Coral is a symbol of long life because it has branches like a tree, but is a stone and seemingly everlasting. At Court, coral was considered the third most valuable gem after pearl and ruby, and civil officers of the first rank wore coral buttons on their hats. When worshipping at the Altar of the Sun, the emperor wore a coral necklace and matching coral belt.
Documents reveal that snuff bottles of coral were produced for the Court at Imperial lapidary workshops in Suzhou and Yangzhou throughout the early and mid-Qing period (see Masterpieces of Snuff Bottles in the Palace Museum, p. 29). The paucity of genuine coral bottles from this period is presumably due to the fact that only the occasional branch of coral was large enough to make a snuff bottle. Some early coral bottles are made of several joined segments, and others are constructed of distressed material, requiring coral or wax inlays to conceal the flaws.
Coral bottles from the early to mid-Qing period are well-carved, mostly with symbolic and auspicious motifs, and tend to belong to the middle range of color, from pale salmon to a more vibrant, vermilion hue, as seen here. For representative examples, see Moss, Graham and Tsang, A Treasury of Chinese Snuff Bottles, Vol. 4, Stones, nos. 427-31; B. Stevens, A Collector's Book of Chinese Snuff Bottles, nos. 591 and 593; and C. Lawrence, Miniature Masterpieces from the Middle Kingdom. The Monimar Collection of Chinese Snuff Bottles, pp. 68-69, no. 28.
The present bottle combines the auspicious symbolism of the coral material with numerous other auspicious symbols. Natural rock sculptures, apart from representing the naturalistic aesthetic of post-Tang China, stand for longevity; one name for them, shoushi, contains a homonym for the word for longevity (shou). The prunus (mei) is a pun on the word for eyebrows, as shaggy eyebrows are a sign of advanced years. The prunus also represents the ideal gentleman, because of its ability to bloom under the harshest winter conditions. The many vases (ping) allude to peace (ping'an). Lotus (lian or he) represents peace (heping) and marital harmony. The peonies represent wealth because of their rich color and because in Tang times only aristocrats were said to be able to cultivate them. The coin symbolizes both wealth and perfection as one word for cash (quan) is a homophone for "completeness." The teapot and beaker vase, both pronounced hu, represent good fortune or happiness, and the book near a vase expresses a wish for high rank and success in the civil examinations.