A Jade Belt Hook for All Time
Dr. Jenny F. So
“Weary not of new belts, despise not old belt hooks” Huananzi: Taizuxun 11
A belt hook formerly in the Baron and Baroness von Oertzen Collection offered in the current sale deserves special attention, not just because it is shaped from a translucent, pale yellowish jade with a warm unctuous polish. More importantly, it is worked from a single, large slab of jade originally about 10 x 7 x 2 cm thick, an extraordinary extravagant use of very precious material even today. Its design of studied rhythmically symmetrical openwork curls and hooks mesmerizes, as does its lustrous polish created by light dancing across the subtly molded surfaces. Surrounded by the abstract curls is a single crested animal-mask at the center of the shield-shaped body, as plump angular C-curls occupy the neck, lead toward the hook that is rendered as a sculptured animal head with horns sweeping back to form a loop. Fine incised linear curls adorn the flat underside: on the neck, a long-tailed bird, its head bent back with yogic dexterity, and on the button in the middle, an interlocking whorl pattern. Finally, that this belt hook has survived in virtually perfect condition for more than two thousand years testifies to its timeless appeal.
In ancient China, belt hooks were an everyday, purely functional accessory designed to hold two ends of a leather or fabric belt together, keeping the tunic or robe tightly wrapped around the waist. The button on the underside passes through a hole at one end of the belt, while the hook attaches to a slit or opening at the opposite end of the belt. Created during the 6th century BCE, belt hooks were mostly modest club-shapes made of bronze, bone, or even wood. Elite members of society might have worn belt hooks made of gilt bronze, or bronze with gold-, silver-, turquoise- or malachite-inlays. Far rarer are solid gold belt hooks, understandably small due to the high value of gold; jade insets often fill additional spaces in larger gold hooks. The latter are exceptional and rare items closely associated with rulers and nobility as symbols of status and authority, perhaps even of divine intervention. A well-known historical narrative credits a belt hook with saving the life of a young prince by shielding him from an assassin’s arrow. This prince lived to become Duke Huan of Qi (died 643 BCE), one of Five Hegemons of the Eastern Zhou period.
Substantial, club- or shield-shaped belt hooks worked from a single slab of jade, like the von Oertzen example, are the rarest. Among the over two hundred jade artifacts recovered from the tomb of the King of Nanyue (datable before 122 BCE) in Guangzhou (or Canton, excavated 1983), there were just four large jade belt hooks, only two of which were worked from a single piece of jade. Similar ratios pertain among many jaderich burials throughout the last centuries BCE. Surveys and studies of belt hooks published in the recent half century reveal that unusually large belt hooks made with valuable materials were both exceptional and unique creations. No two are alike. Each was a singular product conceived by a master craftsman based on available material on hand and the ornamental vocabulary of the time. No wonder that the observant Western Han prince Liu An (179–122 BCE) noted at court: “Among those seated, the hooks worn on each belt are all different …” (Huainanzi: Shuolinxun 13)
To date, only one example is known to approximate the von Oertzen belt hook in material, shape, size, and design. It is a jade belt hook from the 3rd century BCE tomb of a nobleman in Shandong Qufu, ancient capital of the Lu State. Excavated in 1978, this belt hook is worked from a slightly smaller, but also a single slab of translucent pale yellowish jade. It shares the von Oertzen’s decorative scheme —a sculptural animal head as hook, a crested animal mask in low relief on a shield-shaped body, plump angular C-curls on the neck, and a whorl design on the button. But it lacks the lilting openwork configurations that distinguish the von Oertzen belt hook.
The abstract openwork curls and sculptural animal motifs on the von Oertzen belt hook were both part of a common ornamental vocabulary in jade design during the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries BCE. The best parallels in abstract openwork curls adorn pendant ornaments from elite late 3rd century BCE tombs at Yanggong village (excavated 1977) in Changfeng, Anhui province, at Shangwang village (excavated 1993) in Linzi, Shandong province, and from the early 2nd century BCE tomb at Shizishan in Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, excavated 1994. A pair of jade combs in the Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, acquired in the early twentieth century with a purported Luoyang provenance like the von Oertzen belt hook, also display similar openwork curled configurations.
From the same early 2nd century BCE tomb at Shizishan came large jade drinking vessels — an oval cup (erbei), a cylindrical tankard (zhi), and stemmed goblet — shaped from a similar high-quality pale yellowish jade. Such jade vessels are prime symbols of excesses in jade consumption accessible only to ruling princes at the time. The low-relief animal mask and elegant birds rendered in fine incised lines on the von Oertzen belt hook also adorn a pair of oval cups in the Harvard Art Museums, also worked from a pale yellowish jade of similar quality. The von Oertzen belt hook’s close associations with this group of exceptional artifacts suggest that it, too, was likely made for individuals of unusual stature, a prince, or even ruler during the late 3rd or early 2nd century BCE.
In the six decades since the von Oertzen belt hook was first published in 1952, belt hooks of this quality in material, size, design, and workmanship remain rare. To date, nothing else comparable has emerged from even the most recent excavations of 2nd and 1st century BCE imperial mausoleums—at Dayunshan (excavated 2009 to 2012, at Youyu, Jiangsu province), which yielded more than ten belt hooks in jade, gold, silver, even rock crystal; or at Nanchang, Jiangxi province (excavated 2011 to 2016), that yielded over 500 jade artifacts. None has been published from major collections in western and Asian institutions. As a status symbol made from a highly valued material with profound meanings and symbolism throughout Chinese history, the von Oertzen jade belt hook is truly an unparalleled masterpiece for all time.