China's long march in the world of fashion

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 February, 2010, 12:00am

The whims of fashion are famously fickle and transient. What hasn't changed since the dawn of time is people's urge to adorn themselves with finely crafted accessories. The use of body ornaments in China harks back to the late Stone Age some 20,000 years ago. Polished shells, stones, animal bones and teeth were bored with holes and put on strings to be worn.

Craftsmanship improved over time as ornaments came to reflect social and cultural development. Hairpins went from one prong to two prongs to support more bouffant hairstyles. Headdresses, clothing accessories and jewellery became exquisite works of art.

The exhibition 'Glittering Beauty: Chinese Accessories from the Hong Kong Museum of Art' chronicles China's long and vibrant history of body ornaments by paying homage to period masterpieces.

The 170 exhibited items of myriad historical provenance, from the museum's collection of some 4,000 items of Chinese antiquities from the Neolithic period to the Qing dynasty, boast a wide variety of accessories including headdresses, necklaces, bracelets, archers' rings, belt ornaments, purses, scent holders and snuff bottles.

Accessories have been worn on the hair, in earlobes, around the neck, on lapels, wrists, arms and ankles. Headdresses ranged from high crowns to turbans and feather crowns. Hair decorations included the jie (an ornamental comb for keeping the hair bun in place) and the buyao (a hairpin with dangling ornaments). Earrings came in countless shapes and sizes, from studs to dangly pendants.

Each a work of art in its own right, the showpieces incorporate a wide range of materials and manufacturing techniques, from kingfisher feather inlays to filigree, and from carving to embroidery. Their decorative patterns are equally diverse, with floral and animal motifs dominating, invested as they were with auspicious import.

Centrepieces of the exhibition comprise such rarities as a tianzi headdress, a Qing dynasty court necklace and a jade earpick hairpin.

Once sported by royal consorts on festive occasions during the Qing dynasty, the tianzi headdress is an exquisitely crafted elliptical headgear (convex outside but flat inside) worn tilted to the back.

Girding its base are rattan strips wound with black velvet and satin ribbons with strings of pearls from which precious stones cascade. These were designed to dangle to the feminine gait of the headdress's wearer. Its woven frame is adorned with motifs such as flowers, birds and bats (the latter being a traditionally auspicious motif), each filigreed by gold or silver and inlaid with pearls, precious stones and the blue feathers of the kingfisher.

'On closer viewing, you can notice the fine texture of tiny bluish-green feathers,' explains Stoney Yeung, the museum's assistant curator of Chinese antiquities. 'The technique of kingfisher feather inlay goes back to the time of the Han dynasty [206 BC-220 AD] and became extremely popular in the Qianlong period of the Qing dynasty.'

Another prized exhibit is a court necklace bedecked with amber, jade and tourmaline beads. Strung with silk threads, the necklace - which originally contained 108 amber beads in four sections of 27, interspersed with larger jade beads - once accessorised a ceremonial or court dress in the Qing dynasty.

Its two ends meet in a pagoda-shaped jade piece called Buddha's Head, which supports a blue ribbon on which a square jade plaque and, lower down, a jade pendant are strung.

The blue ribbon, worn hanging from the nape of the neck, was called a beiyun, or back cloud. Three smaller strings of beads, made of purple tourmaline, hang on either side. These were known as jinian, or mementoes.

Such court necklaces originated as Buddhist rosaries during the Qing dynasty, whose emperors were all Buddhists. Their royal consorts, ministers and court officials were expected to wear similar necklaces for rituals and ceremonies, while strict rules prescribed the choice of materials and the colour of ribbons used to reflect the hierarchy of social status.

'Court officials could choose precious materials such as amber, coral, tourmaline, glass and ivory beads for their necklaces,' Yeung explains.

Among the other fascinating items on display are a jade hairpin worn both by men and women in ancient China, a Han period jade pendant depicting the mythical struggle between a stilt and a clam, and a jade thumb ring inscribed with the heart sutra.

The latter's colophon shows it to have been a product of the Imperial Workshop of the Northern Song dynasty in 1120.


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