China Xinjiang Kashgar Uyghur traditional earrings with filaments process

2017-12-26 17:54:11 来源:Weifeng Zhang

By Weifeng Zhang /School of Gemmology, China University of Geosciences, Beijing, China, 100083

As a Chinese jewelry researcher, I am interested in Chinese ethnic minorities jewelry cultures. Compare with the major Han jewelries, the jewelries of Chinese ethnic minorities often show their intrinsic national features, which make them very special and charming and inspire me frequently.  

China is consisted of 56 ethnic groups. Among them the Han majority account for 91.51% of the overall Chinese population and the rest ethnic groups make up the remaining 8.49%. So the rest 55 ethnic groups are called the ethnic minorities in China. The Uyghur is one of the largest ethnic minorities with a population of around 11.3 million, which is located mainly in the southwestern of Xinjiang. In China, Xinjiang is a remote area with bad natural conditions and a sparse population. It is located in the central Asian continent, far from sea and surrounded by high mountains. So the ocean moisture is not easy to enter, which form its distinct temperate continental climate with less rain, long hours of sunshine and big temperature difference between day and night. Deserts, Gobi, bare rocks and snow mountains account for more than half of Xinjiang’s area. The areas suitable for human living mainly are many small oases. Actually, residential area on oases covers only 3.6% of the total area of Xinjiang. (Fig.1-6)

Kashgar (Chinese (Pinyin) Kashi) is an oasis which located in the southwestern of Xinjiang and more than 90% population there is the Uyghur. All Uyghur are Muslim, so Muslim religious culture has a profound impact on the Kashgar Uyghurs’ life. For two millenniums or more, Kashgar was the greatest market city on one of the major trade routes Silk Road of ancient times. Caravans of a thousand camels each traveled along it, transporting silk, spices, gold and gemstones between Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) and the central Chinese city of Xian, then the capital. Kashgar was located at the crossing of the Middle Road and South Road of Silk Road. It was so important that it was called “Pearl of Silk Road”. Because of its special location on Silk Road, its economy was well developed, a large population gathered there and Eastern and Western cultures collided in this area. 

Therefore, the special geography, religious and history result in Xinjiang Uyghur unique culture,which shows everywhere including dress, food, architecture, etiquette, marriage and funeral ceremonies and so on. The most attractive part to me is their jewelries.  (Fig.7-16)

In Uyghur language, Kashgar means jade gathering place. But jade is not rich in Kashgar itself. Jade, gold and other mineral resources are very rich in the other area in Xinjiang. For example, Hetian is rich in Hetian Jade, which is one of the most precious jade in China and Altai Mountain is rich in gold. As a trading center, a large amount of jade and gold were gathered and traded in Kashgar. In ancient times, for most Chinese people, good jade is more precious than gold. An old saying says “gold has a price but jade is priceless”. I guess this might be the reason why it is called "jade gathering place" rather than "gold gathering place", which even more demonstrates its importance. But for Uyghur people, gold is their favorite. Women like to wear gold jewelries. Although men are not allowed to wear gold jewelry, they inlaid gold teeth as a way to have gold on their body. In Uyghur’s view, gold means noble and pure and wearing gold can ward off evil, bring good fortune and maintain health.

In Kashgar, the god jewelry and handicrafts have always been very prosperous. There are a great number of gold craftsmen there. The common jewelries that women like to wear include headdress, earrings, necklace, bracelet, and finger ring. Among them, gold earrings are most popular. For a Uyghur family, no matter rich or poor, when a daughter in this family is preparing her marriage, her parents will give her one or more sets of fine gold earrings as gifts to express their blessing and love. These gold earrings will usually be with this girl for the rest of her life. In Kashgar, if your earrings are out of fashion, and you are poor and can not afford a new pair of earrings, it is still very easy to change them to an equal weight of new earrings with new style in any goldsmith store. (Fig.17-18) 

Although Kashgar is an economically highly developed city in ancient time, with the changing times, especially after China's reform and opening up, its economy lagged obviously behind the coastal open cities such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and so on. So industrialization and modernization have relatively small influence on Kashgar traditional handicrafts. Besides that, because over 90 percent of the population in Kashgar is Uyghurs, the influence by Han culture is also limited. As a result, Kashgar Uyghur traditional metal handicrafts are inherited relatively intact. That is the reason why I choose Kashgar as an ideal place where I investigate Uyghur traditional jewelry. What I am most interested in is different kinds of earrings with Uyghur traditional filament production process. 

In order to learn more about it, I fight to Kashger in July of 2015 and made a detail investigation for 20 days in the most famous Goldsmith Street(Fig. 19-21). When I walked out of airport, I felt people’s appearances and dresses were very different from the most other parts of China. Compared with the Han people, they have bigger eyes, thicker eyebrows, deeper eye sockets, higher nose and whiter skin. Most women wear headscarves and robes. Almost all men wear skullcaps. All people speak Uyghur language that we cannot understand. Building showed obvious Islamic style. The street was full of kebabs stalls and the air was filled with the smell of mutton. (Fig. 22-28) 

In Kashgar most goldsmiths are concentrated in Goldsmith Street near Aidkah Mosque in downtown area. Goldsmith Street is a three-story building. Each floor has dozens of goldsmith shop and each shop is around 100 ft2. Goldsmiths rent these shops. Some goldsmiths both make and sale gold jewelries and some just make jewelries for other shops. Customers can order according to their favorite jewelry picture. Goldsmiths mainly earn processing fees. Depending on the difficulty degree of crafts, goldsmith charge around $2 charge per gram of gold. Gold price is calculated according to the international gold price on the date of purchase.

