Saturday, November 30, 2013


Archaic jade occupies the major part of our collection.  However, in the process of collecting jade we came across ancient Chinese bronzes, silver with parcel gilt and bronze mirrors, all of which caught our eye.  Learning about archaic jade was interesting, exciting and engrossing to the point that the small parts of our collection were ignored for many years.  It is only recently that Tony decided to look through all the metalwork and the few books we have in our small library, and refresh what he saw in this collection once again.

We do not have enough knowledge as far as the metalwork is concerned, and hope that this collection will illicit interest and information.

THE BRONZE AGE (c. 2000 - 221 BC)
The Erlitou site was excavated in 1959, uncovering what were the earliest known bronzes.  The ruins of the fabulous city became known as the Erlitou culture and believed to be the capital of the little known Xia dynasty.  During the Shang and Zhou dynasties the bronze age reached its peak and treasured items were produced for ritual and ceremonial use.  Copper articles predated bronze, which was a strong alloy of copper, tin and lead.
Artisans mastered casting techniques and fine and complex decorations on food containers and vessels were produced, as well as weapons, tools, personal ornaments, etc. Some were inlaid with turquoise and other semi-precious stones and gold and silver.  Magnificent bronzes served as utensils for banquets and were also valued gifts, giving social status to those who possessed them.  Inscriptions first appeared on bronzes during the late Shang dynasty and continued into the Western Zhou period.

"The Chinese probably discovered copper-smelting and bronze-making independently of the West, because their pottery kilns were much superior. However, their advanced technologies of melting and casting made it unlikely that they would independently discover iron-working, because the technology of forging iron to purify the bloom was not part of their way of operating.
Sometime after 1000 BC, knowledge of iron-forging techniques reached China from the West. The Chinese then applied their superior furnace technology to take iron-working to new levels of expertise. They were the first to cast iron into useful objects, because they could routinely melt iron on a large scale. Some Chinese smelter must have reached such a high temperature (around 1150° C) that the iron, instead of remaining as a bloom that could be hammered into wrought iron ("ripe iron" or shu thieh), combined with the carbon and carbon monoxide in the furnace to produce an iron-carbon alloy with more than 2% carbon. No doubt to the astonishment and dismay of the discoverer, this promptly melted into a liquid that solidified to cast iron ("raw iron", or shêng thieh. This could be tapped off into molds (a process that was already completely mastered by bronze-smiths) and a new industry could be built around it. The Chinese iron industry grew quickly. By 512 BC the Chinese were casting all kinds of iron objects, including large cauldrons.
The Chinese invented sophisticated bellows for their iron furnaces before 100 BC, so that a single continuous stream of air entered the furnace, rather than intermittent puffs. The process uses a lot of fuel, but gives higher temperatures. This invention is, for practical purposes, a blast furnace; by 100 AD the Chinese were driving blast furnace bellows with water wheels. This technology was not invented in (or transmitted to) the West until the 15th century.
The superiority of iron did not lie simply in the volume of production, because bronze objects could have been cast just as easily. Large copper mines from Zhou times show that bronze supplies were at least adequate in China: the mine at Tonglushan is very large. The fact is that Chinese iron was stronger than the best contemporary bronze alloys by about 450 BC, and thereafter iron became the dominant metal, even for everyday tools. Bronze was used only for ornament and ceremony after about 100 AD. The Chinese still despised iron, as the Greeks before them had done: iron was "the ugly metal" as opposed to bronze, "the lovely metal," but aesthetic preference apparently did not affect the transition very much.
Ten iron swords are documented from the tomb of the King of Nanyue.  Five of them had jade guards still attached, which had cracked due to the oxidation of the iron.

The earliest known gold articles were excavated from the Sanxingdui and Jinsha sites dated to around 1200 BC.  Gold and silver deposits were rare in ancient China, and the attractive metals were used mainly for inlays and decorations on bronzes.  However, it was the prosperity of the Tang dynasty which saw the greatest development in gold and silver working, hence it has been dubbed the 'Golden age' of China.
The first hundred and fifty years of the Tang dynasty provided fertile ground for development of the arts, with the opening of China's frontiers giving the capital, Chang'an, a cosmopolitan air.  Near Eastern and Indian influences created innovative forms of art and the Chinese were quick to use them to produce styles and patterns to suit their own tastes.

