Chinese hairpins

“Rhapsody in Blue”

Imogen Clark, Magdalen College, University of Oxford. MAME student, Pitt Rivers Museum.

1884.79.163 Kingfisher feather ornaments from China

Objects 1884.79.163.1 to .5 are a series of elaborate, Chinese, silver hair ornaments. Each is made up of pieces of silver cut and laid to form floral patterns. Each is inlaid with kingfisher feathers and ‘beads’ of coloured glass. To each of the items are attached coiled, metal springs, the ends of which are decorated with (probably imitation) pearls. The overall design is symmetrical; the pieces appear to be attached together and would presumably have been pinned to the back of the head.

Very little is known about these ornaments. They are Chinese, but it is not known when or where or by whom they were collected. Their designation, as part of Pitt Rivers’ Founding Collection, is also dubious. They are the very last pieces to be listed under the 1884.79 number in the Accessions Book which suggests that they were assigned to the Founding Collection because they had been found unentered into any other other accession book and were assumed to come from the founding collection (as many such undocumented pieces did) (Jeremy Coote pers.comm.). This might mean that they were not part of the Pitt-Rivers' founding collection. Researching a detailed biography for these objects with only this documentation is not feasible.  However, these objects need not remain totally silent. As items of clothing, they may speak on matters of identity. Emma Tarlo in her volume on Indian dress argues that clothes are not merely defining but are also self-consciously used to define, to present, to deceive, to enjoy, to communicate and to reveal and conceal different parts of our identities (Tarlo 1996: 8). Because it is used so intimately, clothing becomes the frontier between the self and the not-self: a dubious boundary which can be regarded alternatively as an extension of the self or ‘immaterial’ to it (Ibid. 16). Ethnicity, a facet of broader identity, is also displayed and manipulated through clothing (Eicher ed. 1995). Beyond identity, these ornaments also reflect Chinese aesthetics, conceptions of beauty and interpretations of colour. These interpretations are difficult, given that there are few first hand ethnographic accounts of China c. 1884. Nevertheless, these objects can be unpacked using information gleaned from the historical and archaeological records and read with an anthropological eye.

Silversmithing in China can be traced back to the gilded, silver-filigree ornaments of the Zhou dynasty in the 2nd century BC (Duda 2002: 11). Shang and Zhou period tombs contain much jewellery: earrings, belt hooks and hairpins were particularly common (White 1994: 13). Hair ornaments became especially popular in the Han period (206 BC – AD 220).  Both men and women wore hairpins. The principal hair ornament used by women in the Han period was the zan, a decorated hairpin which protruded from the top of the hair arrangement. Occasionally these were decorated with a buyao, an ornament attached to end of the zan which quivered as the wearer moved (Ibid. 21). Hair ornaments continued to develop through Chinese history, becoming more like crowns in the Tang period (618 – 906 AD). New innovations such as the crown-like wide diadem developed during the Song, Yuan and Ming periods. Buddhist imagery also began to be incorporated from the Tang dynasty onwards (Ibid. 23, 25).

The use of kingfisher feathers in Chinese ornaments also appears to have a long history. Often not surviving archaeologically, our evidence comes instead from Chinese poetry. The first mention of the kingfisher in Chinese literature is in the Tso Chuan in which the Thane of Ch’u is described arraying himself on a snowy evening in 530 BC in a fur cap, ‘halcyon cloak, and leopard slippers’.[1] Mentions of goods made from kingfisher feathers are frequent after this early date. Such goods include quilts, carriages, hairpins, sashes, skirts and many more (Kroll 1984: 242-3). In a poem composed in 607 the Emperor of Sui, Yang Kuang (580 – 618 AD) is described on his visit to the tent of his vassal Chi’i-min, Qaghan of the Eastern Turks as using a ‘halcyon palanquin’ (Ibid. 243).

The use of kingfisher feathers in ornaments, and particularly in hair ornaments, thus appears to have a long history in China. The Pitt Rivers objects, if indeed they were collected by Pitt Rivers, would have been collected prior to 1884 (the date the General’s collection was made over to the university museum). Thus it seems likely that they date from the period of the Qing Dynasty in China (1644 – 1911 AD) (as do the other Chinese ornaments made from kingfisher feathers held by the Pitt Rivers Museum and donated by a Mr. J. Keir: objects 1951.5.1 - .20).

