What is Peking Glass?
Chinese Overlay Carved Glass, also known as Peking Glass (Tao Liao Ping in Chinese), is a traditional form of art that starts with a one-color glass base, dipped into contrasting colored glass one layer at a time. The artist then carves away portions of the overlaid glass to reveal layers of other colors underneath, following certain designs. It is a lengthy and tedious process that is time consuming and labor intensive. However, the result is exquisite and exotic, unlike carved glass from other countries and regions.
Peking Glass snuff bottles originated in the Imperial Forbidden City during the reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662-1722), Qing Dynasty, when the western habit of consuming (snuffing) powder-formed tobacco was gaining popularity in high society in China. The Imperial Workshop would produce tiny bottles, called snuff bottles, for containing and carrying tobacco for use by the royal family, or as gifts to civil and military ministers of the royal court, and foreign diplomats. Over time this form of art slipped out of the Forbidden City and rooted and grew in the society of the common people.
The Qing rulers, princes and ministers were ardent collectors of glass curios. With their financial support and a steady supply of labor, glass production at the Imperial glassworks went smoothly for some 200 years. In the eyes of the people, glass was as valuable as precious treasures.
Due to the origin and the decorative nature of snuff bottles, they have become highly collectable. Rare and valuable antique snuff bottles change hands for high prices in Hong Kong and elsewhere. However, high quality contemporary snuff bottles are also sought after.
Snuff bottles were made of various types of materials, such as, ivory, silver, lacquer, bamboo, cloisonné, exotic woods, glass, porcelain, jade, crystal, agate and other semi-precious stones. The imperial arts and crafts made during middle to late Qing Dynasty had a quality of extreme refinement. The snuff bottles from that period represent a mixture of classic elegance and folk-art oriented subject matter.
Peking Glass as a form of art thrived along the same course as snuff bottles, and reached its peak during the reign of Qianlong (1736-1795). In fact, all Peking Glass is referred to as Qianlong Glass in Japanese art society. Most of the early snuff bottles were made of Peking Glass. Other base materials followed gradually.
Why is Peking Glass Different from Overlaid Glass Work from Other Cultures?
Peking Glass is similar in production process to French Cameo Glass, for instance, but it is very different in size and functionality, subject matter and, most of all, design concept.
There are several traditional types of base glass:
Pearl white (clear with white snowy speckles)
Imperial yellow (also known as chicken-fat yellow)
Wine red (transparent)
Contemporary works also use black, dark red and other base colors.
Bright colors, such as green, red, yellow and blue, are usually found in overlay glass. White and dark brown can sometimes be found as well. The overlay is usually thin in order to keep the delicate shape of the bottles.
As described by the Qing scholar Zhao Zhiqian, most of the snuff bottles made in Beijing in the reign of Kangxi were opaque-white with blue or red glass patterns. But there were also some green, blue, black, or red objects clad with patterns of two to five color layers of glass. Sometimes, to make their objects even more elaborate, craftsmen would cut floral or bird patterns into the overlays. Works which bore cut designs was called kehua tao liao (cut glass overlaid objects) while those without cut designs were called su tao liao (plain glass overlaid objects).
The Subject Matters
The classic subject matters include a broad rang of flowers, landscape, imaginary creatures and symbols, animals, and people. Below are a few subjects that have traditional meanings beyond the simple visual value:
Boats in water imply smooth sailing.
Cranes suggest health, relaxation and longevity.
A dragon and phoenix rejoicing represents the ultimate: mating and harmony. Fish, pronounced yu in Chinese, implies bounty or plentiful ness.
Lotus, pronounced he, implies harmony. Lotus can also be interpreted as lian, implying continuous. For example, fish and lotus would imply plentiful wealth year after year.
Monkey, pronounced hou in Chinese, implies conferred nobility.
Peaches imply very long life.
Other subjects, such as birds, dragonflies, grasshoppers, napa cabbages, oxen, horses, trees and grass are also popular themes.
Beyond Snuff Bottles
Whereas Peking Glass snuff bottles exists as its own category, Peking Glass as a technique is also employed in vases, bowls and lidded or open jars.
In China’s history, craftsmen’s names were never meant to be known. The artists were not to sign their names on their pieces even if they could be considered master craftsmen and fine artists by today’s standards. They were considered to be laborers and people who lived by their own two hands who were to be mastered by people of the intellectual class. It is very rare to find maker’s names left on any ancient craft pieces, such as pottery, textile, furniture, and glass. Therefore, craft pieces were only labeled with the studio’s name. In the case of the pieces produced by the Qing Dynasty Imperial Workshops, they were always labeled with the emperor’s regimen name, such as Kangxi, Qianlong, or Jiaqing, etc.
As mentioned above, Peking Glass as a form of art reached its peak during the Qianlong era. Many of the works produced thereafter are copies of earlier masterpieces. Even contemporary works with new designs often bear Qianlong labels. Therefore, the royal labels do not mean original imperial work.
Regardless of whether a piece is an original imperial or not, Peking Glass artists have never stopped perfecting their art. Their love of art flows from their hands to the pieces, revealing their feelings, their life, and their world.
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