This beautifully intricate openwork belt hook depicts a stylized dragon, coiling around itself and contorted into an elegant figure-of-eight design. Its body has been simplified into a ridged snake-like form with clawed limbs, and it is difficult to discern whether the creature grips and bites itself or another serpent. The head of the creature forms the hook of this ornament, which would have created a rather striking effect when worn; the dragon would appear to coil about the surface of the garment, threading its head through the fabric and back out again. Belt hooks became especially popular during the Eastern Zhou period (from circa 770 BC), when the popularity of gold, silver, and bronze as indicators of status on items of personal adornment increased. This example, however, exhibits a lyrical quality that one would expect to find in the art of the Han period.
As functional objects used for fastening belts and clothing, these hooks provided the perfect medium for artistic elaboration, which transformed them into overtly ostentatious indicators of personal wealth and symbols of status. The governmental structure of the Han dynasty, with its focus on imperial rule and a centralized government, created a stratified society in which rank and status were established by association with the emperor. Wearing precious personal effects in a display of wealth would have been one way of aligning oneself with the ruler. Generally, belt hooks were buried with the individual since they were objects intimately connected to the person. Archaeological excavations have revealed that usually only one hook was included in each burial, however, in some cases as many as six were buried, a further indication that these objects were clearly significant markers of the prestige of the individual.
These devices were probably introduced to the Chinese from nomadic sources. A third century text refers to their use during the seventh century BC, a date corroborated by archaeological finds. The earliest belt hooks excavated from Eastern Zhou tombs date to the seventh and sixth centuries. It is also probable that the adoption of nomadic dress was encouraged by contact during attempts to repel them from China's northern borders.
An identical bronze example was excavated in Shanxi province, and similar examples have also been published from the Mengdiexuan collection and the Museum Rietberg collection (see below publications for further details).
For the Mengdiexuan example, J.M. White and E.C. Bunker, eds, Adornment for Eternity: Status and Rank in Chinese Ornament (Denver Art Museum, 1994), pp. 16-20, p. 117, pl. 37.
For the Museum Rietberg collection example, P. Uldry, Chinesisches Gold und Silber (Zurich, 1994), pl. 54.
For the identical bronze example cited above, Li Hong, ed, Zhongguo meishu fenlei quanji: Zhongguo qingtongqi quanji 8: dong zhou 2 (Beijing, 1995), pl. 159.
Private Collection, New Mexico & New York, 1980-1990s.
Published: T. Pang, Treasures of the Eurasian Steppes: Animal Art from 800 BC to 200 AD (New York, 1998), p. 158, no. 175.