Chinese Glass Beads

Export and Minority


My research on Chinese glass is akin to an observer peering into a dimly lit room and trying to discern its contents.



In the late twentieth century we have progressed beyond the mistaken opinion of bead experts that China did not make any glass (van der Sleen 1973) to the recognition that it was a major maker and exporter of glass beads (Francis 2002). Despite the widening interest among Chinese and Western researchers in Chinese glass, especially ancient glass and that involved in trade along the Silk Road (Gan et al. 2009, Zorn and Hilgner 2010), much remains to be learned. Compositional analysis of early Asian glass is a very active area of research currently (Lankton and Dussubieux 2006), but this approach has not been done yet with late Chinese glass, so these powerful techniques will not be useful with the beads described here.

Challenges to studying glass material culture of the recent past relating to beads include lack of attention or respect for this category of artifacts among the Chinese and devastating wars which have occurred since the 1930s: the Sino-Japanese war, that between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s-1970s. These upheavals must have had a devastating effect on any records of trade during these decades. The coincidence of the Cultural Revolution and the opening up of trade with China during the 1970s also meant the dispersal of many items of jewelry, since ornaments became politically incorrect with regime changes. This type of export trade has occurred with every major recent change in Chinese history, such as the Revolution of 1911 which ended the Qing dynasty and its use of court jewelry (Liu 1984). Interestingly enough, ethnic Chinese are now actively seeking to acquire cultural objects such as their jewelry and antiques, part of a wider movement among Asians to reclaim their cultural heritage.

ANTIQUE MIAO BABY CARRIER DANGLE of two large transparent Chinese glass beads, one with embedded crumbs, other with blue around perforation, now both matted through wear (3.6 - 3.8 centimeters diameter); strung on faded red yarn with cast x-shaped iron disks and notched Chinese brass coins; acquired circa 2002. Courtesy of Joan C. Eppen and Matthew Brody of Tiger Tiger.

I have been interested in which types of glass beads and ornaments, such as glass toggles, were made for trade to China’s numerous minorities and for export during Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Unfortunately, my sources have come almost entirely from the marketplace, when glass for minorities or export came to my attention during the past four decades. Some of the most interesting glass seems to have been exported from China within the last few decades. Most of these glass ornaments came from a few dealers who traveled to southwest China (Yunnan, Sichuan, Gansu) or who had access to good pickers there. Despite the large number of books on Chinese jewelry published within the past few decades, none really show glass beads, except those used with mandarin court necklaces. Even in Zhu’s recent study (2010) of Chinese beads, the types of glass ornaments illustrated in this article are restricted to two images in her book (Figures 238, 247). Not having the ability to access Chinese literature despite being ethnic Chinese, I have jokingly referred that my research on Chinese glass is akin to an observer peering into a dimly lit room and trying to discern its contents.

While China’s minorities have been well-covered, the costume or ornament books I reviewed had few glass beads except very small ones used as fringes on women’s hats of a few Miao peoples (Wu 2000). Some of the large and striking dangles of big glass beads, iron disks and Chinese bronze coins shown here have come from Miao minority areas. They are reported to be ornaments for baby carriers, but that has not been confirmed, although at least one baby carrier had a large glass bead (Pam Najdowski, email, May 29, 2013). Similarly, while large Chinese, opaque monochrome glass beads have been found in the Northwest United States or Siberia (Francis in Fitzhugh and Crowell 1988) or as hunting hat decorations among Alaskans, large, decorated Chinese glass beads have only appeared in the marketplace in the last decade. Whether and how Han or minority Chinese used them is not known.

Much of what we know about Chinese export glass beads and ornaments is based upon the late Peter Francis (2002) overview of Asian maritime trade, although information on overland trade with countries immediately bordering China is very limited. Additional data on finds of Chinese glass in southeast Asia comes from authors studying the bead explosion of the last two centuries (Allen 1998, 2007, 2010; Darmody 1987; Lewis and Lewis 1984; Liu 1982, 1983, 1984, 1995, 2009). Lastly, we have distribution evidence from glass beads and ornaments obtained from dealers or collectors starting around the 1940s, but especially from the late 1960s to the present.

