The Right Snuff in China

How come a valuable collection of authentic imperial Chinese books, robes and snuff boxes ended up in Dublin?

It was not missionaries returning from China who brought them (they couldn’t afford them anyhow) but an American mining millionaire with Irish grandparents who, in 1950, thought Ireland was the safest place in the world to preserve them.

If you want to experience a touch of Qing dynasty China, and other Asian countries, go to the Chester Beatty library in Dublin Castle. No admittance fee.

One of the first items Chester collected from China was snuff bottles. They are eye-catchingly beautiful, come in all shapes and colours but in a size that fits the hand. Some are painted from the inside, others are carved. They contained powered tobacco because, while smoking was prohibited in the Qing era (they were very advanced!), snuff was  acceptable as a remedy for colds etc. The best examples were to be found in the imperial court but eventually cheaper versions were available in local markets and today imitations are in every souvenir shop in Asia.

Chester Beatty’s hope was not only to preserve those precious artefacts but to help give people an idea of the rich cultures in other parts of the world. Descriptions of the various civilisations and religions they represent are posted nearby.

It is one way of reminding people that something does not have to be ‘modern’ to be worthwhile. The scenes engraved on the snuff bottles show us a way of life in which people were closer to each other and to nature and that life could be sniffed at if you had a snuff bottle. 

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