The use of Chinese Toggles (Guajian) predates Netsuke and serves the same purpose. They are small carvings used as the counterweight to a carrying pouch. Both the costumes of Japan and China in previous centuries did not have pockets. A component of these pocketless costumes were belts. Thus if one wanted to carry small objects, such as tobacco, pipes, eating sets, money or any other personal effects, one could attach it to a cord suspended from the belt. But instead of tying the cord to your belt wouldn’t it be easier to attach a counterweight and then slip it behind your belt? That was what one did in China dating as far back as the Tang Dynasty (618-907).
Over time, toggles became objects of personal expression and identity. Beautiful symbolic amulets were worn and fondled, bringing the bearer good fortune, longevity, fertility, happiness and health. Art motifs in China are steeped with symbolism both apparent and hidden. This collection of Guajian illustrates some of the more popular motifs. They are rendered in a variety of materials such as wood, ivory, stone and metal. All of these materials are smooth to the touch and develop a warm lustrous patina with age and use.
The collecting field of Guajian is relatively unexplored. While the toggles share similarities with their Japanese counterparts, they set themselves apart with their naïve symbolic carvings fashioned by the user, as opposed to signed works by established artists. It is this folk art aspect of Chinese toggles that conveys a sense of beautiful artistry one based on the daily appreciation of the wish being conveyed.