Ancient China’s cultural landscape through a golden lens

Comb with mandarin ducks holding ribbons
Ornament and spoons with felines
Headdress with dragons and phoenixes
Pectoral
Mask
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Radiance: Ancient Gold from the Hong Kong Palace Museum 

From ancient civilisations to current times, gold has been a marker of wealth and prosperity. In China, records of golden artefacts stretch as far back as about 1700 BC. (In ancient Europe, gold is cited in documents from about 5000 BC onwards.) Through political exchanges, trade, and migration, goldsmithing techniques and styles weave the story of gold’s transformation and significance.

Tang Dynasty Gold

A naturally occurring reddish-yellow element, gold commonly manifests in alloy form beside silver, copper, and other rare elements. As a result, the portion of retrievable gold varies wildly from less than one per cent to eighty per cent. This scarcity is a defining pillar in gold’s illustrious stature. However, it was only after the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) that the practice of gold mining emerged. Notably, in ancient Chinese literature, the character for gold also referred to bronze and copper.

Gold’s presence in society begins with the Xianbei people (comprising the Murong, Tuoba and Duan tribes), who inhabited the Steppe region in Mongolia and Northern China. Initially ruled by the Xiongnu Empire (3 BC-1 AD), the Xianbei broke away and regained territorial control in 1 BC. Further ahead in history, the Murong branch founded several Yan states (337-436 AD) while the Tuoba established the powerful Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD). Xianbei ornaments were often decorated with abstract patterns. Dangling accessories known as buyao (swaying with each step) were also characteristic of the period, with samples found as far as Central Asia and the Korean peninsula.

Tuoba Goldsmiths 

For the Tuoba people, horses were an essential part of life through transportation, mounted warfare and horse sacrifice, which was a significant component of elite burials. Tuoba goldsmiths developed an innovative decorative style that combined winged animal motifs with turquoise inlay. This style was utilised in personal ornaments that were popular among the elite. The nomad group also wore ornaments on their leather and cloth belts, mainly buckles, end pieces, and plaques affixed with nails and backed onto bronze plates. Floral patterns were the most common. Another recurring motif was elephants. Plaques and fabrics bearing the Indian elephant have been excavated from several Tuoba tombs, reflecting the cultural interchange between the tribe and South Africa.

Advancements in goldsmithing techniques broadened the scope of capability. Fine jewellery arose throughout the region. Gold nose rings and armlets have been connected to the Siba culture (about 18-15 BC) in the Hexi Corridor of China’s Gansu province, as well as the Lower Xiajiadian culture (approximately 16-13 BC) around the Yan Mountains north of the North Chain Plain. Gold-beaded borders can be traced to the art of ancient Iranian civilisations, Sasan and Sogdia, cultures that played a significant role in the Silk Roads trade. Artisans of the Tang dynasty gradually adapted the beaded borders into their floral roundels.

Tang Dynasty Artisans & Fashion

Tang artisans adopted foreign gold-working techniques that regularly combined granulation with gemstones and glass inlay, adding to their luxurious effect. As high-ranking Tang women were fond of elaborate hairstyles, artisans significantly focused on constructing intricate designs for the social elite. Combs were a common sight. Mostly fashioned into half-moon-shaped tops, some were small and intended as hair ornaments, with only the comb top visible. These were often elaborate constructions with a pierced and cut-away design or in repoussé (designs raised in relief by hammering or punching). The most common patterns – paired birds, butterflies and flowers – were outlined by fine gold granules. Flowering tree (Huashu) hairpins, a Tang dynasty creation, were heavily embellished with cutouts of animals, birds, insects and flowers. Shapes and patterns were closely related to the Tang custom of cutting sheets of fabric or paper at the beginning of spring. Phoenix-shaped hairpins came into vogue in the Tang dynasty and remained fashionable during the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD).

Ming Dynasty Gold 

The Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) saw the introduction of hairnets (Diji). This invention broadened the scope for creativity, as numerous hairpins could be attached to the piece. Some designs were more sophisticated styles of headdresses referred to as “head and dace” (Toumian) and were likely made by imperial workshops called the Jewellery Service (Yinzouju). While women adorned their heads with hairpins, early Ming dynasty emperors wore round hats. Some were decorated with lotus-shaped gold finials enhanced with precious and semiprecious stones. Several are displayed at the exhibition, a testament to their political significance and artistic mastery.

Radiance: Ancient Gold from the Mengdiexuan collection

With its extensive displays, The Palace Museum’s Radiance exhibit walks visitors through the evolution and achievements of ancient China’s gold-working techniques. It also illustrates the dynamic nature of cross-regional connections in politics, culture and commerce through the Steppe and the Silk Roads over the past three millennia. Time-honoured objects continue to shed light on the pattern of diversity and unity of the Chinese nation through various regional exchanges.

Test & photos by Victoria Mae Martyn