In the past, goldsmith shops are family workshops and handicrafts are inherited from father to son. Now, this inheritance way is no longer limited between father and son, but extended among other family relatives and friends. A master may have several apprentices and an apprentice can learn from several masters. By the way, I noticed that no goldsmith was woman. During the apprenticeship, master teaches apprentice handicraft skills and is responsible for his daily live. During learning, apprentice has to work for free for his master. Usually a Uyghur goldsmith apprenticeship period is 3-4 years. At the end of the apprenticeship, master will give his apprentice a set of jewelry making tools as a gift. Generally, Uyghur handicraftsman’s education is not high. Most of them only received a few years of primary education.

Uyghurs usually wear traditional style jewelries in formal occasions, such as marriage, Uyghur traditional festivals and so on. Here I want to show the Uyghur traditional gold earring styles and introduce some unique manufacturing processes and techniques, which are rare in other place of China.

The shape of most gold filigree earring jewelry comes from plants and flowers. Through the combination of material, shape and crafts, the whole style of its jewelry presents splendid and complicated features. There are 10 styles of existing traditional earrings: 1.Kucha type (kuchaqi) (Fig. 29), 2.Five-stone type (beshtashideseh)(Fig. 30), 3.Butterflytype (kipenzera) (Fig. 31), 4.Hetian type (hotianqi) (Fig. 32), 5. Plum flower type (mihazera) (Fig. 33), 6. Moon type (oihangza) (Fig. 34), 7. Half moon type (oizoikan) (Fig. 35), 8.Needle type (yingnaseha) (Fig. 36), 9. Steamed bread type (mantou) (Fig.37), 10. Hanging chain type (asmerzera) (Fig. 38). 11. Ququ type(ququ)(Fig. 39).  The letters in brackets are the writing style of Uyghur language.

Technologically, gold filigree is mostly used to make Uyghar earrings and most distinctive. In Uyghur, filament process refers to the techniques that are used to make flower modeling and auxiliary decoration pattern with metal filaments (or known to the western world as wire), mainly including thread bending, weaving, and heaping, etc. Firstly, pull gold wire into different diameters (Fig40). Then use filament process to make gold wire into small parts with different shapes, such as roundness, arc, spiral, wave-like pattern and flower shape(Fig.41-44), etc. Sometimes, craftsmen use one shape to form another shape, for example, they often use a tiny spiral gold filament to make a circle (Fig. 45-48). Another common theme is the use of gold beads. Craftsman wraps gold filament wire uniformly onto a metal bar. This metal bar determines the size of the ball that will be created. After removing the metal bar, they create a spiral of gold wire. Then it is easy to cut it into small pieces by ?(Fig. 49-50). Craftsman will then heat these small pieces of gold to the melting point with a torch (Fig. 51-53). This method creates uniform gold beads that allows craftsman to assemble their earrings without having to measure or weigh individual pieces for continuity and sameness.

These small parts are preliminarily assembled together into an earring using a water-based glue (Fig. 54-59). In order to make all small parts connected to each other tightly, craftsman uses a traditional soldering technique. First, they spray water mist on the earrings, and then sprinkle with gold solder powder (Fig. 60). This gold solder powder is a mix of god, sliver copper and borax. Then the earrings are put in an electric oven to dry after which they are placed on a preheated charcoal block and soldered using a torch(Fig.61-65). When the whole earring glows dark red, heating is stopped and soldering is done. 

The process of making this kind of gold sold powder is: melt pure gold (1.5g), sliver (0.2g) and copper (0.16g) together with a welding torch. After them cool, beat it flat with a hammer and then use a pair of pliers fix it. File this mixture into powder. Before use, add some borax (20 gold solder powder:1 borax).

This method is simple and efficient because it seals all of the connection points at the same time. The soldered earrings are then soaked in weak bath of sulphuric acid for about half an hour to remove impurities and oxide layer on the surface (Fig. 66). After a simple polish,the pair of fine filaments earrings are complete (Fig. 67).

Uyghur traditional jewelry art is an important part of Chinese traditional arts. However, this kind of arts, whether the jewelry itself or the handicraft techniques, are now at risk of vanishing. I think there are many reasons. On the one hand, along with industrialization,mechanized production of earrings influx into Kashgar. Their prices are more cheaper and styles are more innovative, which makes customers who purchase traditional handmade earrings reduced greatly. As a result, some goldsmiths cannot make a living by making jewelry and they have to change their careers. Only a few goldsmiths with excellent skills can survive. On the other hand, less and less young people would like to study these complicated handicrafts. Learning skills and jewelries making are both time-consuming. Above all, they cannot earn money easily with their crafts. More and more young people prefer to be a worker in a factory or company, or have other easier business, or go to college. As a jeweler researcher, I feel it is urgent to protect Uyghur traditional jewelry art and handicrafts. As a teacher, I introduce what I know to my students. I hope that my work will inspire more young people to engage in this field. On the other hand, I hope my work can help our modern artists know more about traditional ethnic minorities art, which might give them some enlightening thoughts in their own design. If we can use these old techniques and artistic elements in our own jewelries design and making, that would be the best inheritance.


Grant sponsor: Excellent Teacher Program, Central University Basic Research Foundation, Grant numbers: 2652615160; Social Science Foundation of China, Grant numbers: 12CG100.

The author thanks Susie Ganch (Department of Craft and Material Studies, School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University) for providing insightful comments on the manuscript. He thanks Dr. Qi Wang(Meitan General Hospital, Beijing, China) and Yushan Sun (Department of Craft and Material Studies, School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University) for the manuscript’s English translation.

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