Ancient Chinese Jewelry(5000 years)

Ancient Chinese Jewelry(5000 years)

In ancient China, various decorative items such as hair accessories, earrings, necklaces, armlets, and bracelets were collectively referred to as "jewelry." During the Han Dynasty, items like crowns, mirrors, combs, and cosmetics were also considered as jewelry. However, in the Song Dynasty, the definition of jewelry was limited to the "head and face" area. The definition of jewelry in ancient China was different from the modern understanding of jewelry.

Primitive Society: In the primitive society, people already made various jewelry to adorn their bodies. For example, at the Hu Tou Liang site in Yangyuan, Hebei Province, artifacts from the late Neolithic period were discovered, including perforated seashells, drilled stone beads, ostrich eggshell fragments, and bird bones used to make disc beads. The smooth inner holes and outer edges of these disc beads suggest long-term wear. In the New Stone Age, the variety of jewelry increased. Bone hairpins for securing hair were found in various sites from the upper reaches of the Yellow River to the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, with the highest concentration in the Yangshao Culture site of Banpo in Xi'an, where over 700 bone hairpins were unearthed. In the Yangshao Culture and Longshan Culture, pottery armlets were also abundant. In the tomb of Wang Yin in Yanzhou, Shandong, some individuals were found wearing over ten pairs of pottery armlets on their arms. String necklaces made of small bone beads were also prominent in the jewelry. In the Mijiadian-Xi, Gaolan, Gansu Province, a burial from the late Neolithic period, a human skeleton was found with five loops of bone beads around the neck, totaling about 1,000 beads. In the tomb of a young girl in Yuanjun Temple, Huaxian, Shaanxi, 1,147 bone beads were unearthed. In the tomb of a young girl in Jiangzhai, Lintong, Shaanxi, 8,721 bone beads were discovered. Bead necklaces were mostly worn around the neck, but some were also worn around the waist. In the late Neolithic period, in the Dawenkou and Liangzhu Culture sites in the lower reaches of the Yellow River and the Yangtze River, bone and pottery jewelry decreased, while stone and jade jewelry increased. Especially in the Liangzhu Culture, there were numerous jade ornaments such as beads, tubes, pendants, and bracelets, which were not only abundant but also finely crafted. A jade necklace unearthed from Tomb No. 16 in Huating, Xinyi, Jiangsu, consisted of two cong-shaped tubes, two crown-shaped ornaments, 23 bullet-shaped tubes, and 18 drum-shaped beads. The jade necklace was pure white and lustrous, showing exquisite workmanship.

Shang and Zhou Dynasties: In the Central Plains region, the variety of jewelry discovered was not extensive. The main jewelry found in the Yin ruins were hairpins, including bone hairpins, bronze hairpins, and jade hairpins, with bird or animal heads carved on the hairpin heads. This tradition continued into the Western Zhou Dynasty. From 1955 to 1957, over 700 bone hairpins were unearthed in Fongxi, Chang'an, Shaanxi. Some bone hairpins were carved with overlapping bird shapes, some were inlaid with turquoise, and some had an additional hairpin cap at the top. String necklaces worn around the neck became prosperous again during the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. In Tomb No. 1052, Shangcunling, Sanmenxia, Henan Province, dating from the early Spring and Autumn period, the tomb owner had a string necklace made of chicken-blood stone beads. Tomb No. 1820 in the same burial site belonged to a woman, and her necklace consisted of 101 chicken-blood stone beads, 10 scale-shaped stone ornaments, 1 oval-shaped jade ornament, and 2 small stone ornaments. In a Yanguo tomb in Beixinbao, Huailai, Hebei Province, dating from the Warring States period, the tomb owner also had a string necklace made of 264 turquoise beads.

Han Dynasty: Men generally wore hairpins as their jewelry. In addition to hairpins, women also used hair clasps and hairpins called "zhi." Han hairpins had a simple shape, made by bending a metal wire into two branches. In the stone relief paintings found in Yinan, Shandong, and Mian County, Henan, women often had more than ten hairpins inserted in their hair. Zhi had a narrow comb-like shape, with a length of about one Chinese foot. Tomb No. 1 of Mawangdui in Changsha contained a female burial with three hairpins made of tortoiseshell, horn, and bamboo inserted in the hair bun. In addition, Han women wore ear ornaments called "er." At this time, er were often in the shape of waist drums, with one end being thicker and protruding in a semi-spherical shape. They were inserted into earlobe piercings, with the thicker end remaining in front of the earlobe. In Tomb No. 1 of Changtaiguan, Xinyang, Henan Province, Chu Dynasty, earlobes with bamboo rods passing through them were found, representing er, indicating that this style of ear ornament was worn during the Warring States period. Han-era er also had a central hole for threading pendants, and such earrings were called "er" for the ornaments and "er" for the pendants. Unearthed er and er included those made of metal, jade, and glass.


