Amber in Ancient China: Tears of a Tiger

February 02, 2016 0 Comments

Something about amber made the ancients think of tears—mystical, golden tears.

In Greek mythology, the Heliades (nymph daughters of the Sun) watched as their brother chariot the Sun across the sky, and losing control of it, plummeted to his death. Their grieving tears flowed into the sea and came back as amber. Other Greeks hypothesized that amber comes from the congealed urine of a lynx. The Chinese said it transforms from the tears of a tiger as it breathes its last breath. Though one cat excretion sounds more poetic than the other, the similarities couldn’t possibly be coincidental.

An amber ornament with carved with landscape and figures. Qing dynasty (1644–1911) (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Since ancient times, Chinese have called this organic gem “hu po” which means the courage or spirit of the tiger. There are tales about tigers whose souls enter the earth and become amber, a reflection of the age-old belief that the soul is material, not just ideological. Li Shizhen, Ming Dynasty physician and the author of the famed “Compendium of Materia Medica" ("Bencao Gangmu”) wrote that amber came from “the soul of a tiger descended to earth.”

Perhaps Li Shizhen M.D. and his contemporaries would have prescribed amber, ground up and ingested orally as pills, to calm the spirit, make the blood more active, and ease painful and frequent urination (a connection that validates the Greek lynx notion, perhaps?). This last property is corroborated by first century Roman writings. Being an organic substance—essentially the fossilized sap of eocene-era pines—it is readily processed by the human body if in the proper dosage.

Beautiful Women, Fractured States

In China as in Europe, amber was one of the most coveted status symbols among high level officials and prestigious families—and the prerogative of pretty women.

According to “The Notes of the Capital of Chang’an” (or “Miscellaneous Records of the Western Capital”), written in the Eastern Jin dynasty, Han Dynasty empress Zhao Feiyan loved to use amber as a pillow, believing that its natural fragrance would scent her body. In another record from Tang Dynasty, an amber bracelet given to a concubine as birthday gift was worth “1.7 million.”

An amber phoenix used as an ornamental plaque, dating from the Liao dynasty (907–1125).  (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Amber was so abundant to them while it was so scarce elsewhere because the Khitan controlled the areas in the northeast where amber is mined. Amber works flourished during this time, and after the Liao vanished, so did their artistry.
The price of amber in Han China skyrocketed when the Tang fractured into multiple states, including the “barbarian” Khitan Liao and Jurchen Jin periods (collectively 936–1125).

A tomb found in 1987 in what is today Inner Mongolia enclosed more amber than was ever found in any dynasty. Its inhabitant was a nomadic princess, dead at the age of 18 and interred with her 35-year-old husband. They were covered with amber—amber beads, ornaments, and perfectly preserved necklaces—more than 2,102 pieces total.

However, as when the areas of China were reunited again in the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), the free flow of amber resumed, resulting in elaborate decorative works, including this Qing Dynasty openwork tinder box.

Having survived from an age when earth had just bidden farewell to dinosaurs, amber has come a long way, and still has many more stories to tell.

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. Researched by Ariel Tian.

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