There is little information available describing how kingfisher feather ‘enamelling’ was actually undertaken during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, a snippet from Mary Parker Dunning’s book Mrs Marco Polo Remembers, in which she recorded her travel experiences of 1908, does describe the process.

I bought a kingfisher pin. The foundation of the pin is cheap silver. Then the wonder worker, a patient, spectacled Chinaman, takes a single hair from out of the bird’s wing, draws it through a bit of glue and lays it on the silver foundation. Then another hair, which he lays beside the first. Then another and another and another, endlessly and headachingly and eye-tiringly, until he has laid the filaments from the feathers of the bird’s wings so closely together that they look like a piece of enamel. [Mary Parker Dunning 1968 (quoted in Jackson 2001: 50-1).]

Before the gluing process could begin however, the metal framework had to be prepared. This was done by soldering gallery wire to the edges and surfaces of the metal base, creating partitions defining the motif. The different components would then have been soldered together to make three-dimensional forms, and the feather filaments cut to size and glued in (Richard Mafong in Jackson 2001: 51). Jack Thompson, at the Conservation laboratory, Portland, Oregon has identified the type of glue used as funori, a mixture of animal hide glue or alternatively, isinglass (made from the swim bladders of fish) and seaweed extract. Funori, applied warm, dries very thin and is thus perfect for attaching very light materials such as gold leaf or kingfisher feather filaments (Jackson 2001: 52-3). Thompson’s findings appear borne out by Sung Ysing-Hsing’s [2] work on 17th century Chinese technology which describes glue made from the bladders and intestines of fish (Ibid. 54). The whole process of inlaying with the feathers was called tian-ts’ui, literally ‘dotting with kingfishers' (Jackson op. cit. x).

By all accounts, then, the process was painstaking. Presumably, the labour entailed in producing these ornaments, and indeed in first catching the kingfishers to strip them of their feathers, translated into high prices for the consumer. The possession of ornaments made from the feathers of kingfishers would have signified wealth and status. Kingfisher feathers appear frequently among the items of the imperial household during the Qing period and earlier. They were not restricted to those of Qing imperial descent, however, and appear to have been popular among wealthy Han, Manchu and other smaller ethnic groups, although the manner in which they were worn varied.

The Emperors of the various dynasties of China issued regulations regarding dress. In 1759 the Qianlong Emperor (reign 1736 – 95) continued this pattern by commissioning a massive work, the Huangchao liqi tushi (Illustrated Precedents of the Ritual Paraphernalia of the Imperial Court) which was published and enforced by 1766. Concerned that Manchu customs were being diluted by Chinese ways, this work outlined in great detail the (Manchu-style) dress appropriate for differently ranked officials and members of the Imperial household for different occasions: official and non-official. These, in turn, were subdivided into formal, semi-formal and informal occasions (Garrett 2007: 10). These guidelines delineated precisely which stones, colours, motifs, patterns, garments, accessories etc should be worn by individuals of certain ranks on different occasions. Whilst these regulations were intended to diffuse Manchu customs across the Empire, unifying the country, they only appear to have succeeded partially. It may have been impossible to distinguish, by clothing, Han from Manchu among Mandarin officials at court (Ibid. 68), but distinctions in dress appear to have continued away from the court. In particular, Han wives of officials appear to have been keen to retain their Chinese identity, taking care not to wear Manchu-style clothing (Ibid. 98).

Kingfisher feathers were most used for hair ornaments, other jewellery and hats. The court hat (chao guan), diadem (jin yue), and torque (ling yue) were worn by female members of the Imperial household as part of their court dress. On official occasions, lower ranking women wore a silk headband on the forehead in place of the diadem or coronet.  These could all be decorated with kingfisher feathers. On informal festive occasions Manchu women wore a dianzi headdress which resembled a cap made of wire lattice and was decorated with various stones, enamel and often kingfisher inlay (Ibid. 38, 40, 46). On non-official occasions Manchu women wore a liang ba tou headdress which was shaped like a pair of batwings and sat atop the head. Originally constructed out of the wearer’s hair, false hair and satin were used instead in the 19th century. These were lavishly ornamented with artificial blossoms, silk tassels and jewelled ornaments, including those made from kingfisher feathers (Ibid. 54). Kingfisher hair ornaments worn by Han Chinese women include the coronet or “phoenix crown” (feng tien), modelled on those worn by empresses in earlier Chinese-ruled dynasties, including the Ming. These headdresses were worn on formal occasions. The feng tien was formed over a copper wire base and covered with kingfisher feather inlay flowers, butterflies, phoenixes, pearls, mirrors and other adornments (Ibid. 100). A less elaborate version of the feng tien was the tien tsu. Originally worn by Manchurian nobility on informal occasions, the tien tsu, by the late Qing period, was worn on formal ones also (Jackson op. cit: 98).

