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Belt-hook with auspicious symbol
Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE)
L. (belt-hook) 6.2 cm, L. (seal) 1.5 cm
Seal legend: chang shou
Collection of Shandong Provincial Museum
(cat. #16B)


This bronze belt-hook is in the shape of an animal, perhaps a dragon. Its small head, cast with indentations to indicate the eyes, forms the hook, while its body forms a raised arc with a rounded end. Garment hooks of this shape are well known from the Eastern Zhou dynasty onward. They are often found in precious materials such as jade or gold, or in bronze and iron with jade, gold, or silver inlay.[1] The underside of this bronze belt-hook has the unusual feature of a projecting stud that serves as a seal. The circular seal is cast with the two characters chang shou in seal script calligraphy. Chang means prosperous and abundant as well as to make prosperous and glorify. It can also be translated as “light” or “brightness.” Shou means longevity, here referring to the perpetuation of the soul and reputation of the deceased beyond death, as well as the desire for lineage longevity.[2] The inscription could also be an allusion to the brightness of the ancestors and the “brilliant artifacts” within the tomb.[3] Metal also played a role in the Han vision of the afterlife, the material itself signifying longevity and immortality.[4] An inscription from a Han bronze mirror states: “may you have joy, wealth, and prosperity. Long life be yours, exceeding that of metal and stone, as is fit for nobleman or king.”[5] From the Warring States period onward it was quite common to have seals made with auspicious meanings.[6] This belt-hook might have been used in life by the deceased and then buried with him as a treasured object. It might also have been made solely for the mortuary context as we see many references to longevity for both the tomb occupant and the tomb itself on objects and in texts buried with the deceased.[7]

all text & images © China Institute Gallery


1. The Western Han tomb of the king of Nanyue in Guangdong yielded an iron belt-hook of similar shape inlaid with jade. For more details on Eastern Zhou belt-hooks in animal forms see Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, pp. 303–307.

2. For a discussion of the concept of shou in the Han funerary context see K. E. Brashier, “Longevity Like Metal and Stone: the Role of the Mirror in Han Burials,” T’oung Pao 81, no. 4–5 (1995), pp. 214–15.

3. David N. Keightley explains the lack of eternally burning lamps in China before the Eastern Zhou with the view that the dead themselves were ming, or “bright,” and that “the spirits of the ancestors were thought to live in a world of light.” Keightley, The Ancestral Landscape: Time, Space, and Community in late Shang China (ca. 1200–1045 BC), China Research Monograph 53 (Berkeley: University of California, 2000), p. 25 n. 25. For the concept of mingqi, see also Cary Liu’s essay, “Embodying the Harmony of the Sun and the Moon: The Concept of ‘Brilliant Artifacts’ in Han Dynasty Burial Objects and Funerary Architecture,” in this catalogue.

4. Brashier, “Longevity Like Metal and Stone,” pp. 217–21.

5. Loewe, Ways to Paradise, p. 196, C2102.

6. Wagner, “Chinese Seals,” p. 208.

7. The term shou “longevity” was also applied to the coffin itself as well as to the tomb. The term shouqi was used for the coffin of the mother of Emperor Huan (r. 146–68). A tomb tile with an inscription dated 113 CE from Sichuan identifies the tomb as a “ten-thousand harvests, lengthened years, and increased longevity vault.” See Brashier, “Longevity Like Metal and Stone,” pp. 216–17.

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