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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 3, Issue 4

More Early East-West Connections?



I recently wrote about U.S.-China connections in Gilded Age America. Today I look further back to the possibility of ancient China-Western connections up to 1,000± years earlier. This Issue travels from the Mayan highlands of Central America by way of San Francisco, onto China, and finally deposits us in the Mayan lowlands of the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.


                                             de Young Museum, San Francisco


While attending a convention of the International Chinese Snuff Bottle Society in late 2022, I visited the de Young Museum in San Francisco. Two small, decorated earthenware bottles in an exhibit of Mayan art caught my eye. Dated to 600-800 CE and attributed to either Honduras or El Salvador, they resembled snuff bottles. The caption confirmed that these round-bodied, prominent-necked, wide-mouthed bottles were indeed used to store precious pigments as well as tobacco snuff used by Mayan leaders and in religious observances during vison quests.


Are these ceramic bottles evidence of a long-distance, cross-cultural connection between the Maya and later Chinese snuff bottles of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including those from the famed Jingdezhen porcelain kilns, or possibly earlier Chinese medicine bottles? Or are they a fascinating coincidence?


 Cape Dauphin, Cape Breton island, Nova Scotia, Canada (photo by Paul Chiasson)


There are famous (or infamous depending on one’s perspective) stories of Chinese contact with the pre-European Americas. These tales have enjoyed book-length exploration. They have engendered debate and heated controversy, with competing claims of proof v. debunking, cogency v. folly.


Did Chinese Buddhist monks visit the west coast of Mexico in the fifth century? Did Chinese sailors colonize the North Atlantic Canadian coast in the fifteenth century, or earlier? Did the Chinese travel further south and discover more of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard and the Caribbean islands before the Europeans crossed the pond?


The Chinese certainly had the requisite seafaring knowledge, experience, and ships for such long-ago journeys. They were well acquainted with the world’s then-known oceans. It is also true that global sea currents had the power to bring ships farther and farther, whether intentionally or not. And if the Chinese could come here, knowledge of here could travel back there.


                    (photo Jennifer Loughmiller-Cardinal, www.livescience.com)


Scientists analyzing “Maya Flasks” have proven empirically that nicotine was used inside Mayan clay bottles. The inscription on the side of this bottle has been further translated as “the home of [the owner’s] tobacco.”


More recent research demonstrates that several ancient Mayan bottles contained not only tobacco residue (of two types of dried and cured tobacco), but that it was mixed with a non-tobacco plant, the Mexican marigold. The snuff enjoyed later in Qing Dynasty China was itself a mixture of ground tobacco with herbs and spices. The Maya were doing something similar a millennium earlier.



In the Popol Vuh, the Mayan creation myth story, “’a gourd of tobacco’” is noted as a symbol of lordship. Tobacco is still stored in gourd containers today, and clay vessels resembling gourds are part of Mayan art.


                     (photos by Jennifer Loughmiller-Cardinal, www.researchgate.net)


Images show such bottles being worn around the necks of leaders, the necklace threaded through a loop(s) on the back or sides of the bottle with the bottles hanging both right side up and upside down.


               Carved porcelain snuff bottle by Chen Guozhi, mid nineteenth century


Europeans introduced snuff into China during the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). The best tobacco was grown in Brazil and was cured, ground, and mixed with flavorings to enhance the snuffing experience. Snuff was considered medicinal as well as fashionable in China. Snuff bottles grew rapidly in popularity during the Qing Dynasty, both as practical items for daily use and as decorative items to be held, shared, gifted, and treasured.



Muna is a small city located in Yucatan State, Mexico, the Mayan lowlands. Muna in Mayan means “Place of Soft or Tender Water.Patricia Martin Morales is a well-known artist, a native of Muna, who re-creates celebrated designs and pieces of her Mayan past. She welcomed us earlier this year and gave us a tour of her gallery, workshop, and backyard kiln.



As we roamed the workshop, Patricia came up to my fiancée with a bag and pulled out four small bottles. Liana immediately saw the resemblance to Chinese snuff bottles, identified the two nicest, and called me over. The feeling of connection (similarity) across cultures was powerful as I held them softly, one in each hand, gliding my thumbs across their smooth, painted faces. These bottles are the same, and yet different, than their later Chinese cousins.


The key ingredients of high-quality clay and good water are present in both Muna and Jingdezhen (in the latter plus ground petuntse stone for porcelain). Craftspeople experienced in creating, firing, and decorating bottles are a must. Mayan symbolism emphasizes deities, nature, and power. The dominant sides of each Muna bottle depict Mayan solar deities. Chinese symbolism is more focused on frequent wishes for wealth and status, happiness and harmony, longevity and ritual.



Both Muna bottles have integrated loops on the non-dominant side for hanging. The non-dominant side of the larger bottle above also shows a stylized symbol for rain.



The non-dominant side of this smaller bottle is Pop, a symbol of power in the form of the fabric of the mat on which the ruler sits.


                                                      (www.aspireauctions.com)


The fabric of the Mayan leader’s mat brings to mind the endless knot that is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism. The endless knot as seen on this enamel Chinese snuff bottle represents the endless wisdom and compassion of the Buddha. It has also come to stand for infinity and longevity in Chinese symbolism.


***


The Mayan use of tobacco snuff and decorated, purpose-crafted storage bottles during the Late Classic Period (600-900 CE) is echoed in what the Chinese would do many centuries later. Not a direct connection in my book based on current evidence, but a tantalizing similarity.

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