Articles of Life

The richness of Chinese life has many aspects which are illustrated by the objects in this section. Confucius (ca. 551–479 BCE) profoundly influenced Chinese culture. His writings formed the basis of study for aspiring bureaucrats looking to qualify for government positions. The Scholar’s Desk tableau includes the numerous calligraphic objects required for a successful career. Opium smoking became immensely popular in the 19th century, a leisured, urban, and cultural status symbol that also sparked international conflict. Be sure to admire the range of snuff bottles and the examples of currency, garments, and accessories.

Semi-formal Woman’s Court Robe with Narcissus Design

Semi-formal Woman’s Court Robe with Narcissus Design

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, Guangxu reign (1875–1911)
DBC 10615.1

Since it blooms in early spring, narcissus symbolizes the Chinese Lunar New Year and is associated with wealth and good fortune. This robe is reputed to have been worn by the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908).The sky-blue silk here was woven using the painstaking kesi technique, in which the warp is continuous and the weft is broken to create the pattern.

Collar with Peking Knot Embroidery

Collar with Peking Knot Embroidery

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Embroidered silk and fur
DBC 11089.1

The Peking knot or “forbidden stitch” is made by wrapping embroidery thread, usually silk floss, around a needle then stitching it down. Only members of the elite were permitted to wear garments using this ultra-refined stitch. The color includes pairs of fish, figures, pomegranates, and plum blossoms.

Woman’s Vest, embroidered silk

Woman’s Vest

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Embroidered silk, metallic threads
DBC 10669.1

This quasi-official vest (Xia–pei) is sumptuously embroidered with dragons, clouds, bats, peaches, fish, birds, and Buddhist symbols. The forbidden stitch is used throughout. The first-rank civil official’s badge with the flying crane would have belonged to the wearer’s father or husband.

embroidered wool and silk baby carrier.

Baby Carrier

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Wool, cotton, silk, silver metallic disks
DBC 10295.1

This was made in Dalia, Yunnanprovince, by the Miao people, one of China’s ethnic minorities, who are renowned for their distinctive textiles. Used as a back pack for transporting an infant, is it spectacularly embroidered with floral and geometric designs.

Hunting Vest with Cracked Ice Design

Sleeveless Woman’s Coat with Cracked Ice Design

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Embroidered silk, gold and silver metallic thread
DBC 10901.1

This exquisite two-piece sleeveless ceremonial coat is embroidered with the unusual cracked ice design. Plum blossoms are scattered throughout, symbolizing the hope for spring when there is still snow and ice on the ground.

An assortment of 8 Bound Foot Shoes

Bound Foot Shoes

China, 19th century
Silk, leather
DBC 10442.1/2, 10505.1/2, 10504.1

Small feet were a status symbol among Han Chinese, and luxurious shoes displayed an impressive array of fabrics and decorative techniques—stitching, quilting, embroidery, and applique. Foot binding created an idealized foot shape and size, preferably three inches, but it also crippled women for life, limiting their mobility and requiring them to have attendants.

Cobbler’s Last and Bound Foot Shoe

Cobbler’s Last and Bound Foot Shoe

China, 19th century
DBC 10513.1, 10502.1

This rare last mimics the wearer’s foot, including her toes. The shoe is embroidered and shows no signs of use.

Altar Shoe, silk

Bound Foot “Altar” Shoe

China, 19th century
DBC 11069.1

This tiny shoe would have been placed on the altar to Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, by a mother the night before the binding of her daughter’s feet began. It is embroidered with butterflies and birds and has its original lacing.

Female Ancestor Portrait, gouache on paper

Female Ancestor Portrait

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Gouache on paper
DBC 11075.1

This impressive ancestor portrait offers the ideal opportunity to appreciate the various components of a court lady’s dress. These include her dragon-embroidered red robe with rank badge, collar, necklace, hair ornaments, and headdress with kingfisher feathers

Folding Sunglasses, metal frame, smoky quartz lenses

Folding Sunglasses

China, Qing Dynasty, 19th century
Metal frame, smoky quartz lenses
DBC 11211.1

These glasses were reputed to have been worn by the last Emperor Puyi (1906–1967, reigned 1908–12). Wearing spectacles was not done by emperors, but they were also an indication of wealth and learning.

Blue crab shaped hair ornament

Hair Ornament

China, Qing Dynasty, 19th century
DBC 11260.1

The obsidian is carved in the shape of a crab. Iridescent blue kingfisher feathers are set into the gilt silver, a painstaking technique.

