Delicate designs painted on the inside of miniature Chinese snuff bottles by artists like Zhang Yuhua and her husband usually feature calligraphy, floral compositions and traditional rural scenes.
But to keep alive the centuries-old art known as ‘guihuahu’, or ‘bottle painted by ghosts’, some painters are appealing to younger tastes with modern motifs—including the popular children's character Peppa Pig.
Artist Zhang Yuhua painting a snuff bottle at her home in Beijing. Image: LEO RAMIREZ / AFP
Concentrating hard as she holds a tiny paintbrush poked through the neck of a translucent glass bottle, Zhang traces ink across its interior, her steady hand leaving a perfect impression despite barely being able to see what she is doing.
The couple in their seventies have spent their lives practising the craft, which began in Beijing in the 1800s, and now want to pass on their skill to the next generation. “For several years now we've looked for people to carry on the tradition,” Zhang's husband Gu Qun said.
But with vast amounts of patience required to learn the intricate technique that takes years to master, it hasn't been easy. “During an apprenticeship, which lasts at least three years, young people don't have a stable income, and all this stops them from dedicating themselves to this job,” he said.
The bottles, which fit easily in the palm, were originally used to hold smokeless tobacco among Chinese high society in the 17th century, and only started to be painted for decoration many decades later.
Today other ‘ghost’ bottle painters, like Wei Dongfang, 48, are reviving the craft by adorning their works with more unusual designs inspired by popular culture. “I once painted a character from the cartoon Peppa Pig inside a bottle for a child who visited my shop,” said Wei, who sells the ornaments from his shop in the Chinese capital, where prices range from 60 to 6,000 Yuan ($9 to $870).
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After seeing the child's delight at his creation, Wei made a few dozen more featuring the pink pig and her friends, which sold very quickly. “People are bored of old-fashioned images and motifs. To widen the scope of our art, we need to use new elements,”he added.
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