The ancient Chinese were fancy, ya’ll. Wafer-thin pendants, jade hairpins, nephrite accessories – holy cow! It’s no wonder that the Mongols, who were literally living off of rats and mutton in the Asian Steppes, wanted a piece of the immaculate wealth of their southern neighbors. You can only craft beautiful silver earrings that look like flower-baskets for so long before it attracts a covetous eye. Luckily, the Mongol conquest of China only lasted six decades, and the ancient traditions and practices of Chinese jewelry-making soon resumed.
Chinese jewelry, it should be noted, isn’t just old; it’s hella old – like Neolithic old. 5000 years ago, Lungshanoid people near the Yangtze River started producing jade animal pendants for talismanic purposes. Over the next few thousand years, jewelry evolved as a symbol of status and wealth that also carried metaphorical and superstitious connotations.
Un-puzzling Motifs and Puns
Indeed, Chinese jewelry is full of painstakingly crafted symbols and motifs for observers to un-puzzle. Animals, flowers, and stones all carried specific meanings, and were often gifted to commemorate special occasions like marriage and childbirth. For example, a catfish pendant symbolized wishes for happy marriage, turtles dictated longevity, and three pieces of fruit in the beak of a bird conveyed hopes that the wearer’s son would rise as scholar in the Civil Service Examinations. While this highly specific wish of scholarly success may seem odd to convey with jewelry, the birth of sons and their potential for achievement in Civil Service Examinations decided the future wealth and prosperity of the family.
The use of jade, long associated as the trademark of Chinese jewelry, evolved into a sophisticated art form during the Shang Dynasty. More precious than gold, jade carving took tremendous skill and years of training. Artisans used jade in early Neolithic blades, and later in ornaments, jewelry and sculpture. Valued for its color and extreme hardness, jade was also taken to represent human qualities of beauty and durability. Indeed, Confucius wrote, “soft, smooth and glossy, [jade] appeared to them like benevolence; fine, compact and strong like intelligence.” However, much of the jade jewelry that the West associates with China was made especially for western export in the Victorian era.
Another idiosyncratic quality of Chinese jewelry is its conductivity for puns. Since many words in Chinese languages share similar sounds and tones, plays on words and symbols flourished in many aspects of Chinese culture, including jewelry. For example, a carving of jujubes and peanuts represented fertility, and might have been given to express well wishes at a wedding. However, the word “jujube” itself is also a homonym for “early arrival of the son,” in the same way “right” and “write” share the same sounds but different meanings. Visual puns like these were highly regarded for their artisanal and poetic qualities.
While every dynasty added its own cultural flavor, many designs retained their status as cultural cornerstones through the ages. Dragons and phoenixes, as well as Buddhist symbols, are still relevant in traditional Chinese households today. Moreover, a great deal of ancient Chinese jewelry remains in great condition, thanks in large part, to the practice of burying the wealthy in their jewelry.