Lockets, locks and longevity

David LeffmanUncategorized Leave a Comment

In 2018 I bought this antique child’s locket (鎖片) in Dali, an old walled caravan town in China’s Yunnan province. Today Dali has become a bohemian holiday retreat for China’s urban middle class, but from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries served as the capital of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms, whose borders reached from Tibet to Thailand, and at one point even expanded eastwards into Chinese territory. The local Bai ethnic group are descended from those kingdoms, and have also absorbed some mainstream Chinese culture over the past few centuries.

Dali locket, front: boy riding a qilin

Back to the locket, which probably dates from the early twentieth century. It’s hollow, made in three pieces (front, back and a band to separate them) and is about 6.5cm wide, 4.5cm deep, and 1cm thick. It appears to be solid silver, and the open tracery design (with lots of metal filed away) might have helped the buyer save money, as you paid for weight of metal, not the time it took a craftsman to make it. Cheaper lockets were either silver-plated over copper, or just made from unadorned brass.

Dali locket, side view

These types of lockets originated in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and are rich in symbolism: shaped like a Chinese padlock and worn by male infants, the idea was to “lock” the child onto life. This one’s cloud-like curves also resemble the lingzhi fungus, a common symbol of longevity (and itelligence).

The front, above, shows a mythical qilin (a blend of dragon, buffalo and deer) being ridden by a boy dressed in the robes of a court official, illustrating the Chinese idiom, qilin songzi (麒麟送子) – “qilin bringing children” – a common motif in Chinese folk art. A qilin also announced the birth of Confucius, so the underlying idea here is that the child will be as respected and wise as the famous sage.

Qiling Bringing Children: woodblock print from Zhuxian Zhen, Henan province

Below is a more complex necklace using the same imagery, which despite the traditional design, was made in 2019 – proof that some of China’s old ways are resurfacing. Besides the large silver qilin, there are two mini-padlocks on the neck chain; one repeats the qilin songzi motif, the other reads 长命富贵, “long life and riches”.

Silver qilin locket from Qingyan, Guizhou

Incidentally, this piece was made by the female silversmith Zhang Jin (张谨), an ethnic Miao from Huangping county in Guizhou province, which shares a border with Yunnan. Miao are famous for their silverwork, but the skills are usually only passed down to sons. However, Zhang Jin – whose family have been smiths for the past six generations – showed such interest that her father started teaching her when she was a child, and by thirteen she was working independently. She and her husband now run a shop at Qingyan, an old town near the provincial capital, Guiyang.

Dali locket, back: phoenix or crane?

Back to the Dali locket again, and the back shows a large bird, which at first I thought was a phoenix. This would be unusual, as these lockets were usually for boys, but it seemed plausible that it might be for a young bride (the phoenix) expecting her first baby, rather than for the child itself.  

However, the bird is most likely a crane – not only yet another symbol of longevity, but also the badge of a top-ranking civil official. This would reinforce the locket’s overall intent, wishing for a son who lives long enough to become a wise and respected government minister.

Finally, the plants on both side of the locket also have symbolic meaning. Plum flowers again represent long life – especially when doubled up with a crane, as here – while what are probably cassia leaves are a pun on the similar-sounding word for “honourable”, another wish for high rank and respect.

Altogether, a protective amulet wishing for a good future.

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