Finger Nail Protectors, silver gilt filigree, enamel, coral & turquoise

Nail Protectors

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Silver gilt filigree, enamel, coral and turquoise
DBC 10154.1/2

Ladies of the imperial court grew extremely long fingernails and wore nail guards on the pinky and ring fingers. The Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) popularized nail guards as part of her luxurious array of accessories.

Cosmetics Box and Cover, Qingbai ware w/ lotus flowers

Cosmetics Box and Cover

China, Southern Song Dynasty, 1127–1279 CE
Qingbai ware
DBC 10974.1/2

This charming cosmetic box contains three small barbed rim cups separated by three curved stems of lotus pods issuing from a central bud. The glaze contains a small amount of iron giving it a greenish-blue tint which is particularly evident where it has pooled.

Bronze Money Tree

Money Tree

China, Tang Dynasty, 618–907 CE
DBC 10771.1

This tree has fifteen coins suspended from its branches. They are inscribed “Dali yuan bao,” meaning they were cast during the Dali Reign, 766–775. A figure on a lower bough harvests the coins. This tree would ensure the deceased had adequate funds in the afterlife.

Green glazed earthenware Treasure Chest

Treasure Chest

China, Han Dynasty, 206 BCE–220 CE
Green glazed earthenware
DBC 10401.1

This model of a treasure chest has applied coins, bolts, a lock and handles to ensure the deceased had adequate funds in the afterlife. The glaze has become iridescent from prolonged burial.

Silver Sycee Ingots

Sycee Ingots

China, Shanxi province, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 18th–19th centuries
DBC 10163.1/7

The form of these ingots, based on shoes worn by women in ancient China, was considered auspicious and associated with wealth. Each is worth one teal and is stamped with the Double Happiness character. 

6 Spade Coins, Reign of Wang Meng 9-24 CE

Spade Money Coins

China, Reign of Wang Meng, 9–24 CE

These were issued during the short reign of the usurper emperor Wang Meng. Each has elongated archaic characters cast in thread relief.

Kuan Banknote, mulberry paper, Reign of Emperor Taizu 1368-1398

Kuan Banknote

China, Ming Dynasty, 1368–1644, Reign of Emperor Taizu 1368–1398
Mulberry paper
DBC 11143.1

This was woodblock printed during the reign of the first Ming emperor. It is the largest paper money ever issued as well as the earliest. In addition to the monetary details, “Treasure Note of the Great Ming,” there is the admonition that anyone who counterfeits this will be beheaded and an informant will be generously rewarded.

Coin, Dinar, Kushan Empire, Kanishka I, circa 127-151 CE, gold,


India, Kushan Empire, ca. 127–151 CE
DBC 10924.1

This dinar portrays Kanishka I.

Coin, Dinar, Kushan Empire, Huvishka circa 151-190 CE, gold,


India, Kushan Empire, ca. 151–190 CE
DBC 11072.1

This dinar portrays a half–length bust of Huvishka, nimbate, diademed, and crowned holding a mace and spear.

Coin, Tetradachm, Kushan Empire, Kanishka I, image of seated Buddha, bronze,


India, Kushan Empire, ca. 127–151 CE
DBC 10162.1

This rare tetradachm has a seated image of the Buddha with his hand in the “do not fear” mudra and on the obverse, the important Buddhist patron Kanishka I, standing. This is the first time coins bearing his image along with that of the Buddha were issued.

Coin, Dinar, Kushan Empire, Vima Kadphises circa 113-127 CE, gold,


India, Kushan Empire, ca. 113–127 CE
DBC 10273.1

This dinar has a diademed and crowned half-length bust of the ruler Vima Kadphises holding a mace in his right hand and a sword hilt in his left. The inscription reads “great king, king of kings, lord of the world, the great lord, Vima Kadphises, savior.” On the reverse is an ithyphallic Hindu god Siva with two heads.


India, Kushan Empire, ca. 190–230 CE
DBC 11153.1

This dinar has Vasudeva I standing making a sacrifice. The reverse shows Siva standing with a trident and accompanied by his transport, the bull Nandi.