During the Southern and Northern Dynasties in China, the most luxurious hair accessory for women was called "buyao." According to the "Continuation of the Book of Han: Volume on Transportation and Clothing," it is mentioned that imperial consorts of the Han Dynasty wore buyao, which had a golden "shanti" (a decorative piece) at the lower end and was adorned with "gui branches intertwined, representing the Nine Beauties" at the upper end. However, physical artifacts from the Han Dynasty depicting buyao have not been found.

From Gu Kaizhi's painting scroll "Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies" from the Jin Dynasty, we can see a representation of buyao. It shows two buyao pieces worn side by side on the front of the hair, with several branch-like decorations on top. A similar buyao piece was unearthed from Tomb No. 2 in Fangshen, Beipiao, Liaoning Province. Its design closely resembles the one depicted in Gu Kaizhi's painting scroll. In Ulanqab, Inner Mongolia, two pairs of gold buyao pieces were unearthed, with the "shanti" in the shape of deer heads and the gui branches resembling deer antlers, reflecting the influence of the grassland culture. Additionally, gold necklaces found at this site were adorned with various small weapon models, similar to the description in Gan Bao's "Records of the Jin Dynasty," which mentions women wearing "five weapon pendants made of gold, silver, and tortoiseshell, representing axes, yue axes, daggers, and halberds as hairpins."

Due to the increasing development of East-West trade, some jewelry with Western influences has also been unearthed from the Southern and Northern Dynasties. Tomb No. 7 in the Wang family cemetery in Xiangshan, Nanjing, yielded a silver ring with a diamond inset. Since diamonds were not produced in China at that time, this ring is believed to have been imported from the West. In the tomb of Li Xizong from the Eastern Wei Dynasty in Zanhuang, Hebei Province, a gold ring with carved deer motifs in green jade was discovered. Green jade was a specialty of the Afghanistan region in ancient times, and the deer motif differs in composition from the Chinese style, suggesting that it was also an imported item from the West.

Similar to the inlay on the ring from Li Xizong's tomb, a gold necklace excavated from the tomb of Li Jingxun in Sui-era Panjiacun, Xi'an, also features green jade with carved deer motifs. The necklace consists of 28 gold balls as its main component, each made by soldering together gold rings of various sizes to form a multi-faced hollow sphere. The original pearl inlays within the gold rings have mostly fallen off. Similar gold balls were unearthed from the Han Dynasty burial site in Longshenggang, Xianli Road, Guangzhou. Their shape is reminiscent of the Chinese "liubo" game pieces, particularly the silver filigree bronze liubo piece with perforations found in the Western Han Dynasty Prince of Qi's burial pit in Linzi, Shandong Province. Thus, the gold necklace from Li Jingxun's tomb contains both foreign elements and inherent Chinese factors. In addition to the necklace, the tomb of Li Jingxun also yielded gold earrings and hairpins with glass beads set in movable clasps. The hairpin consists of two separate parts, the floral decoration and the hairpin shaft, indicating a transitional style between the double-pronged hairpin of the Han and Jin dynasties and the floral hairpin of the Tang Dynasty.

In the Tang Dynasty, great importance was given to the floral decorations at the top of hairpins. In the early Tang Dynasty, female attendants depicted in relief carvings on the stone coffins of Princess Yongtai and Crown Prince Yide were seen wearing hairpins shaped like sea hibiscus flowers and phoenixes, but only one or two per person. Later, the floral decorations became larger and almost as long as the hairpin shafts. Various types of floral hairpins were unearthed from Huijiacun in Xi'an and the Emperor Gang tomb in Huangdigang, Guangzhou, dating from the middle to late Tang Dynasty. These hairpins were made using techniques such as embossing, carving, and cutting. The "flower tree" worn by Tang Dynasty imperial consorts and noblewomen were larger floral hairpins. They were usually a set of two pieces, with identical patterns but facing opposite directions, symmetrically inserted. Hairpins with double prongs were called "zhan" or "saotou," while single-pronged hairpins were called "zhan" or "saotou" when they had floral decorations at the top. A gold hairpin unearthed from the tomb of Princess Wu, Prince Zhang of Anlu, Hubei Province, had a top decorated with twisted gold wire forming several layers of patterns and was embellished with small flowers made of gold foil. In the Tang Dynasty, this type of hairpin was much less common compared to floral hairpins.

