In nearly every sale of Chinese works of art, at least one jade belt hook may be found. Primarily dating to the Qing dynasty, with rarer examples dating to the Ming dynasty or earlier, this is a particularly interesting collecting category, as there can be so many variations in form, color and quality of stone, quality of carving and date.
The Chinese belt hook appear to have been based on examples worn by the people of the steppes, with some the earliest examples of Chinese jade belt hooks found in tombs dating to the early Warring States period (475-221 BC). Two white jade examples excavated from the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zheng State, in Suizhou, Hubei Province, circa 433 BC , now in the Hubei Provincial Museum, are illustrated in The Complete Collection of Jades Unearthed in China, Beijing, 2005, Volume 10, “Hubei, Hunnan”, #96. These belt hooks are fairly short in length compared to the typical Ming and Qing dynasty examples, and have broad bodies, a button on the back, the hook ends terminating in bird’s head.
While there are belt hooks which date to the Yuan period, the great period of jade belt hook production was during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The form most often seen is an oblong with a subtle curve along its length, an openwork qilong or juvenile dragon carved on the body of the hook, facing a larger dragon head, a button for attachment to a belt is found on the reverse. According to Terese Tse Bartholomew, in “Hidden Meanings in Chinese Art”, 2006, p. 110, the juvenile dragon facing the larger dragon is illustrative of the saying “canglong jiaozi” or “the old dragon teaching its young”, expressing the wish that the elder generation may pass down office to the younger generation.
In addition to the “canglong jiaozi” type, belt hook variants may be found with goose-head hooks, inspired by the belt hooks of the Warring States period, and horse-head hooks. In addition, the bodies may be carved with birds, monkeys, flowers, or scroll work. In the most elaborate examples, even the button on the underside may be carved.
An unusual example, from the collection of Reese Paley, has a horse-head hook and two monkeys contesting a peach on the upper surface of the body. It is likely that the monkeys and horse head serve as a rebus for the saying “mashang (feng)hou”, which may be translated as “May you (immediately ) reach the rank of a Marquis”, a wish for achievement of high rank (Bartholomew, ibid, p. 114).
For collectors, important factors are the quality and subject of the carving, the quality of the stone, and the size of the belt hook. A finely carved belt hook, of interesting or unusual form, of a fine, even white, yellow, or pale celadon tone will generally be of more value than a belt hook which is poorly or stiffly carved, muddy or unattractively mottled in color. One desirable type is where variations in the color of the stone are cleverly incorporated into the carving. Such an example may be of an even white, with the outer russet skin of the stone retained and carved with a dragon, contrasting with the paler body. This is also true of jadeite examples where the carver utilizes the natural variations in color and tone of the stone into the carved motifs.
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