No doubt people from pre-historic times would have been interested in looking at their own image, and still water would have provided this.  Later on polished stone, then polished metal, followed by glass.
On what information is available, the earliest bronze mirror found is documented from the Qijia site, which contained some fifty small pieces of bronze.  "The mirror was found under the chest of a skeleton in a face down position.  The handle of the mirror is incomplete but there are two small holes drilled on its rim; it was probably used as a pendant. The mirror has a diameter of 9 cm, and is 0.4 cm thick. With a smooth and even surface, the mirror has its back mounted within the raised periphery of its concentric circle. The back is decorated with triangular patterns formed by oblique fine threads. The casting, shape and decorative patterns of the mirror are signs of advanced workmanship, bearing a close resemblance to the Shang bronze mirrors unearthed from the Fuaho tomb in Anyang, Henan province."


Bronze mirror, Gansu. Qijia culture (2400 - 1900), Gansu and Qinhai provinces. National Museum, Beijing.

Four mirrors were amongst the 468 bronze objects recovered from the tomb of Lady Fu Hao, consort of King Wu Ding of the Shang dynasty (c.1600 - 1050 BC).

Repoussé : Repoussé is a metal-working technique whereby patterns are created by hammering, embossing or pressing from the reverse side.  The result is a raised relief pattern on the front of the object.   The word’s origin is French from the term meaning “to push back”.

Chasing: A hard stylus is tapped with a hammer to make fine marks in metal, creating detail and texture.

Coffin-shaped reliquary

Period: Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Silver with parcel gilt.
Dimensions: Height 31 cm; length 27 cm.

Reliquaries were used to hold sarira, a relic of the Buddha.  A relic could be symbolized by something precious such as a pearl.

This piece has an arched roof which can be lifted off the main body.  The body can be removed from the base, surrounded by a balustrade with five large decorated scallops hanging off the bottom.  Within this section is a low wall following the coffin-shape, which must have held another container.  Beneath this section is the lid, coffin-shaped, which covers a small container attached to the base.  The base is completely hollow underneath with three steps leading up to the small plain container, 14 cm. long and 4.5 cm. at the widest end.  The top step is patterned with a row of gilded leaves.  The second step has curling vines and flowers.  The bottom step has openwork gilded scallops.

The overall background is very finely ring-punched.  The arched roof has a crown back and front, with five bands of gilded vines and flowers running along the length, edged on both sides with openwork florets.  The larger crown at the front is beautifully decorated, raised and gilded, with the central figure of the Buddha with an attendant on each side.  Curling vines with flowers and fruit decorate it in two bands, with a dragon head turned outward on each end.  The crown at the rear is narrow and decorated with tendrils and leaves.

The body of the reliquary is slightly different on each side, showing nine gilded figures amongst clouds.  Seven of the figures wear robes, possibly louhan, with halos surrounding their heads, and two other bare-bodied figures, decorate each side.  The front and back depict doors with ring handles.

The reliquary shown below is from the catalogue Gilded Dragons by Carol Michaelson - Buried Treasures from China's Golden Ages. The British Museum held the exhibition in 1999, to display a remarkable collection of selected objects of the highest quality, from the People's Republic of China.

The reliquary on the left is made from silver, gold, bronze and precious stones, and is 18.5 cm high and 21 cm long. The small gold one on the right was inside it and is 9.5 cm high and 14.5 cm. long, and held two glass bottles.  Only one bottle is mentioned, which contained several crystals, representing the incinerated bones of the Buddha.

Excavated in 1985, Qingshan temple site, Xinfeng town, Lintong county, Shaanxi province, Shaanxi Lintong Museum.

Tea basket

We have two tea baskets in our collection.

Period: Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Silver with parcel gilt.
Dimensions: Height 20.5 cm; diameter 17.5 cm.

The container has an openwork basket pattern overall, with flying geese around the body and the lid.  A curved handle hooks into a ring on each side.  A delicate floral pattern on a fine ring-punched background surrounds the lid, and a ring in the middle of the lid allows a chain to connect it to a loose ring on the handle.  The basket sits on three feet, each composed of three leaves.

Period: Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Gilded silver.
Dimensions: Height 17 cm; diameter 13.8 cm.

