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Earrings Reveal Ancient Tradition

Many women nowadays almost feel naked without their earrings and it was more or less the same among ancient Chinese women over 2,500 years ago.

After they died, they were buried with their favourite earrings.

Archaeologists have unearthed a variety of earrings while sifting through historical relics in China.

Erdang, a kind of earring worn pierced through the earlobe, was one of the most popular items of jewellery worn by Chinese women in ancient times.

A piece of pottery unearthed in Guangzhou, south China's Guangdong Province and dating back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), showed a dancing woman wearing such earrings.

According to Shiming (Interpreting Terms), a dictionary compiled by Liu Xi, a scholar from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220), erdang earrings were first used by ethnic-minority women in remote border areas and then spread to Central China.

The oldest erdang extant so far were unearthed in a Chu State tomb dating back to the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC).

Archaeological excavations showed that wearing erdang had become fashionable during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC).

Ancient earrings were usually made of materials such as gold, jade, silver, ivory, marble, glass and crystal.

Bright colours

From the time of the Han Dynasty to the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-581), glass erdang were in vogue mainly due to their bright colours and glittering and translucent facets.

Chinese literati in these periods wrote admiring poems in praise of these extraordinary pieces of jewellery.

Glass erdang were frequently described as "night-shining gems" in works such as Kongque Dongnan Fei (Peacock Flying Southeast), a well-known folk poem from the Han Dynasty, and Luoshen Fu (Ode to the River Luo Nymph), composed by Cao Zhi of the Three Kingdoms Period (AD 220-280).

Modern experts have argued that glass erdang might not have appeared until the Spring and Autumn Period, when glass production was in its infancy.

As glass making went into full swing, the production of glass erdang was thriving during the Warring States Period.

Over the past few decades, Chinese archaeologists have unearthed thousands of glass erdang in ancient tombs dating from the Qin to the Southern and Northern Dynasties.

These tombs are spread around the country, especially in Central China's Henan, Hunan and Hubei provinces.

In Changsha, capital city of Hunan, dozens of Han Dynasty tombs with an abundance of glass erdang were discovered between 1952 and 1964.

The colours of the glass erdang were diverse -- blue, green, purple, black and white, either transparent or translucent.

What impressed archaeologists most was that many of these ornaments were still shining when they were unearthed.

Main designs

There were two main designs of ancient glass erdang -- solid ones and hollow ones.

The solid type generally looked like a small stick with a large end shaped like a bead and a small end shaped like a cone.

It was fairly simple to wear solid erdang. The earlobe would be pierced with the cone-like end, exposing the bead on the outer side of the earlobe.

Ancient Chinese used to call this type of earring yuandang or beaded earrings.

In 1953, seven beaded earrings were unearthed in a Han Dynasty tomb in Luoyang, Henan Province. Each was about 2.6 centimetres long and made of transparent white glass.

The design of the hollow erdang was a little different.

The part of the earring that pierced the earlobe looked similar to that of the solid one. But a small hole was drilled into it so that a pendant could be attached.

The pendant was generally formed of glass beads or other precious stones. Some women liked to attach a small bell to the pendant so that, when they walked, the earrings made a clear and rhythmical sound.

Royal symbol

During the Han Dynasty, empresses, imperial concubines and princesses wore earrings in a special way.

They did not pierce their earlobes with the earrings. Instead, they attached the erdang to a hairpin so they hung down beside their ears.

According to Shiming, such earrings, usually referred as zan'er or hairpin earrings, were more like a symbol of royalty than an ordinary piece of jewellery.

As the ancient scholar Liu pointed out in his work, the hairpin earrings were to remind imperial women to give a ready ear to wise counsel.

Many historical works -- such as Shiji (Records of the Historian) by Sima Qian (145-86 BC) -- unveiled some interesting details concerning royal women's earrings.

When the emperor talked to the royal women, they had to remove their hairpin earrings to listen with respectful attention.

In research into ancient Chinese earrings, experts have also found that many ancient women liked to wear a single earring instead of a pair.

Archaeological teams from Henan Province once reported that, in many well-preserved tombs, they often found a single glass erdang on the left side of the skull.

Single earrings were found in one-third of Han Dynasty tombs throughout China.

Over the past few decades, archaeological findings have proved that the custom of wearing a single earring (in the left ear) was fairly popular during the Warring States Period and the Qin and Han dynasties.

One example was shown on a sabre excavated in Changsha in 1974. The sword was over 2,000 years old and had a handle in the shape of a woman wearing an erdang in her left ear.

Though research into ancient Chinese earrings has seldom taken centre stage, the increasing number of archaeological discoveries has drawn more and more attention to this field.

Fu Juyou is a researcher of ancient jewellery at Hunan Museum.

(China Daily July 21, 2003)

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