Golds and Treasures: 3000 years of Chinese ornaments

Tour of the exhibition at the École des Arts Joailliers with commentary by Valentina Bruccoleri, co-curator of the exhibition.

From the collection Mengdiexuan (butterfly's dream workshop, in reference to the passage of Zhuangsi where the philosopher no longer knows if he dreamed of being a butterfly or a butterfly that dreams of being a man)), the ornaments presented during this exhibition testify to more than 3 years of the history of China. The collection Mengdiexuan has been collected by Betty Lo and Kenneth Chu for over thirty years. They also donated 946 objects to the Hong Kong Palace Museum.

Valentina Bruccoleri begins with an introduction to what gold is. Precious metal coveted by men since the dawn of time, it is found in its natural state in two forms: nuggets or dendrites in gold deposits and gold in rivers, which corresponds to dust, granules or nuggets carried by water. from the mountains. Gold was worked very early by man for its malleability, its ductility and the fact that it did not oxidize, hence its relationship to eternity. In the first showcase you can see a solidus of Valentinian 1er (364-375) to explain that the denomination of 24 carats for pure gold, comes from the fact that this reference currency weighed 24 carob seeds.

Dendritic native gold resting on its quartz gangue.

Earrings. Gold, turquoise. Shang Dynasty (ca. 1500-1046 BC).

Double gourd shaped earrings. Gold and other metals. Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

In North China, jade was considered the most valuable and gold was little used before the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). A pair of gold and turquoise earrings from the Shang period (approx. 1500-1046 BC) stands out for its rarity and its remarkable modernity.

If the showcases are not organized in chronological order, they are organized by theme where objects from different periods are presented.

We begin with the auspicious objects which are numerous in the Chinese repertoire. The double gourd, associated with the Immortals, especially Li Tieguai, is a symbol of longevity and the power of healing against disease. Earrings adopt this form, protecting the holders of such a jewel. The Eight Buddhist Symbols (wheel, eternal knot, couple of fish, conch, parasol, treasure urn, victory banner and lotus flower) adorn a torque-shaped necklace from the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). The lantern, another auspicious symbol, is also found in the form of earrings from the Ming period (1368-1644). Note, these buckles with moving parts must have rustled when you moved your head.

Human figures are relatively rare on Chinese ornaments but the representation of children and deities can be found. A headdress ornament features a scene from a traditional opera, "The Four Horsemen go to the Tang". Called mango, this ornament was worn at the back of the hairstyle, above the nape of the neck. A pair of earrings is adorned with female deities or apsaras?

Necklace decorated with Eight Buddhist Symbols. Gold. Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).

Ornament for the headdress (manguan) with scene from the opera The four horsemen go to the Tang. Gold. Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Insects and birds are part of the Chinese decorative repertoire and are found on ornaments. A jewel, from the Ming period, in the shape of a cicada, combines gold and tinted glass imitating tourmaline. A hairpin, from the same period, takes the shape of a dragonfly made of gold and coral; its metal frame has springs that allowed the insect to move when the lady moved. Birds have an important symbolic function from the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127) and from the Ming dynasty appear on clothing to indicate the rank of civil officers. An ornament for clothing, worked in repoussé, figures two pheasants in the middle of peonies. A set made of two plates, also worked in repoussé, presents two birds facing each other on a background of vegetal scrolls. He comes from the Tubo kingdom (7rd-9rd s.) in Tibet.

Dragonfly hairpin. Gold, coral and metal. Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

Detail of the springs of the dragonfly-shaped hairpin.

Ornament for clothing (peizhu) decorated with pheasants and peonies. Gold embossed and cut. Song to Ming Dynasties (980-1644).

Plates decorated with birds. Gold embossed and cut. Tubo Kingdom (7th-9th c.). Tibet.

Flowers and the plant world occupy two showcases. The more or less stylized flowers also carry messages: the peony represents rank and wealth, the lotus, which belongs to the Buddhist repertoire, transmits purity and harmony, the prunus flower, a symbol of beauty and ephemeral character. of life, the chrysanthemum associated with the literate and intellectual accomplishment. In addition, four flowers are associated with the seasons: the peony for spring, the lotus for summer, the chrysanthemum for autumn and the prunus for winter. Hairpins and earrings are adorned with different more or less realistic flowers. Two rings from the Liao period (907-1125) are adorned with a bouquet of different flowers. A pair of earrings, from the Song dynasty (960-1279), each feature a delicate prunus flower.

Ring with floral decoration. Molten gold and molded. Liao dynasty. (907-1125).

Earrings decorated with prunus flowers. Gold. Song dynasty (960-1279).

Belt buckle decorated with a mythical animal. Gilded bronze. (475-221 BC).

