It appears that of all the inside-painted bottles depicting half-length portraits of Tan Xinpei, there are only a few published examples where his beard does not curve to one side, but falls neatly in a straight line, as seen on the present bottle. Another, formerly in the Collection of Bernice Straus Hasterlik, is illustrated by Ma Zengshan in Inside-Painted Snuff Bottle Artist Ma Shaoxuan (1867-1939), Maryland, 1997, p. 43, fig. 18.
For an almost identical bottle, differing only in the shape of the beard and minus seven characters to the inscription on the reverse, see R. Kleiner, Chinese Snuff Bottles in the Collection of Mary and George Bloch, London, 1995, pp. 646-7, no. 422. For a snuff bottle similar to the Bloch example with a cyclical date of 1899, see the full-page advertizement for S.H. Mori in H. Moss, Chinese Snuff Bottles:5, Middlesex, 1969, p. 137; another is illustrated by Emily Byrne Curtis, Reflected Glory in a Bottle, New York, 1980, p. 82, no. 108.
See, also, H. Moss, V. Graham and K.B. Tsang in The Art of the Chinese Snuff Bottle, The J & J Collection, Tokyo, 1993, pp. 693-694, no. 423, for a crystal example where the authors note, "Huang Zhong (d. 220) was a military figure who assisted Liu Bei (161-223) in establishing his power in Sichuan, the State of Shu referred to in the last line of the poem, when the Eastern Han (25-220) came to an end. In novels and plays he has always been a popular character, playing the part of an aged general distinguished by his loyalty and valor. The ornamental 'banners' worn on a general's shoulders represent the number of units under his command."
Ma Shaoxuan's portrait bottles are amongst the most sought after of all inside-painted snuff bottles and are unquestionably his finest works. The series of portraits he did of actors in particular roles fall into the same category, but were usually repeated, as in the case of Tan Xinpei as Huang Zhong, quite frequently. There was likely a wider demand for the depiction of famous Beijing Opera roles than for the portraits of individuals. Despite this repetition, however, the subject, which is always exactly the same and was almost certainly taken from an original photograph, is consistently superbly painted with careful and accurate detailing of the face. Ma was a master whose capacity for photographic accuracy inside a snuff bottle made his portraits both famous and sought after among the influential minority of his day.