Opium Pipes

Jiyuan Sugar Cane Pipe

I had an illuminating conversation about this pipe with a fellow collector. It’s an interesting specimen. Sugar cane was a prized material for making opium pipe stems, since it absorbs the smoke and breaks in very quickly compared to bamboo. The sugars impart a special quality to the taste, as well. Sugar cane is much more fragile than bamboo and a pipe would fall apart after a while, so it seemed unlikely that a specimen would have survived to end up in my hands here in 2018. But, no species of bamboo I’ve seen seems to correspond to the convex, shallow ribbing on this pipe, while sugar cane looks very similar.

The saddle is quite detailed, with animals, characters, currency, and more, but it is worn, especially at the edges. The ivory mouthpiece and endcap are also heavily used, revealing ring and cross grains in the material. Given the heavy use and fine quality of these parts, it’s possible that this isn’t the first sugar cane stem they’ve been attached to.

(53 cm long, 32 mm diameter, 357 grams)

基源造: Made by Jiyuan

同治通宝: Tongzhi Period Tongbao (1862-1875)

Pair of Pipes with Figural Saddles

These two pipes were found together, and seem to be quite similar in terms of their age, usage, and general aesthetic. Some aspects of these pipes, including their complex node branches banded with tiny metal rings, suggest these come from somewhere in Southeast Asia outside of China – perhaps Vietnam.

On one saddle, the figures represent the Sanxing (三星) –  the three star gods, Fu, Lu, and Shou. Fu (福), the god of prosperity, is often depicted (as on this pipe saddle) holding an infant. Lu (禄) is associated with status, usually shown in the garb of a mandarin, and was particularly important to those about to take imperial examinations. The god of longevity, Shou (壽), is usually depicted as an old man, holding a peach, the symbol of immortality.

On the other saddle, there are two stern-looking armored figures flanking an imposing man seated on a throne. These are Liu bei (刘备), Guan yu (关羽), and Zhang fei (张飞), the three heroes of the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, who swore an oath of brotherhood in their fight to save the country during the Han dynasty.

The written character at the bottom of this second saddle is fu (福); the setting in this context probably indicates a general wish for prosperity, and not the individual god from the Sanxing depicted on the previous saddle. Another interesting detail on this pipe is the small knob-like mouthpiece, carved from ivory. The explanation I’ve heard for its purpose is that these were preferred by women smokers, but that claim is hard to verify. These are often found on reproduction or souvenir pipes, but rarely on genuine ones.

(1: 54 cm long, 30 mm diameter, 373 grams; 2: 56 cm long, 27 mm diameter, 277 grams)

Celebration Hall Pipe

This is an elegant pipe with a bright paktong saddle decorated with a small frog and the characters 慶福堂. A translator suggested “Celebration Hall,” but the phrase may convey a church or teaching hall as well, and may be connected in some way to Xu Jiaxing, a politician from Taiwan in the first half of the 20th century, but I’m not entirely certain. The jade mouthpiece and endcap are nicely shaped to complement the somewhat slim bamboo stem.

(62 cm long, 20 mm diameter, 278 grams)

Two Classic Southern Chinese Pipes

These two pipes are imposing and very fine examples of classic Southern Chinese style pipemaking. Both have detailed saddles with ivory mouthpieces and endcaps, and are some of the most sizeable and well-seasoned pipes I’ve seen. The first features bats on its saddles in three different techniques of rendition – positive and negative space silhouette forms along the sides, and a raised relief bat in line with the three richly colored stones along the top of the saddle.

The second pipe features a prominent and gregarious-looking frog with jade eyes. In Chinese mythology, the frog is associated with wealth and affluence, but also protection and good health. The massive ivory mouthpiece suits the heft of this piece.

(1: 53 cm long, 30 mm diameter, 494 grams; 2: 57 cm long, 38 mm diameter, 677 grams)

Black Lacquer Pipe

This pipe’s understated elegance and lightness is a nice contrast with the highly wrought Southern style pipes above. It has a small, clearly well-used ivory mouthpiece, and a copper/brass endcap. One interesting feature is the almost dainty node branching – if it looks almost too neat to be real at first glance, you’re right. It seems to be a small silver sculpture of a node, affixed to the pipe with tiny nails.

(58.5 cm long, 23 mm diameter, 247 grams)

Silver Niello Northern Style Pipe

This is a northern-Chinese style pipe, where the bowl is fitted to a ‘fist’ at the end of the pipe stem, rather than a saddle partway down the side of the pipe stem. The extensive detailing of the niello, with flower and animal themes, is complemented at either end with ornate enamel and metal rings. An ivory mouthpiece is contrasted by a rich, dark green fist. After discussing this point of the pipe with another collector, I believe it’s not jade, but walrus ivory which has been dyed green, a frequent treatment in Chinese items worked from that medium.