Chinese Jewelry — History, Tradition, Culture, and Artifact

 

Chinese Rings in Ancient Culture — Informative Origin and Love Representative

Since the Neolithic era, the ring had been used as decoration, as well as protection of fingers from drawing bows.  

Turquoise Decorated Ring of Dawenkou Culture (around 4500 BC — 2500 BC)

Turquoise Decorated Ring of Dawenkou Culture (around 4500 BC — 2500 BC) — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

In ancient China, an emperor would have an honorable queen and many imperial concubines in his palace. 

Hence, around Qin and Han Dynasties (221 BC — 220 AD), silver and gold rings were worn by the queen and imperial concubines, to implicitly show their "physical conditions".

If one was during menstruation or pregnant, she would wear a gold ring on the left hand, to imply that she's inconvenient to serve the emperor. When someone was available, she would wear a silver ring on the left hand, and move it to her right hand after having spent the night with the emperor.

Gradually, this implicit method spread to nobles and officials, then to the civilians' world.

Meanwhile, rings that were mostly made of valuable materials, such as gold, silver, and jade, became awards to accomplished officials, and love token between couples. 

Since Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279), the ring has become one of the most important betrothal gifts to the bride, till today. 

Puyi's Wedding Ring, Carved with Quotes "Wei Jing Wei Yi"

Last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) Puyi's Wedding Ring, Carved with Quotes "Wei Jing Wei Yi, Yun Zhi Jue Zhong", From the Ancient "Book of Documents" (Shang Shu) — Palace Museum

Earring — From Self Introspection to Beautiful Decoration

Earring, or ear decorations, originated in the Neolithic era and used as decoration or amulet.

No later than the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), two little jade pendants were hung on crowns and hats, to be used as earplugs when they needed to rest.

Soon, the earplugs were regarded as a representative of self-discipline and introspection, a highly required characteristic in Chinese culture, for being a good way to avoid hearing and believing anything before careful consideration.

 

At the same time, they were also reminders of being humble and willing to listen to brilliant suggestions.

Jade Pendants on Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian) of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang

Jade Pendants on Royal Nine-tasselled Crown (Jiu Liu Mian) of Prince Zhu Tan, the Tenth Son of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang — Shandong Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Gradually, this pendent earplugs spread from emperors and officials to scholars, then to women who would hang them on their hairpins.  

During Song Dynasty (960 — 1279), royal women started to pierce ears and wear earrings, especially those were made of valuable pearl and gold. 

Portrait of Emperor Zhao Gou's Queen, by Court Artist of the Song Dynasty

Portrait of Emperor Zhao Gou's Queen, by Court Artist of the Song Dynasty — Taipei Palace Museum

Until Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 — 1912), wearing earrings as decorative jewelry became popular, especially among women when many stunningly beautiful and invaluable relics were produced.

Chinese Bracelet and Armlet — Ritual Origin and Art on Wrists

Chinese bracelets originated in the Neolithic era when people wore round-shaped decorations on wrists and arms, which were used to exorcise evils, pray for good luck,  or to be beautiful.

Later, in Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC), it was officially set to use Jade Bi (Yubi) to worship heaven, and Jade Cong (Yucong) to offer sacrifice to the earth. 

Jade Bi and Cong, both round shape and carved with exquisite patterns, were believed the prototype of today's Chinese bracelets and armlets.

Click to read more about Ritual Jade Articles

Jade Cong of Liangzhu Culture (around 3300 BC — 2000 BC)

Jade Cong of Liangzhu Culture (around 3300 BC — 2000 BC) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Gradually, besides invaluable jade, more materials were applied to make bracelets and armlets, including gold, silver, gem, stone, etc. 

Because of their auspicious meaning and significant importance, bracelets have been used as the keepsake of love, and betrothal gifts in China for centuries. 

Besides, different types of bead bracelets have been popular as well, which would be worn by both men and women, as a symbol of believing in Buddhism or praying for good luck.

Chinese Necklace and Collar

Since the Neolithic period, people have started to wear things on their necks, to keep records or serve certain functions in worship ceremonies.

Gradually, different types of necklaces have been used as decorations, and representatives of one's social status or religion.

