Bird-shaped hairpin, China, Warring States Period (approx

Bird-shaped hairpin, China, Warring States Period (approx. 480-221 BCE). Nephrite. H. 1 1/2 in x W. 1 5/8 in x D. 1/16 in, H. 3.8 cm x W. 4.1 cm x D. .16 cm. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60J815 © 2017 Asian Art Museum Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture.

This phoenix-like bird has a U-shaped contour. The gentle slope of the neck arches naturally downwards, and the body widens at the abdomen. The tail curves back up, almost at a vertical, and splits off into three sections. The outermost segment has been broken off, while the innermost falls back down towards the neck. This closes off the contour into an oval-shape. The profile head with a molded eye has an additional feature, consisting of fine cross-hatching and a comma spiral. A border around the edge encloses the surface decoration. A central axis runs the length of the body and separates the decor into two columns of feathers. These feathers are finely detailed with careful and clean lines to delineate the rounded outline with diagonal incisions. In the midsection, the pattern is interrupted by two upturned spirals and small wings or feathers carried on the back of the bird. Below this midsection is a rectangular projection downwards, the corner of which is broken off. This would have been the means to attach this piece to a long narrow pin, perhaps of bone, which would have fit into the hair.

Both men and women initially wore hairpins for practical purposes of keeping hair out of their eyes but then more for decoration and ceremony. In the Shang, hairpins were usually made of animal bone, though some precious stone and ivory ones have been found. One end was decorated with birds, figures or geometric designs while the other end was fashioned to a point.

In the Zhou, headdresses and hair pieces became a greater sign of power and class; different materials denoted different status. Customarily, girls who reached the age of fifteen and were engaged to be married went through a hairpin-wearing ceremony as a sort of "coming out" celebration. Women who were still single at the age of twenty underwent a similar, simpler ceremony but with different hairpins. This tradition persisted through the Ming and Qing as " 'kai lian chang tou' (plucking off the fine hair on the face and combing the hair in the manner of a grown-up woman)" (Zhou Xun 15).

The complexity of surface decoration on this small piece is quite remarkable. It is cut from a thin slice of yellowish high quality Khotan jade. There are areas of brown stretching from the neck back to the end of the tail. It is difficult to ascertain whether the brown is original to the stone or is the result of discoloration during burial. The overall level of finish is remarkable and the polish is quite high.

1. Forsyth, plate 111
Published Salmony, Chinese Jade Through the Wei Dynasty, plate XX-2