back to top

back to top

back to top

back to top

back to top

back to top

A Little Known Folk Art

Arts of Asia - March/April 1986

by Hedda and Alastair Morrison
Photographs by Hedda Morrison



Glass toggle on the cord of a pipe bag suspended from the hand of a pipe smoker

ALMOST EVERYONE interested in Asian art understands what netsuke are. Relatively few people are familiar 'with the modest Chinese equivalents of netsuke, the toggles which ordinary people used as the counterweights on the cords of pipe bags and other small bags. Though generally used by men for their pipe bags, women too had little embroidered bags for carrying such items as perfume and medicine. Chinese clothes were not well provided with pockets so that bags which could be suspended through the belt were useful articles of attire. Compared to netsuke, toggles are generally quite simple though elaborate ones do exist. They do not appear to be referred to in Chinese literature or to be clearly portrayed in Chinese paintings. There was no tradition of specialist toggle carvers who signed their work as in the case of so many netsuke.

The pioneer study of toggles was undertaken by an English lady, the late Miss C.F. Bieber, who lived in Peking during the late twenties and the thirties. She finally left for the United States in 1940 and never returned to China. Among her many interests was the adaptation of Chinese motifs and workmanship in silver work and embroidery for costume jewelry and embroidered linens. She built up a fine collection of toggles which are now in the Field Museum of Chicago. They form the subject-or the greater part of it- of Dr. Schuyler Cammann's Substance and Symbol in Chinese Toggles which was published in Philadelphia in 1962. One of us (Hedda) worked for Miss Bieber and took many of the illustrations for Dr. Cammann's book.

After Miss Bieber left Peking we both collected some toggles until 1942 when Alastair left Peking. It started off as two collections - we were not married until 1946 - but when we were out together this presented problems of the "who saw it first" kind and it soon became imperative to amalgamate the collections.

IVORY
Pair of lfower buds. 43mm
IVORY
Flower basket. 45mm
IVORY
Section of lotus root. 49mm
A common ivory motif.
IVORY
Lotus leaf. 55mm
The piece is particularly pleasing to the touch.
IVORY
Partly submerged leaf. 47mm. The ripples half conceal a carp.
IVORY
Pair of peaches. 50mm
Carved in flattened form.
IVORY
Lotus seed head. 42mm
The old ivory has turned a deep golden yellow.
IVORY
Plum blossom. 44mm
IVORY
Pine tree. 60mm

Quite a lot of toggles were available in Peking at that time. Many antique shops existed both large and small selling the flotsam and jetsam from the decay of a gnat culture. The antique shops generally had a number of small and miscellaneous objects for sale and these often included toggles. The early morning jade market outside the Ha Ta Men was a good shopping ground and small and simple ones were to be found at the regular markets such as at the Tung An Shih Ch'ang and the market at Lung Fu Ssu. Prices were generally very low.

Toggles were still to be seen sometimes in actual use by rickshaw pullers and country people and other simple folk. They would keep their pipes and tobacco in small bags closed by a cord at the other end of which the toggles would be suspended. The picture on the previous page shows the mode of use. The toggle in the first photograph above was made of glass.

IVORY
Monkey and its young one. 47mm.
Though very simple, it perfectly captures the animals attitudes.
IVORY
Sacred ling-chih fungus. 48mm
IVORY
Buddha's hand (a kind of citrus) with a plum blossom. 55mm
IVORY
Butterfly. 43mm
IVORY
Millet head. 55mm
IVORY
Buddhist temple drum. 35mm
IVORY
Silver mounted gourd. 55mm
We believe this to be one of the earlier pieces.
IVORY
Ivory block. 38mm
Simple but pleasing to the touch, this piece was bought in Cheng-tu in 1982.
IVORY
Pair of fish. 48mm

Wood was the most commonly used material. Many of the wooden toggles were of extreme simplicity. Ivory and jade were the two other most frequently used materials and were generally of better quality than the wooden specimens. But many other materials were used including: agate and glass, brass and iron, porcelain, jet, sea shells and amber, turquoise, amethyst, and seeds mounted in silver.

The motifs were very varied though perhaps those derived from the various parts of the lotus plant were the most common. There were many others - animals and fruits, bamboo, pine trees, plum blossom and household implements to name but a few. They were drawn from Chinese legends and mythology. Some wooden toggles were of medicinal value. The large element of symbolism made them very suitable as gifts between friends.

