This exceptional belt hook is an outstanding example of Western Han jade carving, and was most probably made for a king or a prince. Although it appears that no other examples of this design have been published, the style and the craftsmanship of this piece are consistent with many of the excavated examples from the period. Carved from a thick plaque of top quality jade material, it has an unusual broad shield-shaped body terminating in a hook formed by an animal head. The head is beautifully sculpted with great three-dimensionality and ferocity. Its execution is comparable to the terminal on the belt hook excavated from the tomb of the King of Nanyue in Guangzhou (fig.1). The terminal of the Nanyue example looks very much a feline, and has been described as a tiger, while the animal of the current piece is harder to determine, as it has a crest and is likely to be a mythical beast or a dragon. Two other examples in the Freer Gallery, both with similar sculptural animal head terminals, are worth comparing and are illustrated by Thomas Lawton in Chinese Art of the Warring States Period: Change and Continuity, Freer Gallery, Washington D. C., 1982, nos. 113 and 114.
The main body of the belt hook has a complex openwork design that can be compared to the upper part of the jade bi disc, also from the tomb of the King of Nanyue (fig. 2), which has similar tight scrolling designs. It is even more closely related to the upper part of the bi disc from the tomb of the King of Zhongshan in Mancheng, Hebei province. The relationship between these two pieces is especially apparent when the disc is viewed upside down (see Zhongguo yuqi Qianji 4 Qin, Han - Nanbeichao).
The centre of the current belt hook is carved in shallow relief with another mythical beast, similarly with a crest and facing up towards the animal head on the terminal. Another belt hook of an earlier date, excavated from a Warring States (475-221 BC) tomb in Qufu, Shandong province, also has a broad, shield-shaped body, on which is carved a taotie mask in shallow relief (fig. 3). However, while the mask on the Qufu example bears little relation to the animal-head terminal, on the current belt hook the mask and the animal head are in direct confrontation. Furthermore, the crested mask looks just like a simplified, two-dimensional representation of the more sculptural animal head. This juxtaposition of the same motif in both two and three-dimensional representations creates an interesting illusion, as if the animal is looking at its own reflection.
The back of the current hook is finely incised with a stylised figure of an elegant long-tailed bird at the top, and a swirling design at the central stud. Similar style of fine incised decoration can be seen on other Western Han jade carvings. A jade ear cup in the Freer Gallery, illustrated by Thomas Lawton in ibid, nos. 102, has stylized bird-like creatures incised at the interior of its oval foot ring, and scrolling designs in the interior. A jade archer's ring in the same collection, illustrated ibid, no.110, p.162, also is incised with similar bird motif.
The current belt hook was once in the collection of J. D. Chen (Chen Rentao). Chen was a wealthy merchant in Shanghai in the beginning of the 20th century, working as the manager of one of the largest silversmiths at the time, Yangqinghe. He was an avid collector of archaic jades, porcelains, coins, bronzes, paintings and calligraphy and wrote several books discussing pieces in his collection. His coin collection is now in the National History Museum in Beijing.