This container is smaller, of finer manufacture than the one above and is gilded all over.  The design is similar except that it has a solid base and the floral pattern around the lid is repeated around the top edge of the container.

"Silver baskets were used in the final preparation of the tea leaves in chadao - the process of refining, brewing and drinking tea, which reached its zenith during the Tang Dynasty."  Quoted from the book Gold and Silver Treasures of the Tang on display at Shaanxi History Museum, September 1995 to July 1996.

Having no first-hand knowledge about the utensils used for tea making during Tang dynasty China, we turned to the web and found some great articles.

The Famen Si museum holds relics and precious objects recovered from the underground crypt of the Famen Si pagoda, where they had lain undisturbed since 874. The museum building is modern, erected after 1981 in the style of a Tang Dynasty pavilion.

Openwork Basket
Famen Si
The outstanding vessel shown here is decorated with golden, flying geese that are applied to a silver frame of open basketwork. Much humbler receptacles, made of woven bamboo, would have been the prototype for this elegant tea-leaf container.
This and the following pages show objects from an imperial tea-service. Their inclusion in the Famen Si crypt is early evidence for the importance of tea, whose practical function was to keep the monks awake during long nights of meditation and chanting the sutras.
The cult of tea, originating in Tang China, was subsequently adopted in Japan, where it was raised to amazing heights of refinement while mostly dropping its Buddhist origins.

Below a link to an interesting blog by Steven D. Owyoung - CHA DAO A journal of tea and tea culture. He talks about the poetry by the famous Tang poet Li Bo, and his singular poem on tea.

仙人掌茶      Immortal's Palm Tea
常聞玉泉山      Ever have I heard of Mount Jade Spring,
山洞多乳窟      Of its mountain grottos filled with stalactite caves
仙鼠如白鴉      And immortal bats as big as white crows,
倒懸清溪月      All hanging down above the clear, moonlit stream.
茗生此中石      Tea grows among the rocks
玉泉流不歇      And along Jade Spring’s ceaseless flow.
根柯灑芳津      Root and stem exude a rich fragrance;
採服潤肌骨      One whiff nurtures flesh and bone.
叢老卷綠葉      Lush and voluminous, the green leaves;
枝枝相接連      Branch upon branch, row upon row.
曝成仙人掌      The sun dries Immortal’s Palm,
似拍洪崖肩      Coddling it like Hong Ya’s shoulder.
舉世未見之      The world has never seen the like,
其名定誰傳      But who will spread its name?
宗英乃禪伯      Nephew Ying, the Zen master
投贈有佳篇      Presents this tea and a beautiful poem;
清鏡燭無鹽      Both are bright mirrors embellishing ugly Wuyen,
顧慚西子妍      But I am shamed by the beauty Xizi.
朝坐有餘興      Even so, this morning I joyfully
長吟播諸天      Sing this song to the Heavens.

Below another link of interest on this subject, from Vicony Teas Company, the organic tea manufacturer, specializing in tea planting, production, selling and research.

Bronze mirrors


Period: Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Bronze with silver inlay.
Dimensions: Diameter 12.5 cm.

The two 8-foliate mirrors, #1 and #2, have identical patterns with a ring-punched background.  The outer section has a floral emblem in each foliate.  The inner section is separated from the outer by a ridge and is slightly concave, and decorated with four flying geese with a spray of flowers and leaves between each one.  The central knob is in the form of a crouching animal.

Period: Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Bronze with gold inlay.
Dimensions: Diameter 12.5 cm.
Period: Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Bronze with silver inlay with parcel gilt.
Dimensions: Diameter 18.5 cm.

The rim is octolobed and inclines outward.  Leaves, some with flowers, decorate each lobe.  A ring divides this section from the main inner section, which is composed of two mandarin ducks on opposing sides and a phoenix between each of the ducks.  All four birds appear to be holding something or perhaps standing on something which could represent a cloud.  Fine scrolls of flowers and leaves separate the birds.  All the decorations and gilded and the background is ring-punched.  The pierced knob is a crouching lion.

Period: Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Bronze with gold inlay.
Dimensions: Diameter 18.5 cm.

