions where otherwise 
produced? Does it mean scholars would not write up texts and then 
commission handicraft people to do the actual work? …. That brings me 
right to the dating question of the artwork and to option (b), 孫筠綬 
as a Korean who lived permanently in China. On the mentioned website it 
reads the bottle is from "probably 1875 (possibly 1815)"--because of 
the dating according to the sexagenary cycle on the bottle itself. In 
your posting here you mention "ca. 1810" as a date. The only Koreans 
who would have lived more or less permanently in what is now Beijing 
BEFORE the later 19th century were household members of the Korea royal 
family, e.g. when taken hostage during invasions at earlier centuries. 
In the later 19th century though, that all changed, and Koreans started 
to leave Korea to live as immigrants in China, starting in the 1860s, 
because of the traumatic economic conditions, corruption, etc. Most 
went to Manchuria and the Russian Far East, but some also to Beijing 
and other areas (not the farmers, but small traders, former shop 
owners, etc. did). There are a number of articles by Yanbian scholars 
on this topic. At the same time, as we all know, the yangban class 
exploded in numbers, and we see more and more middle class people 
moving up and into yangban ranks--for these, no doubt, the "handicraft" 
task would have been possible and normal. We also see a lot of travel 
activities between Korea and China: painters, for example, both scholar 
painters and professional painters start going to China for education, 
often for years, and bring back the first round of Chinese, already 
Western influenced painting styles--from the 1880s clearly detectable 
in works of several Korean painters. If that bottle is from 1875 and 
not 1815, then the possibility that 孫筠綬 could have been a Korean is 
a little stronger when it comes to an art historical evaluation. Of 
course, the name 孫筠綬 does not appear in any late 19th century record 
either. Yet, these records are not as tight as those of earlier 
periods, as there were no travel controls anymore, and what we know 
from that period does more rely on private recollections. 

In short: Stylistically this would be highly atypical for a work *from 
the 19th century* by a Korean artist or scholar artist, and given that 
there is also no indication that points to a Korean maker when it comes 
to his name, I would suggest to look into other possibilities.

Best wishes,
Frank Hoffmann

Frank Hoffmann

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