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Clothes Never Enough

In ancient China ornaments were a common addition to the wardrobes of both women and men.


Whenever they attended any formal occasions, they liked to wear certain kind of ornaments.


This tradition dates back to ancient times. The first ornaments were mostly practical accessories worn at the waist. Some were talismans to keep away evil spirits, some were symbols of wealth and others were simply practical accessories.


References to such ornaments can be found in the historical records of various periods. The earliest such records are to be found in history of the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600-256 BC).


According to The Book of Songs (Shijing), an anthology of songs, poems, and hymns dating from the Zhou Dynasty to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), adults wore a ring used to hook the string on a bow when they were about to shoot an arrow. The ring, generally made of jade or bone, was called a banzhi, or archer's ring, and was regarded as a symbol of adulthood.


In addition to such practical items, the ancient Chinese often used ornaments to express their emotions. The Book of Songs talks of how women liked to give their husbands ornaments to show their love, gratitude and sincerity.


Symbolic patterns


Most of the traditional adornments were decorated with auspicious patterns representing such things as lotus, lions, fish, bats, and butterflies.


Since the Chinese word for bat, pronounced fu, sounds the same as the word for "good luck," bat patterns have been widely used in Chinese traditional clothing and accessories. In particular, the "Wufu Pengshou" motif -- five bats encircling the word for longevity -- stood for health, wealth and virtue.


Fine and exquisite workmanship endowed these adornments with richness, luster and delicacy, reflecting the elegance in life aspired to by the Chinese.


Through the centuries, ornaments became increasingly codified and their use to indicate social rank became firmly entrenched.


Different persons were expected to wear different adornments which carried different symbolic meanings.


The jade pendant, for instance, was not just an ornament, but also a symbol of virtue.


"A gentleman must wear a jade pendant... He should not take off his jade pendant without good reason," according to The Book of Rites (Liji), which described Chinese religious practices from the 15th to the 8th century BC.


Later, pendants were made not only of jade but also of other materials to suit different tastes and demands.


"A short-tempered man should wear pendants made of leather to remind himself to be patient; while an indecisive person should wear pendants made of string to remind himself to speed up his work," Hanfeizi, a philosopher of the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), wrote in his works.


Changing trends


Just as Chinese attire recorded dramatic changes over thousands of years, traditional accessories also saw great changes. Adornments of different periods had different characteristics.


During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, from 770 BC to 221 BC, the types of adornments, mostly jewellery, knives and scarves, saw little change.


Although not many new varieties appeared in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), the adornments produced were more complicated than those of the previous dynasties, featuring more exquisite designs and remarkable craftsmanship.


Those worn by the noble class became increasingly more exquisite in design than those worn by the common people.


In the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-581), hebao, or sachets, became one of the most popular adornments. People wore them at the waist for carrying odds and ends such as seals, keys, handkerchiefs and other small things. Pearls, jade, incense and other valuables were also put in the sachet to dispel evil and foul smells.


Men of the upper class liked to wear a leather girdle around the waist which was tied with a variety of adornments.


In the early Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), white waist girdles came into vogue. Officials of different rank wore different adornments. The imperial family used fish-shape sachets to show their nobility.


In the Song Dynasty (960-1279), adornments were made of a much wider variety of materials including jade, gold, silver, bronze, iron, horn and stone.


In addition to fish-shaped sachets, imperial officials often worn qiedai (eggplant-shaped purses), when they went out for a trip. The handicraft industry was thriving in the Song Dynasty and handicraft workshops sprang up like mushrooms all over the country. There were numerous types of pendants favored by the people, and most of the ornaments were elegant yet practical.


Adornments in the Liao (916-1125), Jin (1115-1234) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties were very similar to those in the Song Dynasty, the only difference being the decorative patterns used.


In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the most dominant ornaments were bags, purses and sachets, which were designed for different uses. Other ornaments included practical everyday articles such as spoons, knives and tweezers, which were made of gold, silver, copper, ivory or bone. People often attached some of these articles to a pendant or a silk ribbon and wore it as an ornament.


Classified Anecdotes of the Qing Dynasty (Qingbai Leichao) published in 1916 unveiled interesting details concerning what kinds of ornaments were regarded as chic among the upper classes.


One imperial official was so fond of accessories that he wore over 20 ornaments -- including gloves, rings, bracelets, sachets and pendants -- everywhere he went.


In the modern history of the country, traditional ornaments saw great development. New materials like silk, brocade, wood and bamboo were introduced in the production of a wide variety of accessories, and the former practical adornments were gradually replaced with decorative pieces.


(China Daily February 7, 2004)

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