Guangzhou, Suzhou and Boshan/Shandong are the glass beadmaking centers enumerated by Francis (2002), with glass exports occurring during the Southern Song, Yuan and Ming to the early Qing dynasties (A.D. 1127-1911). He also discusses the making of distinctive blue barrel beads by expatriate Chinese in Bantan, Java (Francis 2002: 81), and the installation and training of Chinese workers in glass making by Japanese in China (2002: 61-62), also noted by Allen in an unpublished manuscript (email, April 18, 2013). In this manuscript, Allen proposes that the Japanese taught lampworking (versus traditional Chinese kiln- or furnace-winding) to Chinese glass beadmakers to obtain cheap labor for exports to “Island SE Asia, including the Ainu, Paiwan, Borneoans, Sumatrans, Indonesians, and even the Inuits in Siberia, Canada/Alaska and the Arctic Circle.” Among the continents/countries for which Francis (2002) has documented as having been recipients of Chinese glass beads are: the Americas—Alaska (and Siberia across the Bering Straits), Northwest United States and Mexico; Asia—Siberia, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia (Borneo: Sarawak, Kalimantan), Indonesia (Sumatra, Java, Moluccas), India, Korea and Japan; Africa—(Zimbabwe; Egypt: Fustat).

Peter Francis discussed eight types of glass beads exported from China to the above regions, with one type made in Java by expatriate Chinese. Three of these types have never been seen or identified with certainty in the current marketplace. The others are not abundant except leadless glass (the so-called Peking glass) made in Boshan and vicinity. Coil beads, which according to Francis (2002: 76) were the most numerous and having the longest duration in the trade, replaced Indo-Pacific beads and are found in South East Asia [Philippines, Indonesia (northern Sumatra), Borneo (Sarawak)], East Asia (Korea, Japan, Taiwan) and Zimbabwe. Combed beads, among the most beautiful glass beads, were found in the Philippines, west Java and Sarawak, and among the Paiwan of Taiwan (Liu 1983). Whether all these combed beads belong to one group of Chinese origin is not yet known, as combed trailing of such precision has only been seen in a few high-lead Song/Yuan beads (Kwan 2001: 158-161) and combed beads were only recently found in mainland China (Liu 2009). Some imitation chevron beads and the barrel-shaped blue beads have been exported respectively to Sarawak and Taiwan, and found in the Philippines and in Borneo (Sarawak, Kalimantan). The most common export, the leadless glass of Boshan, were reported in the Philippines, Sarawak and east Java.

REPRESENTATIVE GLASS BEADS FROM SARAWAK, with many of the monochrome glass beads imported from China, 0.68 - 1.61 centimeters diameter, while the two cobalt blue barrel beads to the right are probably made in Bantan, Java, by Chinese glass beadmakers. Courtesy of Lynn Darmody, 1986.

What has been found in collections and the marketplace since the twentieth century? We now know that besides imports of Chinese beads to the northwest United States, Alaska and Siberia by both the Americans and Russians, Chinese glass beads reached the American Southwest and California, the latter possibly via the China-Manila-Mexico sea route (Francis 2002, Liu 1975a). The opaque cornflower blue spherical glass beads were in the Americas as early as 1740 (Francis 1988) and in great demand, for hundreds of years or more in many parts of the world. We show examples from the Columbia River of Oregon: ones recovered from a Yuan-Ming shipwreck off Sumba, Indonesia that could date as early as the thirteenth century; from Myanmar (Burma) and some of the many imports into the United States during the pre-war years of the twentieth century. Probably the trade in Peking glass was more widespread, as seen in their use in Bedouin necklaces from the Middle East, including a distinctive one strung with Chinese glass beads, Venetian corralles or imitation glass coral and local, pierced cloves (Liu 1975a).

The Boshan-made glass, whether for domestic or foreign use, is marked by considerable differences in both the quality of glass and crafting of the beads. Even glass for court officials shows varying levels of workmanship, as seen in the lapidary work for glass counterweights of court necklaces (Liu 1995: 58). This also applies to glass toggles, which were for merchants and the common people. While toggles have been collected by Westerners since the mid-twentieth century, very little has been written about those made of glass (Camman 1962, Liu 1999, Morrison and Morrison 1986). Undoubtedly dichotomies between poor and well-made examples are due to different workshops and their target markets, but may also reflect training by foreigners, such as the Japanese, especially with regard to lampworking and surface decorative techniques.

With the increased interest by Chinese researchers in their own glass and minor crafts, I hope much more will be learned about minority and export Chinese glass in the near future.




Robert K. Liu
Robert K. Liu is Coeditor of Ornament and primarily its ethnographic and ancient jewelry researcher. For this issue he writes on late Chinese glass beads and ornaments for export and to China’s minorities, dating from possibly the Yuan to late Qing dynasties. Returning to the Tucson gem shows held early in the year, he comments on the new, ongoing and important trend of craft classes and education. In the last few years he has been developing black bamboo as a sustainable material for jewelry and will be teaching bamboo jewelry workshops this summer, as well as conducting a series of lectures on the East Coast and at the Corning Annual Seminar on Glass.

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