Mandarin Court Necklace Box
Qing Dynasty, 19th century
height: 6.3cm, diameter: 19.6cm
This wood, lacquer and gilt box was made to hold a mandarin’s court necklace (chaozhu). The top cover is decorated with four raised roundels of highly stylised Chinese script, two butterflies, some bamboo and a plum blossom against a Buddhist swastika design which also decorates the sides. The raised elements of the design are gilded against a red lacquer background. The ‘donut’ design of the box allows a necklace to be laid in it without becoming tangled. The lid is secured to the based by means of a brass hinge and latch. A label (in Chinese) inside reminds the buyer of the quality of this particular brand and to beware of imitations.
The mandarin court necklace was based on the Buddhist rosary. It was part of the dress worn by members of the imperial family and by officials, initially as a sign of piety and later as a sign of status and rank. Typically the necklaces had 108 smaller beads and four larger ones to represent the four seasons. Court dress regulations were quite specific. Civil and military officials were graded in nine ranks. Regulations required that all those of civil rank five or higher, or military rank four or higher, wear court necklaces on all ceremonial occasions. The design of the necklaces was the same but the material used for the beads – pearls, jade, agate lapis lazuli and so on – differed according to rank and occasion.
When they were not worn the necklaces were kept in round boxes such as this example.
A near identical court necklace box is on display in the Museu do Oriente, Lisbon, Portugal, although the museum places this box in the eighteenth rather than the nineteenth century. We prefer a later dating.
Morgan, M., 100 Treasures, The Museum of East Asian Art, 2000; Capon, E., J. Menzies & Y. Yang, Imperial China: The Living Past, Art Exhibitions Australia Ltd, 1992.
Inventory no.: 811