As with #3, the rim is octolobed, and is decorated alternately with moths or butterflies and sprays of flowers and leaves.  A raised ring separates the outer section from the central decoration.  A pair of cranes carries a woman's decorative belt tie.  The shou or decorative belt tie, once tied, can only be undone by her husband.  On the opposing side is a floral motif and to the left a figure sitting on a stool plays an instrument.  Opposite the figure is a phoenix with wings spread and tail raised, and in the centre is a plain domed pierced knob.

Period: Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Bronze with silver inlay and parcel gilt.
Dimensions: Diameter 16 cm; thickness 1 cm.

The edge of the round mirror inclines outward.  A narrow band is decorated with a band of baoxianghua scrolls or continuous flowing clouds.  It drops down to the central section, decorated with four unusual animals and small human figures.  The plain round knob sits in the middle of a lotus.

Period: Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Bronze with silver inlay and parcel gilt.
Dimensions: Diameter 15.5 cm; thickness 1 cm.

The edge of the mirror is rounded.  The inlaid silver is decorated with two phoenixes facing each other.  The mythical animal at the top has a single horn and hooves, and gallops over the top of flowing clouds.  At the bottom is a very lively dancing lion between two water lily leaves on long stems.  The round knob is surrounded by beading and cloud shapes in the form of petals.


Period: Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Silver with parcel gilt.
Dimensions: Height 41 cm; length 45 cm.

Horses were of great importance throughout the history of China.  Despite this the domestic horse-breeding programs were rarely successful.  China spent vast sums to purchase horses from its nomadic neighbors.
The Tang dynasty made strides in increasing the quality of their horses, establishing strict practices for the management and treatment of royal steeds. They were a symbol of power and artistic inspiration.  During the Tang, both hunting from horseback and the game of polo became fashionable.

The silver horse shown below is beautifully made.  Sheet silver would have been cut and hammered to produce the head, body and legs in pieces, which were chased and the details produced in repoussé with parcel gilt to enhance the design.

The animal stands with head slightly tilted, nostrils flared and mouth just open showing teeth.  The forelock is parted, with a tassel between the brows, and the long mane hangs in waves from the arched neck.  The ears are pricked and gold bridle is decorated with floret medallions.  The saddle, with a golden dragon amongst the clouds, sits on a saddle cloth decorated with flowering scrolls.  Medallions with tassels hanging from them adorn the breast and crupper straps.

Thursday, November 28, 2013



Period: Possibly Tang dynasty (AD 618 - 906).
Medium: Nephrite jade.
Colour: Yellow-green.
Dimensions: Length 22 cm; width 15 cm; height 12.5 cm.

This amazing creature has the head and forelegs of a fierce dragon and from there on it is a carp.  The carving is dynamic, showing movement and strength.  It is evolution in process.

Despite the natural whitening on the surface, the original fine polish is evident.

There are possibly other myths about the dragon fish, but this one strikes a chord:

"How Koi Became Dragons
 In the wild, koi are cold water fish who gain strength by swimming against currents. It seems they have captured the imagination of fish fanciers for centuries.   Many years ago, in a time before recorded history, a huge school containing thousands of koi swam up the Yellow River. The colors of their well muscled bodies flashed in the sunlight making them seem like a million living jewels. All was going well until the koi reached a waterfall. Immediately, a large number of them grew discouraged and turned back, finding it much easier to simply go with the flow of the river.   Yet, a determined group of 360 koi stayed on. Straining and leaping, each koi strove to reach the top of the falls. Again and again they flung their bodies into the air only to fall back into the water. All this splashing noise drew the attention of the local demons who laughed at the efforts of the struggling koi. Adding to their misery, the demons sadistically increased the height of the falls. Still the koi refused to give up!   Undeterred, the koi continued their efforts for one hundred years. At last, with one heroic leap, a single koi reached the top of the falls. The God’s smiled down in approval and transformed the exhausted koi into a shining golden dragon. He joyfully spends his days chasing pearls of wisdom across the skies of the vast and eternal heavens. Whenever another koi finds the strength and courage to leap up the falls, he or she too becomes a heavenly dragon.   The falls have become known as the Dragon’s Gate and, because of their endurance and perseverance, koi have become symbolic of overcoming adversity and fulfilling one’s destiny.
Swimming koi became symbolic of worldly aspiration and advancement. Carved stone seals bearing pictures of koi and dragons were given to young Chinese men who past the requisite tests to become government officials."