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Chasing Wisdom: Pearls in Chinese Culture

April 19, 2016 2 min read

 Headdress ornament in the form of a phoenix from the Qing dynasty. (Freer Sackler Gallery)

If you’ve ever seen a dragon-dance, you’ll know that the dragon chases a ball. Sometimes, it’s represented in artwork as being covered in flames or lightning. It could be red or white. This ball, in fact, is a pearl.

And just like the “pearls of wisdom” we speak of in the West, this mystical pearl that puts the dragon in eternal pursuit represents wisdom, spiritual energy, and enlightenment.

Dragon medallion in silk and metallic thread. Ming dynasty (1368–1644). (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Chinese have used and valued pearls since the formation of their civilization. The Nanyue King of the Western Han dynasty (206 B.C.–9 A.D.) slept swaddled in pearls. You can see examples of his pearl-embroidered bedding and pearl pillow stuffing from the Museum of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King.

In China, pearls come from freshwater in lakes and rivers. According to Ming Dynasty manual “The Exploitation of the Works of Nature” (Tian Gong Kai Wu), pearl-producing oysters would be lifted out of the water every full moon to absorb the lunar essence, which forms the soul of the pearl. It also says that on the harvest moon, the older oysters would turn their bodies to face the moon, so long as the night was clear. 

Fragment of headdress, Qing dynasty (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In the pearl-harvesting south of China, pearl fishers would jump into action each March. They’d sacrifice livestock to appease the sea gods, line their ships with reed mats, and head out to sea. One man would dive with a basket, and another would spot, holding onto a line at the diver’s waist. He’d breath out of a tin pipe in shallow waters; the most intrepid divers can go up to 500 feet.

Only after the shells are opened will the divers know whether their work yielded any pearls, and of what quality. Unlike gems that the earth spits out, pearls are not shaped by the human hand, as doing so would damage the nacre—the substance that makes a pearl pearly.

However, we can guide nature’s hand. Chinese figured out pretty early on that one can culture pearls—insert a nucleus for the oyster to grow a pearl around. It’s been documented that they placed tiny buddha figures made of lead in oysters so that the resulting pearl would take their shape.

Tortoise shell hair comb with gold and pearl decoration. (Freer Sackler Gallery)

Like so many natural substances, pearls were used as medicine in China. Applied topically, they allegedly bring luster and health to the skin. The Empress Dowager Cixi particularly preferred this treatment.

Pearls that when placed in a flat dish rolled incessantly would be called “walking pearls,” and when placed in the mouth of the deceased was thought to prevent decay.

This article is part of the Divine Land Gemstone Compendium, a weekly series by Yun Boutique exploring the gemstones of ancient China and their significance to Chinese culture. See the full series here. Subscribe to the email newsletter to receive future installments.

Produced and edited by Christine Lin. 

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