Place of Origin: Beijing, China
Date: Late 19th/Early 20th Century
A magnificent and impressive Chinese sword from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Most likely North China - Beijing jewelers work.
An unusual and fine example out of a fairly large body of similarly decorated objects of wide variety (including vessels, musical instruments, knives and daggers). This example is superior to most, rich in materials, with deep and fine silver repoussé and chased silver work in the form of clouds, and fire breathing dragons.
The large and heavy silver scabbard is not only a highly decorative object, but a carefully considered work of art, the two large jade discs set in the central panel of the scabbard, represent the elusive pearl being chased by two beautifully formed silver dragons riding amidst storm clouds and breathing fire representing bolts of lightning.
Such cloud formations often appear in Tibetan thangkas, and great skill is usually employed in achieving the desired three-dimensional affect. The craftsman of this scabbard (along with the advantage of age and patina) has achieved a similar effect within a wonderfully complex landscape, with many layers of depth and varying tones and shades of silver.
Each carved jade disk is set with a central red coral, interestingly the mystical flaming pearl, or night-shining pearl, is usually depicted as a small red or white sphere, another indication that the craftsman was very aware of traditional iconography.
The two chasing dragons both face stretching towards the jade plaque, shown with four claws, which on an imperial object would have been an indication that this was for a Minister of the Emperor, a five-clawed dragon reserved for the Imperial palace or celestial dragon. The bodies chased with swirls, each circling in opposite directions. In European chivalric mythology this is the one vulnerable point on a dragon’s body where a knight must thrust his weapon to slay the dragon. A smaller upper panel has no clouds, but a large red coral, surrounded by two pairs of chasing dragon.
The upper and lower panel seem to frame the central scenes of writhing dragons chasing pearls, not with clouds, but Makara-tail aureoles depicting ‘rosaries of light’; complex arrangements of naturalistic swirls and highlighted Makara-tails. The vegetal theme continues with three multi-petelled lotus flowers on each side, all set in turquoise. The scabbard has two suspension rings for a belt or chain, set between two pairs of gaping dragon heads.
The sword has a large round pale green jade hilt, with silver fittings set with turquoise and coral to match the scabbard. An oval hand guard, the upper surface decorated with beautifully detailed chased flowers and scrollwork.
A leaf shaped blade unusually of ‘crucible’ steel with a subtle pattern of complex ‘watering’. Crucible steel is a steel made by following very specific methods and using iron and other select materials to form an ingot, which was then used to manufacture ‘Wootz Damascus’. Often imported into China and Japan as a raw material, the use of high-temperature forges in these countries would melt the carbide particles and reverse the ‘watering’ affect. However, in this case the smith has managed to preserve the pattern, and with an arrangement of carefully ground fullers has achieved a high quality and attractive blade. The shape is also an unusual manifestation in China, most likely inspired by Buddhist iconography and the revival of themes in earlier Buddhist art still extant in China or Tibet during the Ming and Qing periods. A model which was common on archaic and early medieval swords in India, Rawson (1968) p.3 shows a very similar blade shape, from the Gupta period (5th AD) and the Pala period (10th-13th).
The Exhibition catalog MONGOLIA: THE LEGACY OF CHINGGIS KHAN (Asian Art Mus. of San Francisco,1995), features several authentic ethnographic objects (mostly jewelry and adornment) defining this decorative style. In particular see cat.no.6-13, p.106-116.
See Hales (2013), no.468, p.194 for analogous example.