Real or mythical animals are also part of the ornamentation. Belt buckles are often adorned with fantastic animals with the "hook" in the shape of a feline or ram's head. Most of those on display date from the Warring States period (475-221 BC) and are in gilt-leaf bronze. A remarkable tiger, from the same period, made in hammered gold leaf, was to adorn a piece of clothing. Two ornamental plaques, dating from the Western Han (206-8 BC), are influenced by steppe art. One depicts a bird of prey facing two characters with zoomorphic heads seated under a tree, the other two stylized stags. An ornament of clothing, decorated with two snow lions (gong seng ge), is executed in embossed gold leaf and comes from the Tubo kingdom (7rd-9rd s.), in Tibet.

Ornament with tiger decor. Gold pushed back. Warring States (475-221 BC).

Plate decorated with a raptor facing two characters with zoomorphic heads. Molten and molded gold. Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-8 AD).

The two central windows are devoted to two mythical animals that are extremely present in Chinese art. The dragon with a sinuous body covered with scales, with an open mouth, bearing horns associated with flames, clouds or waves, is the best known. It symbolizes power and is reserved for the emperor (or the imperial family) if he has five claws. But there are other forms of dragons like the dragon who, polled, smaller, and the makara, whose lower part evokes a fish, while the upper part borrows from the crocodile and the elephant. The latter is part of the Indian repertoire and was introduced into China with Buddhism. A remarkable earring from the Liao dynasty (907-1125) is adorned with a makara. It is not uncommon to see two opposing dragons pursuing the flamed pearl as on a garment ornament from the late Song or early Ming.

Ornament of clothing (peizhui) with dragon decoration. Gold. Song to Ming Dynasties (980-1644).

Earring in the shape of a sea dragon (makara). Silver gilt. Liao dynasty. (907-1125).

Ornament decorated with phoenixes and flowers. Gold. Song to Ming Dynasties (980-1644).

The Phoenix (fenghuang), rather associated with femininity is, in principle, reserved for the empress, princesses or concubines. It is composed of elements taken from several birds: the head of a golden pheasant, the body of a mandarin duck, the tail of a peacock, the legs of a crane, the beak of a parrot and the wings of a swallow. If the phoenix is ​​rather associated with femininity and the dragon with masculinity; however, the two associated symbols can be found on the same ornament either for men or for women. A portrait of Empress Renxiaowen (1362-1407) of the Ming dynasty depicts a headdress where two phoenixes frame a dragon or, on that of Empress Xiao Zhuang Rui (?-1468), two dragons facing each other framing a third dragon. A hairpin, of great finesse, shows a phoenix made of two embossed and welded gold leaves. A Song dynasty (960-1279) headdress adorned with three butterflies is surmounted by four phoenixes.

Hairpin with phoenix decoration (detail). Gold pushed back. Song dynasty (960-1279).

Hair ornament decorated with three butterflies and surmounted by four phoenixes (detail). Gold. Song dynasty (960-1279).

Portrait of Empress XiaoZhuangRui (?-1468). Colors on silk.

The penultimate showcase exhibits headdress ornaments. Pins adorned with Buddhist figures, a lovely comb, from the period of the Six Dynasties (220-589), which combines gold, nephrite jade, pearls and green gemstone.

Hairpins decorated with Buddhist figures. Silver gilt. Tang dynasty (618-907).

Comb. Gold, nephrite jade, pearls and green gem. Six Dynasties period (220-589).

Hair ornaments (bianfang), typical of the Qing period (1644-1911) and of Manchu origin, which were worn horizontally across the bun are decorated with floral and plant motifs and one of them illustrates "the three friends of winter (bamboo, pine and prunus). The particularity of these ornaments is the inclusion of kingfisher feathers evoking cloisonné enamels.

Headdress ornaments (bianfang). Silver gilt, rubies, kingfisher feathers. Qing dynasty (1644-1911).

Belt buckle decorated with a mythical animal. Gilt bronze, turquoise, nephrite.

The belt as we know it appeared in China, under the impetus of nomadic populations and the rise to power of some of them. For these riders, the belt allowed not only to maintain the garment but also to attach various objects like swords, daggers and necessities. A set of gilt silver plates, from a belt from the Tang (618-907) or Liao (907-1125) period, shows a scholar playing the zither, accompanied by a bird on a background of floral scrolls . The central plate represents the scholar in front of another seated figure.

Set of belt plates decorated with scholars playing the zither. Silver gilt. Tang dynasty (618-907).

Central plate from the set of belt plates decorated with scholars playing the zither. Silver gilt. Tang dynasty (618-907).

This exhibition describes not only the use of gold in China over the centuries, but also all the different techniques related to its use: hammered, embossed, chiseled, engraved, melted and molded, inlaid, set, in the form of watermark or in the form of granulation…


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