Commentary: The virtuoso hollowing of jade snuff bottles, where the walls are reduced to an exquisite thinness, has been proposed as a likely development of the Qianlong period, one that probably continued into the nineteenth century, losing its momentum perhaps during the latter Daoguang period. Such a characteristic would have developed as a novelty, a skill to be wondered at and commented upon. As soon as it became commonplace and standard, the extra trouble and risk involved in continuing the practice would eventually have exceeded the rewards.
If we assume that super-hollowing was a mid-Qing phenomenon, it certainly would not have come about without a gradual evolution from normal, purely functional hollowing, through varying degrees of better and better hollowing to reach the paper-thin stage. Over a number of years it would have been a bit like the evolution of records in sport, with each new degree of hollowing setting the standard to be beaten by the next until, inevitably, the standard became so thin it was impossible to go further without the obvious danger of piercing the wall (paper-thin bottles where this has happened are known). The extreme of hollowing is represented by the Cussons white nephrite, Treasury 1, no. 170, which makes eggshell look positively clunky. Other super-hollowed bottles are nos. 169 and 174 (for a discussion on a possible origin of super-hollowed bottles, see no. 169).
It is not yet clear when the shift from functional to more impressive, notable hollowing began. A lack of reign-marked or otherwise dated snuff bottles earlier than the Qianlong era makes it difficult to create any detailed chronology of hardstone bottles for the early Qing period. The entire evolution could have taken place within the Qianlong period. This bottle is very well hollowed, but not yet a virtuoso performance. It probably dates from the Qianlong period, although we have left a wider date range because of the difficulty of dating plain bottles and the probability that whenever the shift to finer hollowing took place and to whatever extent virtuoso hollowing became common, it would not have precluded the coexistence of merely excellent hollowing such as this. The material also favours a Qianlong date although, again, not exclusively. The material is completely flawless and of even colour. It is also about as yellow as one finds in so-called 'yellow' nephrite, which always has a greenish tinge to it. Yellow jade was immensely popular at the Qing court, and was apparently particularly beloved of the Qianlong emperor. Apart from a range of snuff bottles in the material, the imperial collection has a surfeit of larger vessels of this sought-after colour. Material of this type was known and treasured as early as the Zhou dynasty and was apparently also a favourite during the Song to early-Ming period.
With the quantity of imperial pieces known in the material, it is likely that a great deal of it dates from the time when the conquest of Turkestan brought the source of the raw material under Chinese control. The Qianlong reign was only half over and the imperial jade workshops were increased from two to as many as eight after 1760 (see discussion under no. 114). If we allow for the Qianlong momentum in jade-carving both in terms of quantity and quality to have carried over perhaps into the early Daoguang period (although insurrections in Turkestan in 1812 interrupted supplies of raw material for a while) we are looking at a period of perhaps sixty years or more of continuous, almost obsessive production by and for the court, and this at a time when the snuff bottle was at the peak of its popularity.
This example is amongst the finest of the group, with its purity and flawlessness of distinctly yellow colour, generously bulbous form perfectly executed and hollowed, and lovely, soft polish. For further discussion on yellow nephrite, see Moss, Graham, and Tsang 1993, no. 56, and for other vessels in this material from the imperial collection, Yang Boda 1992, p. 93, and Zhongguo yuqi quanji, vol. 6, nos. 136, 146 (with a Qianlong mark), no. 152 (with skin), nos. 180, 188, 200, 204 and 206 (both with Qianlong marks), 227 and 230 (both with skin), 235, 241, 248, and 252 (with skin and a magnificent silver-wire inlay, Qianlong imperial mount).