Both groups, Manchu and Han, appear to have used hairpins with kingfisher inlay extensively. The hairstyles of Manchu and Han women differed: Manchu styles strove to achieve height and volume whilst Han styles concentrated the hair in buns at the back or the sides of the head. Thus although both used hairpins, these hairpins differed according to hairstyle and consequently ethnic group. For example, Han hairstyles required double-tipped hairpins (Duda op. cit. 125). The hairpins used by both Manchu and Han women could be made with kingfisher inlay (Jackson op. cit. 61). To achieve these hairstyles the hair was first combed, then coated with a sticky gel (pao hua) made from thin shavings of a wood called wu-mo or pau-hua-mo which had been steeped in hot water. This jelly-like liquid helped set the hair into its elaborate shapes which were also held in place with decorative pins and sometimes adorned with fresh flowers (Garrett 2007: 113; Jackson op cit. 63, 67-9).

Ornaments, particularly hair ornaments, made from kingfisher feathers were often part of a bride’s trousseau. Girls worked on their trousseaus from a very young age. The wedding coronet, often a family heirloom, played an important part in the wedding ceremony. Covered in intricate kingfisher feather enamelling, these coronets could be hung with a ‘veil’ made from strings of pearls. This veil shielded the bride’s face until it was removed by the groom after the ceremony in their sleeping apartment. Only at this point would a groom set eyes on his bride for the first time, and she on him.  Once removed, the groom placed his new wife’s hair ornaments in the centre window of latticework at the rear of the wedding bed. The positioning of the ornaments here ensured the couple’s fertility (Jackson op. cit: 95).

On these occasions and on every other mentioned thus far, the use of kingfisher feathers not only displayed wealth and status but also enhanced the wearer’s beauty. Indeed some authors have argued that the display of wealth and status was secondary to the main aim of enhancing women’s beauty in particular (White op. cit. 25). Lin Yutang in My Country and My People (1935) notes that ‘the important thing about women’s dress is not fineness of material but neatness, not gorgeous beauty but elegance, not that it agrees with her family standing but that it agrees with her face’ [emphasis added] (Jackson op. cit. 70-1). That the feathers of kingfishers were considered beautiful is amply demonstrated in Chinese poetry. This poetry consistently depicts the kingfisher as tragically beautiful, so beautiful that it attracts men’s notice, nets and certain destruction (Kroll op. cit. 246). Both the colour and shimmering quality of the halcyon kingfisher’s feathers were extolled by Chinese poets. These two aspects are contained in the term ts’ui. This term, one of only two chromonyms in Chinese directly derived from the animal kingdom (Ibid. 246), is frequently applied descriptively in Chinese poetry, for example to describe various atmospheric phenomena, the faded colour of distant hills, mountain air, the temple locks of women and the plumage of the mythical phoenix. The poet-Emperor Hsaio Kang described newly formed sourpeel tangerines on the bough as ‘golden and halcyon’ (Ibid. 246-8). Probably the most effusive poem describing the halcyon kingfisher, Rhapsody on the Halcyon Kingfisher, was penned by Chiang Yen (444 – 505).

