Today is the second largest festival day, across Asia after Lunar New Year’s Day. Known as the Moon Festival Day or Mid-Autumn Festival Day, it is the fifteenth day of the Eighth month in the lunar calendar.
The moon is believed to be roundest and brightest at this time, symbolizing prosperity, happiness, and family reunion in Aisan culture. Families get together and express their love by sharing dinner, appreciating the moon and eating mooncakes. Traditionally, the fifteenth day of the Eighth month in lunar calendar was the time that rice had matured and was harvested. People celebrated the harvest and offered food to their ancestors to show their gratitude.
To celebrate the Moon Festival, I am going to introduce our Chinese toggles collection, one of the Museum’s most interesting and significant collections, which symbolise prosperity, happiness, fertility and longevity.
Chinese belt toggles called ‘zhuizi (墜子)’ are small carved ornaments usually worn by men. Traditional Chinese dress did not have pockets, so small bags for tobacco and other items were suspended from men’s belts by cords. Toggle-wearing disappeared from China in 1940s when western style clothes replaced Chinese clothes. The Museum has an extensive Chinese toggle collection numbering nearly 300. This significant collection was collected by Hedda and Alastair Morrison during 1940s to 1942, mostly in Beijing, and donated to the Museum in 1992.
The belt toggles embody great symbolic and cultural significance to Chinese people. They were functional objects, but also used as auspicious amulets. Many motifs of toggles are drawn from Chinese symbolism, wishing good fortune, prosperity, fertility and longevity. The objects in this post show various motifs taken from the Chines people’s deep-love of symbols.
Toggles makers used materials which were decorative but also had magic, medicinal or auspicious connotations. The common materials for toggles were wood and ivory, but many other materials were also used including: jade, glass, brass, porcelain, jet, seashells, amber and turquoise.
The toggle was not a precious object, but a common and functional item used in everyday life. It was used almost like key rings in contemporary society. It was so common, people had taken them for granted and not many people bothered to record them, and now it’s extremely difficult to trace their histories.
The story of Chinese belt toggles can reveal many interesting stories, how they were passed on to neighbouring countries and how customs were shared. The well known Japanese style of toggle called ‘netsuke’ is probably a predecessor of Chinese toggle. Unlikely the Chinese toggle, a netsuke is more elaborately carved, many of them with signatures of their makers, and they have become purely ornamental in the Japanese artistic tradition.
However, the ‘netsuke’ has a similar function to Chinese toggles, like fastening things to a belt and carrying portable medicines. ‘Netsuke’ is a toggle that carried a small medicine box called ‘inro’ which carried herbs and drugs. Japanese toggles were no longer drugs or charms in themselves, but was still attached to the concept of portable medicine.
What is fascinating about many small objects used as toggles are their multi-purpose functions. The Gilla bean toggle in this image is a good example. The prime function of the toggle was to secure bags to the wearer’s body but it was also used as a medicine for emergency. The Gilla bean was credited with having medicinal powers, for reliving fevers and pains. Some other toggles were not made of material which has medicinal effects. However, in old China, symbols of longevity were considered to be as effective on their own as were the actual medicinal potions. Along the same lines, carrying motifs of happiness and prosperity symbols were believed to bring happiness and prosperity in Chinese mind. Belt toggles were, indeed, multi-functional as dress accessory and lucky charms.
Written by Min-Jung Kim, Curator