 

Materials 

Throughout history, lots of materials have been used to make jewelry, including gold, silver, copper, pearl, turquoise, coral, crystal, glass, lacquer, wood, clay, porcelain, fabric, etc. 

Among all materials, jade is the most special one. 

Jade articles have appeared since the Neolithic period, and were holy ritual wares in ancient sacrificial ceremonies, and considered a perfect representative of strength, benevolence, modesty, elegance, purity. 

Click to read more about Chinese Jade Culture

 

Design and Hierarchy

 

Jewelry, as ritual, blessing, or aesthetic decoration, has been an important representative of one's social status. 

 

Materials didn't have quite limitations, however, the use of colors and patterns has been followed the strict hierarchies in history, until the last feudal empire Qing Dynasty ended in 1912.

 

Click to read more about Symbolic Colors and Lucky Patterns

 

Traditional Chinese Crafts of Jewelry Making

 

 

Jade Carving or Yu Diao

 

Carving an intact natural jade into exquisite artwork, Jade Carving is the most ancient technology in China, which is listed as a National Intangible Cultural Heritage.

 

Jade is valuable, hard, natural, and with irregular impurities and uneven colors.

 

Therefore, Jade Carving requires artisans' elaborate design based on jade's unique natural characters, including shape, color, hardness, impurities, while trying best to avoid waste and mistakes. 

Peacock and Flower Patterns Jade Carved Hat Decoration of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368)

Peacock and Flower Patterns Jade Carved Hat Decoration of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Gold and Silver Threading or Jin Yin Cuo

 

Originated in Shang (1600 BC — 1046 BC) and Zhou (1046 BC — 256 BC) Dynasties to decorate bronze wares, by casting, or painting gold and silver in carved grooves or surface of bronzes. 

With the Bronze Age came to end, the Gold and Silver Threading technology disappeared as well. Recently, this skill has come back to the world, under the efforts of some talented artists. 

Gold and Silver Threading Bronzeware's Part of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Gold and Silver Threading Bronzeware's Part of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — Shanxi Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Engraving or Zan Ke

 

Appeared in the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC), engraving is a traditional technology to carve patterns or inscriptions on gold and silver wares. 

Exquisite Engravings on Gold Decoration of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)

Exquisite Engravings on Gold Decoration of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) — Inner Mongolia Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Filigree Inlaying or Huasi Xiangqian

Filigree Inlaying originated in Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) and now a National Intangible Cultural Heritage, is an exquisite, luxurious technology that was only used by royals. 

 

After filigreeing gold or silver, artisans would weave, fill, pile, or joint those metal threads into certain formations, then inlay using beautiful decorations, such as gem, crystals, jade, or pearl.

Filigree Inlaying Made Pavilion Shaped Earring of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Filigree Inlaying Made Pavilion Shaped Earring of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Nanjing Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Kingfisher Feather Ornamentation or Dian Cui

 

Originated in the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) and reached to peak in Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), the kingfisher feather had been used to inlay on gold, silver, or copper articles as decoration.

 

After Qing Empire ended, to protect kingfishers, other materials, such as goose feathers or silk ribbons, are used as substitutions.

Kingfisher Feather and Gem Decorated Hairpin of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Kingfisher Feather and Gem Decorated Hairpin of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Cloisonné or Jingtai Lan

 

Reached the peak during Jingtai Emperor's reign period (1450 — 1457), Cloisonné is an exquisite traditional craft in China that was exclusively used by royals in history.  

 

Cloisonné technology requires using copper, sometimes silver, to make the base mold, with copper wires welded on exquisitely, then fill these copper patterns with enamel glazes. After being sintered several times, and got polished and gilded, the whole procedure would be completed.

 

Today, Cloisonné is still a popular technology that has been used by more designers, from making jewelry to decorations. 

Cloisonné Cosmetic Box of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Cloisonné Cosmetic Box of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Yantai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Enamel or Shao Lan

 

Thrived in Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), enamel uses silver to make base mold, then fill enamel glaze in carved grooves or welded silver filigree patterns.  

 

As a method to make beautiful silverware art, the enamel is still a popular technology to produce jewelry and decoration. 

Enamel Headdress (Bianfang) of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Enamel Headdress (Bianfang) of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)