The Scholar’s Desk

Chinese calligraphy is written in columns from top to bottom and right to left. For centuries scholars have sat at their desks, anchored paper with carved weights, and prepared ink by grinding ink sticks with water from a dropper on ink stones. This prepares them to select a brush either from a brush pot or a stand. Periodically brushes are placed on a brush rest and when writing is finished are washed in a brush washer. These accoutrements are utilized not only throughout China, but also in Korea and Japan.

Lotus Bud shaped Water Pot, Jun ware

Lotus Bud Shaped Water Pot

China, Song Dynasty, 960–1279 CE
Jun ware
DBC 11014.1

Jun wares are named for the location of the kiln in Henan province. The fine-grained light gray body is covered with a thick, light blue glaze and splashed purple by the addition of copper to the glaze. This was used on a scholar’s table.

Water Dropper, 18th-19th cy., openwork porcelain with underglaze blue

Water Dropper

Korea, Yi Dynasty, 1392–1910, 18th–19th centuries
Glazed porcelain
DBC 10574.1

This spherically shaped water dropper would have been perfect for a scholar who required carefully controlled drops of water to mix the ink from his ink stick on his ink stone. It is a tour de force with an inner container for holding water and an outer layer cut away to create the form of a writhing dragon accented with underglaze blue. Its filling neck and spout are hidden.

Brush Washer, porcelain with peachbloom glaze

Brush Washer

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662–1722)
Porcelain with peach-bloom glaze
DBC 10676.1

Mottled pink and ruby peach-bloom glaze contains copper oxide and is fired in a reduction kiln. It was perfected during Kangxi’s reign, and the finest examples comprise a series of eight shapes to be used on a scholar’s writing table. This has a six-character Kangxi reign mark in underglaze blue on the base.

Carved Lacquer cylindrical shaped brush pot

Brush Pot

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911
Carved Lacquer
DBC 11246.1

Carved lacquer or Tixi is a distinctive Chinese lacquer technique. It was revived during the reign of Emperor Qianlong after becoming somewhat of a lost art after the reign of the Ming Emperor Wanli. Multiple coats of cinnabar red and black lacquer are carved in the sword pommel pattern exposing the different layers of lacquer.

Water Pot, porcelain with peachbloom glaze,

Water Pot

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662–1722)
Porcelain with peach-bloom glaze
DBC 11250.1

This vessel’s shape is known as jichao zun because it resembles a basketwork chicken coop. Used by a scholar for water to grind ink or wash brushes, it is one of the elite shapes to which the mottled pink/red peach-bloom glaze was applied.

Model of a chicken cupe, glazed porcelain,

Model of a Chicken Coop

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911
Glazed porcelain
DBC 11055.1

This straw-colored reticulated wicker cage would have been a common sight in a farmyard. It inspired the shape of a water pot.

 Ink Stick in the Form of Bamboo Stalk,

Ink Stick in the Form of a Bamboo Stalk

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Black ink with gilding
DBC 10678.1

This stick would have been ground on an inkstone with water to make liquid ink. It is an unusual shape, molded in the form of a bamboo stalk with a pod hanging from the branch. Since the Yuan dynasty, when China was ruled by Mongols, bamboo was associated with scholars because it would bend in the wind and not break. This was analogous to the Han scholars who “bent” under Mongol rule. 

 Seal God of Longevity, porcelain


China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911
DBC 10408.1

Seals are used as signatures in China. This one has five characters engraved on its base. The figure on top is Shou, the Taoist god of longevity, identified by his tall, slender hat and peach. He is naturalistically modelled in porcelain with a white Blanc de Chine glaze. He sits on a cube decorated in underglaze blue with the “Three Friends of Winter”: pine, plum and bamboo. The pine is evergreen, the plum is the first plant to bloom in the spring, and the bamboo retains its leaves in all seasons.

Brushrest, glazed porcelain, reclining boy

Brush Rest

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, Reign of Emperor Kangxi (1662–1722)
Porcelain with sancai glaze
DBC 11186.1

This charming brush rest is in the form of a reclining boy. The three-color sancai glaze of green, yellow, and aubergine was low-fired on the biscuit. A four-character reign mark is in relief on the front of the rim.

Carved wood brush stand with hanging brushes

Brush Stand and Brushes

Placed on a scholar’s desk, this large stand has two dragons above and below. Various brushes would have hung on the stand. Materials here include blue and white porcelain, wood, and bamboo.

