I’m no expert in Chinese antiques, but I have spent a lot of time browsing antiques markets all over the country, looking at everything from old woodblock prints to iron cannon and pieces of nineteenth-century official regalia. These include rank decorations such as “hat buttons” (maoding, 帽顶), a coloured bead mounted on top of an official’s headgear, and “mandarin squares” (buzi, 補子) embroidered with birds or mythical animals, worn front and back of their robes.
And then there are peacock feather tubes (翎管lingguan). Peacock feathers were awarded to ranking Chinese officials for special services, and the lingguan served as a mount to attach the feather to the official’s hat, so that the plume hung down at the back.
This lingguan caught my eye in one of Beijing’s antiques markets, mostly because it looked just so… well, wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on how exactly, but the asking price of just a couple of hundred yuan was suspiciously low, considering that antique lingguan can sell in the high tens of thousands. Anyway, it wasn’t much money, and though I bought it with a slight hope that it just might be genuine, I was more taken with the idea of pinning down all the things that had made me suspect that it wasn’t. And if it wasn’t an antique, I wondered if there would be any way of proving whether this lingguan had been made as an honest copy, or with intent to deceive – in other words, as a fake.
The first thing to bear in mind is that peacock feathers were a mark of honour, and lingguan should enhance this. Despite their small size and relative invisibility when worn, lingguan were valuable, cherished objects, made of jade and occasionally beautifully carved.
The plume (hualing 花翎) is made from a central coloured eye feather flanked by two black ones, the quills bound tightly together with horsehair so they can be sheathed inside the lingguan tube. While on my one the eye looks very bright and fresh for something meant to be over a century old, in fact they can survive that long in pretty good condition. But the overall look of this plume is scruffy, untidy and short: the feathers were usually around 30cm long; while this is just 20cm.
When it comes to the lingguan itself, as a prestige object it should be made with artistry and skill. Although cut from pale-green jade, the stone is not good quality, with several visible flaws. It’s also graceless, chunky, and long at 9cm – they generally range either side of 7cm – not to mention heavy for something that was meant to hang off the back of a hat. Just picking it up and feeling the weight was enough to question its authenticity.
Looking closely, it’s also crudely cut and shaped, especially in the “shoulders” which are uneven either side. And although lingguan were often decorative, I’ve never seen one with an inscription on it. This one reads 當朝一品, “To Serve the Dynasty at the Top Rank”, which is at least appropriate, and written in the correct traditional characters (some “antiques” are betrayed by the use of simplified characters, which were introduced during the 1950s). I am slightly suspicious though that the font style is modern.
So far, none of the above points on their own would prove this lingguan is modern, though taken together they make it very unlikely that it’s an antique. But is it a fake or a copy?
Firstly, there’s dirt in the pinhole that once held a cord which tied the lingguan to the hat. I’m always doubtful of dust and grime, as they are often applied by dealers in an attempt to make a piece look old.
More suspicious than that though, is the lack of shine. Jade is a very hard stone which polishes up beautifully. Where really old pieces of jade have been handled a lot, they acquire a matt surface from thousands of tiny random accumulated abrasions. In fact lingguan weren’t necessarily handled much; they were worn for official occasions and kept in a protective case, so there would be no reason for them to lose their gloss.
But a shiny antique doesn’t look old, which could be a problem if you’re trying to fool a buyer into thinking it is. And when you look closely at this lingguan, you can see the matt effect comes from hundreds of relatively large, parallel abrasions. Being parallel, they can only have been put there all at the same time, from carborundum paper or a wheel. So this piece has been deliberately aged, and is therefore not just a copy, but a fake. The forger has been given away by trying too hard to make the lingguan look old, when in fact it shouldn’t.
So to sum up – this is a crudely-cut piece of jade with a peacock feather stuck up its backside trying to masquerade as an heirloom-quality antique. Ah well. Chinese collectors describe money lost buying fakes as “tuition fees”, but at least this lesson didn’t cost me too much.