These exquisite belt hooks are testament to the ancient Chinese artisan's talent for creating extraordinarily beautiful objects that served highly practical functions. They combine simple understated elegance with technically advanced decoration and complex ornamental designs to create fascinating individual works of art. Decorated with some of the most precious materials of the period, the elegance and luxuriousness of the hook belies its utilitarian function of fastening belts and clothing. Belt hooks were produced in relatively large numbers from the Eastern Zhou period onwards since they were highly functional. Even so, they came to be a suitable medium for both artistic elaboration and personal expression. Belt hooks were probably introduced to the Chinese from nomadic sources and date back to the seventh century BC. The arrangement of these five hooks together makes for a striking visual effect – the five serpents and dragons arrayed in formation as if ready to strike, exhibiting a dynamic vitality, but at the same time a sense of controlled power.
The smallest of the hooks dates from the Western Han period, and its decoration represents the height of Han technical achievement. The design shows a fantastical landscape with mythical inhabitants drawn in the finest of gold and silver inlay. It is this design that identifies this hook as being of the Western Han period; a time when Daoist mysticism and beliefs in a fantastic paradise land to the west had a powerful influence on the imagination of artists. Many belt hooks were made of bronze or iron, but more elaborate examples, such as this, were gilded or inlaid with metals or even semi-precious stones. The application of imagery and techniques more usually seen on bronze vessels and fittings to a relatively small utilitarian object elevates its significance since it reveals how artistic production did not occur in isolation during the Han period. This is a unique example of its kind.
The second, third, and fifth hooks in the series date from the Warring States Period, and have a simple curved form and a serpent head hook, adorned with intricate patterns in turquoise, gold, and silver inlay. A variety of motifs, which are also seen on contemporary bronze vessels, embellish the reptiles’ bodies, including lozenge-shaped and circular motifs, s-shaped curves, coils, swirls and whirling circle patterns, which comprise four curved lines extending from a central point all facing the same direction. The fourth hook, also dating from the Warring States Period, is more elaborate in form, taking the shape of an abstracted dragon with its body intricately entwined about itself. A second, smaller dragon appears to stretch down from the hook, gripping the tail of the larger dragon below it, which is coiled into an attractive figure-of-eight shape along the vertical axis. Parts of the gilded surface and sheet silver are still intact, and it is possible to discern the intricate patterns on the reptiles’ bodies, which would also once have been inlaid. The Warring States period was a time when even the most utilitarian objects, many of which are decorated with the most extraordinary and elaborate designs, were an important weapon against competitors.
Belt hooks were probably introduced to the Chinese from nomadic sources. A third century text refers to their use during the seventh century BC, a date corroborated by archaeological finds. The earliest belt hooks excavated from Eastern Zhou tombs date to the seventh and sixth centuries; generally, these items were buried with the individual since they were objects intimately connected with the person. It is also probable that the adoption of nomadic dress was encouraged by contact during attempts to repel them from China's northern borders. As utilitarian items used for fastening belts and clothing, garment hooks provided the perfect medium for artistic elaboration, which transformed them into significant status symbols. In this sense, the subtlety and sophistication of the present group is rare, as they could often be overly ostentatious. Since they were highly personal objects associated with the owner, belt hooks were able to reveal the resources that the owner had at his disposal, be it manpower or material. The fine workmanship and materials used in the design of these hooks suggest that they belonged to individuals of considerable status and wealth; the great aesthetic potency of these objects was intended to reflect the power of their owners.
Belt hooks of such fine preservation and artistic virtuosity are rare, but parallels include a gilt bronze example inlaid with turquoise (inv. no. F1948.27, Warring States Period, circa fifth to fourth century BC) and a bronze hook with silver inlay (inv. 1915.188) both in the form of serpents, at the Freer gallery of art. A gilt bronze example with a coiling dragon in a figure of eight form is also in the collection of the Freer Gallery (inv. F1917.272, Han Dynasty, 206 BC- AD 220), but the design is not so finely executed as that in the present group.
Examples of Bronze belt hooks inlaid with gold and turquoise dating to the Warring States Period can be found in T. Lawton, Chinese Art of the Warring States Period: Change and Continuity 480 - 222 BC, Freer Gallery of Art (Washington, DC, 1982) pls 48 and 50; and in Ancient Chinese Arts in the Idemitsu Collection (Tokyo, 1989), pl. 223.
Eskenazi Ltd., Inlaid bronzes and related material from pre-Tang China (London, 1991), no. 16.
J.M. White and E.C. Bunker, eds, Adornment for Eternity: Status and Rank in Chinese Ornament (Denver Art Museum, 1994).
S.C. Private Collection, New York, 1980s.