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911
Wood, porcelain; wood, bamboo, animal hair
DBC 10420.1, 10421.1/13

Inkstone with brush


China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911
Duan stone
DBC 10422.1

Scholars use inkstones to grind their ink, which comes in the form of sticks. Mined in Guangdong province, Duan stone is considered the finest material for inkstones because it is so smooth. This example is decorated with three dragons chasing two pearls amid swirling clouds.

Jade, bamboo form, scroll weights

Scroll Weights

China, Qing Dynasty
DBC 10468.1, 10469.1

Scholars used weights like these to hold down the paper they wrote on. One is carved to imitate bamboo; the other has five intertwined rats, one of the twelve Chinese zodiac animals. They show the variety of jade colors.

Lam Qua (1801-1860), Portrait of a Scholar in his Study, oil on canvas

Portrait of a Scholar in his Study

Lam Qua (1801–1860)
China, Qing Dynasty
Oil on canvas
DBC 11266.1

Lamqua studied with the British painter George Chinnery (1774–1852), the first English painter to settle in China. Working in the Western style, Lamqua became renowned. The scholar wears a full length robe, cap, and elevated shoes. He sits before a table reading a book; a long scroll is at the rear of the table.

Rock Sculpture

Scholars Rock

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Taihu stone
DBC 10862.1

Lake Tai (Taihu) near Suzhou in South China is known for the porous limestone rocks naturally eroded by its water. The irregular shape and random perforations are reminiscent of mountains in a Chinese landscape and provided inspiration for scholar artists.

Zen Scroll of Daruma,

Zen Scroll showing Daruma

Gako, also known as Tengen Chiben (1737–1805)
Japan, Edo period
Ink on paper
DBC 10188.1

Daruma is considered the founder of Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes meditation as the most effective route to enlightenment. According to legend, Daruma spent nine years facing a wall meditating. Gako, a Rinzai monk, captures Daruma’s essence with quick brushwork and a minimum of strokes. Gako was also a poet and wrote this:

Talking about food won’t make you full,
Babbling of clothes won’t keep out the cold.
A bowl of rice is what fills the belly;
It takes a suit of clothing to make you warm.
And yet, without stopping to consider this,
You complain the Buddha is hard to find.
Turn your mind within! There he is!
Why look for him abroad?

Snuff Bottles

China, Qing Dynasty 1644–1911

Snuff is pulverized tobacco. Used in China for medicinal purposes, people carried it in small bottles from which the snuff was extracted with a small spoon. These examples are made from a variety of materials and are decorated with real and mythical creatures, masks, flowers, and even the lingzhi fungus of immortality. Note how some are painted, others carved, while many are delightful just for their very materials. Beverly Hall Billings inherited most of these from her father, the collector Gerry P. Mack.

Four gilt bronze Saddle Plates

Saddle Plates

China, Liao Dynasty, 916–1125 CE
Gilt bronze
DBC 10962.1/4

These rare saddle plates with open work and repousse design almost certainly came from a royal tomb and reflect the horse riding culture of the Khitans.

Opium Scale and case

Opium Scale and Case

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Wood, silk, brass
DBC 10265.1/2

This carved oak case held a personal opium scale. Three poppy plants, the source of opium, are carved in relief.

Opium Lamp, silver, copper, brass, crystal,

Opium Lamp

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Silver, copper, brass, crystal
DBC 10672.1

An opium pipe bowl primed with a small dose of opium was held over the lamp causing the opium to vaporize and permit the smoker to inhale the vapors. At the time it was the most effective pain killer available.

Opium Lamp, silver, copper, brass, crystal,

Opium Pipe

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Wood, ivory, copper, stones
DBC 10523.1

Opium was initially used during the 7th century for medicinal purposes. During the 19th century its use reached stratospheric heights when the British East India Company imported it from India. It became a leisure, urban, cultural status symbol. In addition opium was grown throughout China. It supplied fluid capital and created new sources of tax revenue. Two Opium Wars (1839–42, 1856–60) weakened the Qing dynasty and resulted in substantial land and trade concessions from China to the United Kingdom.

Opium Scale and case

Opium Weights

Burma, 19th century
DBC 10704.1/7

This set of opium weights is in the typical duck form. Accuracy in measuring the weight of the expensive opium was extremely important.

Carved wooden box is fitted with compartments

Opium Set

China, Qing Dynasty, 1644–1911, 19th century
Wood, brass, porcelain
DBC 10921.1/7

This carved wooden box is fitted with compartments for an opium container, lamp, scoop, and pipe bowl.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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