Unusual Chinese duanjian with fine gilt mounts and a blade of non-Chinese origin.
Possibly made in China for that market
Iron, steel, brass, bronze, hardwood
Late 19th / early 20th century
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Many Mongols, the Khalkas in particular, had close ties with the Manchu ruling elite during the Qing dynasty. As allies that helped overthrow the Ming, many Mongol families remained serving under the Mongolian Eight Banners, and fought the front line expansion wars alongside the Manchu Bannermen. Some Mongolian men even attained very high military or even Manchu noble ranks. Places like Beijing, but also other Banner garrisson towns had sizeable Mongolian populations, where design aesthetics mixed with Chinese designs.
A knife of Mongolian form and aesthetic but also with lots of Chinese influence in its decoration. The knife has a single edged blade with single groove, and ridged spine. The handle is made of black cattle horn with white streaks. It is mounted with a steel pommel with lotus engravings, and a brass pommel cap which is peened to the tang.
The wooden scabbard is covered with black leather and two steel mounts. The top mount has a brass dragon that holds the suspension ring for the belt. It is decorated with engraved designs on the reverse, and openwork on the front showing four animals over a brass background visible through the cutouts. The bottom fitting encases most of the scabbard, and exhibits similar openwork. On the front with twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac and on the reserve eight precious symbols of tantric Buddhism. The Buddhist treasures are often found on Chinese, Tibetan, Bhutanese and Mongolian items but to also find all animals of the zodiac is very unusual.
It comes with its old belt, with two heavy steel mounts in the shape of stylized clouds, with silver decoration and wolf-like animals on the clasps.
As mentioned the decoration is very symbolic and highly unusual. The decoration of the main casing of the piece is pretty straightforward in deciphering. Not all the animals are very clear, but it helps that the design keeps to the order of the Chinese zodiac so those not easily identifiable are explained nonetheless. The layout is whimsical, with each animal stacked on the back of the other:
Apart from the twelve Chinese zodiac animals, there is a taiji symbol on the top, and what looks like a lotus on top of stylized waves at the bottom of the casing.
The reverse in turn keeps to the common set of Eight Buddhist Treasures:
With again an extra lotus symbol above stylized waves at the bottom. The throatpiece is somewhat less straightforward:
The front facing side (left) shows four animals on top of each other. The bottom one seems to be a pig with on top of it a monkey. Above that may be a rat, and above the rat a bird, possibly a crane. The monkey and pig may be a reference to the classic story "Journey to the West", in which Sun Wukong the Monkey King and Zhu Bajie, half-man half-pig are main characters. All sit on top of a lotus, the flower that represents the path to enlightenment.
The reverse (right) shows some elements well-known from Chinese art. Top to bottom: Stylized coins (for wealth), lozenges (for victory), double stylized rhinoceros horns (for wealth), a flute (reference to immortal Han Xiangzi), a silver ingot (wealth), and a stylized swastika. There are two elements next to the flute that I cannot identify.
All in all, there is lots and lots of meaning in this piece and the choice of the combinations of symbols seems quite deliberate. It could be that parts of the decoration are meant as rebuses, which are common in Chinese art, and yet need to be deciphered.
A very unusual piece. Probably a one-off that was made on order, for someone for whom all these elements had special meaning.
Edit, March 12, 2020
I just came across a little passage that sheds light on the matter:
"Every man has a silver-handled knife, silver-handled chopsticks, both fitting into a heavy silver case, a silver flint case, knobs for his keys, saddle, bridle, and backstrap ornaments of silver. Many people have food basins gold- or silver-lined. Silversmiths take 40 per cent of the silver for their work. They do not have any designs except those which they carry in their heads.
The craftsman goes to the encampment where he is desired to work. Each member of the family who has a lump of silver and wants an article made talks with him about the design he or she would like. One wants antelopes in a grove of birches in relief on the bottom of his food bowl. Another desires the eight emblems of sacrifice in a circle round the wood. Another would like coral and jade set in the pattern of a flower on the two sides of his snuff bottle. A young girl wants a dragon twisted into a bracelet.
A man would like the twelve animals of the zodiac on his knife sheath so that he can keep track more easily of the name of the year.
When the silversmith knows what is wanted, he gets out his crucible for melting the metal and the tools for shaping it. The lump of pure gold or pure silver is handed over to him and he goes to work. The Mongol silversmith does beautiful, solid work, equal to any metal work that I have seen in any other place in the world."
From: Frans August Larson; Larson Duke of Mongolia. Boston, Little, Brown, and Company. Page 66.
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