Combs were originally used for hair grooming, but during the prosperous Tang Dynasty, women started adorning their hair with combs. Initially, a single comb was inserted in front of the bun. Later, the number of combs increased, with two combs being inserted in a paired arrangement. In the attire of noblewomen during the late Tang Dynasty, three sets of combs were inserted in front of and on the sides of the bun. Simultaneously, the decorative designs on the back of the combs became more elaborate. A gold comb with engraved patterns of paired phoenixes and interlaced scroll motifs was unearthed from a Tang tomb in Sanyuan Road, Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province. Another gold comb back discovered in the Tang Dynasty underground storage in Hejiacun, Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, featured patterns created by twisting gold wire and attaching gold grains. A jade-backed horn comb from the Tang Dynasty was unearthed from the tomb of the Shui family in Tangshui, Lin'an, Zhejiang Province, with carved flower motifs and phoenixes on the jade back.

During the Song and Liao Dynasties, women's jewelry in the Song Dynasty generally followed the Tang Dynasty style, with hairpins and combs being the main accessories, but with an increase in the use of floral decorations at the top. Exquisite craftsmanship can be seen in the gold comb backs and dragon and phoenix gold hairpins unearthed from the Song tombs in Mufushan, Nanjing. Similarly, the silver combs and gold hairpins discovered from the tomb of Song Yi Baniang in Pengze, Jiangxi Province, are also representative works of that time. In the northern Liao Dynasty, due to differences in women's hairstyles, hairpins, combs, and hair accessories were less commonly used, while necklaces, earrings, and bracelets were particularly developed. For example, a necklace unearthed from the tomb of Princess Chen in Naiman Banner, Inner Mongolia, consisted of over 500 pearls strung together in five strands of silver wire, with an amber carved pendant in the center. The necklace featured alternating red and white colors, creating a vivid and colorful appearance. The princess's earrings were made of gold wire, connecting four carved amber dragon boats, six large pearls, and eleven small pearls. The dragon boats were also engraved with rowers. Khitan women of the Liao Dynasty were fond of wearing earrings, as evidenced by excavations from Liao tombs in Zhangjiayingzi, Jianping, Liaoning, Zhangkangshan, Jinzhou, and Qianchuanghu Village, Chaoyang, and Inner Mongolia. This is different from the situation in Tang tombs, where earrings were rarely found, and in Song tombs, where the number of unearthed earrings was not significant. Princess Chen wore two pairs of gold bracelets on each arm. The bracelets were wider in the middle and narrower at the ends, bent into an oval shape. One pair was decorated with intertwined branches and had two animal heads facing each other, while the other pair featured two facing dragons at the ends. This bracelet style largely followed the Tang Dynasty's practice of using gold or silver sheets bent into the shape of willow leaves, but the use of dragon heads at the ends became a long-lasting imitation in later periods. During this period, a type of coiled bracelet, consisting of multiple loops, also appeared and was unearthed from Song tombs in Baoshan, Shanghai, Jiuchengban, Wangjiang, Anhui, and Yuanmu, Anqing, Anhui.

In the Ming and Qing Dynasties, folk jewelry was simple and plain, while the jewelry of noblewomen was complex in design, with intricate patterns. They extensively used techniques such as gemstone inlaying, wirework, and cloisonné enamel, making the jewelry more magnificent than in previous dynasties. The phoenix hairpin unearthed from the tomb of Ming Yi Duan Wang in Nancheng, Jiangxi Province, was crafted by soldering and weaving gold wires of different thicknesses, resulting in a delicate structure and a handsome phoenix shape. Nine pieces of gold hairpins depicting fairy pavilions and towers were discovered in the tomb of Ming Yizhuang Wang in the same area. These hairpins were created using wirework techniques to construct elaborate towers and pavilions, with fairies playing music and dancing inside, surrounded by auspicious flowers and plants. The craftsmanship was exceptionally fine. This type of jewelry continued to develop during the Qing Dynasty. In a noblewoman's tomb in Xiaoxitian, Beijing, dating from the Qing Dynasty, a total of 33 hairpins and combs were unearthed. They included phoenix hairpins, hairpins depicting the "Three Friends of Winter," hairpins with auspicious symbols, hairpins with two dragons playing with a pearl, petal-shaped hairpins, unicorn hairpins, cloud hairpins, and linked double happiness hairpins, most of which were inlaid with pearls or rubies. The Qing Dynasty also saw a wide variety of other jewelry, such as hairpins, hair clasps, hair covers, and nail guards adorned with cloisonné enamel and pearl strands. As for rings, they existed in various dynasties from the Han to the Jin Dynasty, and their styles remained relatively unchanged, including during the Qing Dynasty.
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