A History Of Antique Chinese Ivory

The use of elephant ivory can be traced back many centuries. It is a sought after material on par with gold and jade in China and used for decorative as well as religious objects. Ivory carving is one of China’s oldest art forms, examples have been found in Shang dynasty tombs. In ancient times elephants roamed the forests of the yellow river region (Huang He)

In the Zhou dynasty (1046 – 256 BC) it was fashionable for high officials to wear narrow memorandum tablets made of ivory, these were called hu and were worn as girdle pendants. By the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) these tablets had come to be a mark of rank and were required as part of formal dress. Then in the Tang dynasty (618 – 907) and the Song dynasty (960 -1279) the ivory tablets were larger and were carried by court officials as scepters.

The tablets continued to be used as a mark of high rank up until the end of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century. Then in the Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911) China’s traditional ivory carving peaked.

Beijing in the north and Guangzhou in the south were two ivory carving centers at the time. In the early Qing dynasty Guangzhou was a Chinese port which allowed in foreign trade. Foreign merchants, shipped Chinese goods from this port to other countries and brought in ivory.

Ivory carving tools and methods has changed very little right up until the end of the 19th century. Carvers used axes, adz, floats and saw to get the ivory into manageable sized pieces then he would use fretsaws and chisels and gauges to carve the piece, but by the 1900 power rotary saws and small dental type drills were introduced. By the 1950 these labour saving machine tools had seen ivory carving spread around the world.

Thankfully China’s ivory trade is now illegal and has been since December 31 2017. Today fewer Chinese people are interested in buying ivory products. A public opinion research firm found that 72% of people polled would not now buy ivory artifacts.