IVORY
Mythical animal. 43mm
IVORY
Plum blossom. 52mm
IVORY
Walnut. 28mm
WOOD
Diabolo. 34mm
IVORY
Mythical animal. 40mm
IVORY
Possibly a lizard. 33mm
IVORY
Ball. 44mm
WOOD
Puppy dog. 53mm
IVORY
Mythical animal. 38mm
IVORY
Lotus head. 33mm
WOOD
Section of bamboo. 8mm
WOOD
Bunch of grapes. 66mm
WOOD
Insect resting on a folded lotus leaf. 70mm
WOOD
Chinese lock. 34mm

Most toggles do not seem to be of any great age. They were largely associated with the tobacco habit. Tobacco only reached China in the sixteenth century while the smoking habit probably did not become widespread until a good deal later. Pipe bags, however, were not the only small bags in use. Similar small bags were used to carry medicines and the toggle form may well have been in use long before the arrival of tobacco. Indeed some genuinely early pieces of jade look remarkably like toggles. An example from the pages of ARTS OF ASIA is a jade "beastie" illustrated as item 92 on page 121 of the article on Chinese art in Durham in the November/December 1983 issue of the journal. If of toggle size it looks like one with an apparent cord hole below- the mouth of the "beastie". Some toggles appear to be of Mongol origin.

A word of warning. There is a certain delightful uncertainty about toggles. Essentially these are small objects, often rounded and pleasant to handle- fine toggles ought to be fondled- and capable of being strung. This does not necessarily mean that they have specially drilled cord holes. This is often the case but the holes are much narrower than in the case of netsuke. It is, nevertheless, sometimes difficult to be sure that a toggle is not a netsuke and vice versa.

WOOD
Snake. 95mm
A simple carving adapted from a natural piece of root.
WOOD
Double cats at play. 58mm
WOOD
Crab, frog and toad on a lotus leaf. 57mm
WOOD
Stylised bat. 65mm
WOOD
Frog peering out from the shelter of a leave. 43mm
WOOD
Pair of pomegranates. 53mm
Crudely carved, but recognisable
WOOD
Pair of shoes. 66mm
WOOD
Plum blossom and bamboo. 52mm
WOOD
Water scoop. 43mm

Furthermore the carving of small jade pieces including items in toggle form continued long after toggles had gone out of use, and indeed still continues for the export trade. Generally you can tell old pieces because of their superior workmanship but this is not always so. We have always believed that there are probably many fine old toggles unrecognized in the hands of collectors. This especially applies to jade toggles.

It is doubtful whether many toggles are now likely to come on the market. On visits to the People's Republic of China we have seen a few quite respectable examples in the remaining antique shops, but the numbers are small and the prices high. We have been told that a few years ago a considerable number reached Hong Kong from China, dumped on the Hong Kong market in an undiscriminating way by the Chinese bureaucracy which handles the marketing of antiques. Unfortunately we were not in Hong Kong at the time!

CRYSTAL
Monkey holding the peach of longevity. 48mm
CRYSTAL
Knuckle bone. 30mm
JADE
Mulberry fruit. 50mm
JADE
Pair of persimmons. 35mm
JADE
Scholars symbols: scrolls, books, and behind, a musical instrument. 55mm
AGATE
Three-legged toad. 39mm
CRYSTAL
Snail 43mm
JADE
Cat. 30mm
AMETHYST
Pair of peaches. 41mm
SOAPSTONE
Lotus root section adorned with two snails. 64mm
JADE
Lotus bud. 70mm
AGATE
Gourd with household implements. 53mm
AGATE
Two cicadas on a leaf. 73mm
JADE
Musical instrument. 80mm

Our own small collection brings back many pleasant memories of toggle hunting in Peking, Although some are of valuable materials or are finely worked, most of our toggles were minor items of the stock-in-trade of small dealers. The variety was fascinating and you never knew what might turn up. And discovery was always followed by bargaining. No dealer expected to be paid the first price quoted. The true selling price had to be established by polite and sometimes protracted negotiations. Patience and good manners were the essentials for successful negotiations and if you could induce the seller to laugh success was assured. There was no better time for bargaining than after a pleasant and cheerful dinner in one of Peking's innumerable restaurants.

JET
Pair of fish. 49mm
JET
Eggplant. 50mm
COMBINATION
Gilla bead mounted in silver. 66mm
COMBINATION
Twin seed mounted in silver. 43mm
GLASS
Bamboo section. 52mm
BAMBOO ROOT
Goose, box and fan. 45mm
Goods of a peasant woman on her way to the market.
COMBINATION
Miniature abacus. 36mm
Probably too fragile to be a genuine toggle for daily use.
JADE
Boy with fish. 55mm
COMBINATION
Miniature Mongol knife set: knife, chopsticks and tweezers. 94mm
JADE
Piglet. 44mm
AMBER
Group of pumpkins. 52mm
Because it is so brittle, amber is not a suitable material for toggles.

We hope that this short article will encourage owners of small Chinese carvings to examine their pieces to see whether they are likely to be toggles. For further information they should refer to Dr. Cammann's excellent work. The illustrations accompanying this article attempt to show examples of some of the main toggle types from our own collection. In order to give an idea of size the measurements in millimeters of the longest dimension of each piece are given.


Please visit our China: Toggles Page for current inventory

top


For pricing information, please call 619/977-6717 or e-mail
[email protected]
 

©Copyright 2002 - 2017 by Timothy Mertel all rights reserved
Site by Christine Hottinger