Fantastic Figure

  • China
  • China, Western Han period
  • figure, 2nd to 1st; pendant, 5th to 3rd centuries B.C.
  • Gilt bronze, gold, and jade
  • H-16.2
Catalogue Entry

One of the most fascinating but enigmatic objects in the Shumei collection is this graceful figure formed by joining two separate artifacts together: a Western Han-period gilt-bronze handle in the shape of a supernatural figure and an earlier Eastern Zhou-period dragon-shaped jade pendant. The figure was lost-wax cast and was conceived as part human and part animal, with animal ears defined by a sunken area within an outline ending in two inward spirals, a broad nose, fat cheeks, full lips, and one arm with a superimposed wing. The arm is represented with a bifurcated end terminating in broken stumps, one of which almost touches the jade. It appears that originally this section would have split in two thin metal strips that most likely would have extended over and under the jade and over and under the two holes. This is indicated by two ungilded and corroded break surfaces in an otherwise gilded strip. If so, it would also explain the two holes in the jade and would have provided support for the break in the jade. The body of the figure is a rectangular shape with a deep slot in the bottom to fit some unidentified object, and a slit in the head, into which the snout of the jade dragon was inserted and secured by two rivets, both of which appear to be ancient. One rivet, closer to the center, is of a copper alloy and does not extend to the other side; the second rivet is made of gold and does extend all the way through. The figure and the copper alloy rivet were mercury amalgam gilded.1

The jade pendant must have been regarded as having great importance. Stains from bronze corrosion products on the jade indicate that the two pieces were not combined recently.2 However, their marriage seems contradictory to Han Chinese aesthetics. To insert a dragon pendant nose down into a slot in a later gilt-bronze fragment lacks a certain sensitivity to the significance of such jades in Chinese culture. Numerous examples of early jades lovingly set in later gilt-bronze and gold mounts provide precedents of sorts, but in each case the jade was treated with great respect.3 The combination here must represent the individual taste of some early connoisseur, perhaps a foreigner, but when and why it was made remain a mystery.

1. I very grateful to Dr. Pieter Meyers from the detailed technical description based on microscopic examination.
2. As was suggested in Metropolitan Museum 1996, p. 128.
3. Rawson et al. 1995, pp. 304-6, no. 22.1 and comparative pieces.