The rare beauty of those two birdsIs born on the Golden Isles and the Hills of Flame…
[there they]
…dazzle green leaves in the wintry hill-gaps
And mirror blooms of vermilion on chilly holms.
Collecting their quick nature and docile heart,
They rear up on pinions of carmine, plumes of bice blue.
But their fate is finally cut short by hunting men
Who stuff the Private Repository with southern caches.
The provide shining trimmings for treasure screens,
Are presented as gorgeous ornaments for lovely women;
Mingled with white jade to form a pattern
Or interleaved with purple gold to give colour-
Foremost of the marvellous hues in the five metropolises,
In the highest place of exquisite adornments within the eight culmina. (Ibid. 249)

‘The women who wore such items as these would naturally enough be thought of as taking on some of the halcyon’s own luster’, its exoticism, its connotations of wealth, its association with royalty, its beauty, its synonymy with unattached freedom; all important values and virtues for women (Ibid. 243).

Within Chinese society, dress has long been a way to identify people’s position within the social hierarchy. The Chinese character fu thattranslates as clothing or dress, also has a wide range of connotations including ‘to serve’, ‘to obey’ and even ‘to be in mourning’ (Roberts 1997: 11). Kingfisher ornaments, hairpins in particular, were highly involved in the quotidian lives of the women of late Imperial China. They anchored the stern hairstyle, so tight that it caused the hairline to recede substantially by middle age (Garrett 2007: 103). Kingfisher feather ornaments also decorated the liang ba tou batwing headdress. The heavy wooden frames of these headdresses caused headaches such that some, although not all, Manchu women were relieved to be able to put these away in the years following the end of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic in 1911 (Wilson 1986: 67). Thus hairpins and adornments physically intruded in the daily lives of their wearers creating a particular body hexis (Bourdieu 1977), affecting the way in which the head was held and felt.  They even affected the manner in which ladies walked: a true lady never let her hairpins sway. Noblewomen thus learnt to walk without moving their heads (Duda op. cit. 125).  Kingfisher coronets feng tien and tien tsu may also have been linked to unwelcome arranged marriages for some women, happy matches for others. The way in which the feathers were worn was further used to construct ethnic difference (e.g. in the liang ba tou opposed to the feng tien). It might also have signified overarching similarity and recognition of shared history: the use of kingfisher feather enamelling dates back many centuries, spanning a variety of ethnic groups. Its display signalled wealth and status alongside and in tension with beauty and elegance. Its social meanings should also be related to its materiality: that particular iridescent blue which captivated Chinese poets from the medieval period onwards continues to capture our attention. Its appeal, in particular its shimmer, may even be cross-cultural (Morphy 1989): the visual qualities of this object were probably the sole reason I was drawn to it and not its neighbours in its crowded cabinet. ‘Dress is a coded sensory system of non-verbal communication that aids human interaction in space and time’ (Eicher 1995: 1). As a sensory system, dress must be ‘lived’ and ‘experienced’. The lives of many women in late Imperial China were experienced in the context of cumbersome, painful, beautiful, iridescent hair ornaments that could signify wealth, status, ethnicity and identity.  Objects like 1884.79.163.1 - .5 can condense all these meanings, embody tensions and contradictions shedding a halcyon light on their wearers.


1. Tso Chuan, “Chao kung” 12th year (equivalent 530 BC). Kroll’s footnote (Kroll 1984: 239) references Legge, J. 1960 (reprint). The Chinese Classics, Vol. 5 (Hong Kong University Press: Hong Kong): 637.

2. Sung Ysing-Hsing 1966.  Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century (Dover Press: New York): 262.


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Dunning, M. P. 1968.  Mrs Marco Polo Remembers (Houghton Mifflin Co.).

Eicher, J. (ed.) 1995.  Dress and Ethnicity (Berg: Oxford).

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Garrett, V. M. 1997.  A Collector’s Guide to Chinese Dress Accessories (Times Editions: Singapore).

Garrett, V. M. 2007.  Chinese Dress from the Qing Dynasty to the Present (Tuttle Publishing: Tokyo; Rutland, Vermont; Singapore).

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Kroll, P. W. 1984 “The Image of the Halcyon Kingfisher in Medieval Chinese Poetry” Journal of the American Oriental Society 104(2): 237 – 251.

Morphy, H. 1989.  “From Dull to Brilliant: The Aesthetics of Spiritual Power Among the Yolngu.” Man 24(1):21 – 40.

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Tarlo, E. 1996.  Clothing Matters.  Dress and Identity in India (Hurst and Company: London).

Wilson, V. 1986. Chinese Dress (Victoria and Albert Museum: London).

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