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The life of Chinese Silver Symbolic Locks — a collector’s view

Yi Wang

In the March of 1928, when my grandpa was 100 days (yes, days) old, the family held a big celebration party. The whole village came. Hundreds of silver symbolic locks covered a large table. Those were popular gifts at that time.

Chinese people treasure silver; because China had been short of silver supply in history. While silver coins were used on a daily basis in ancient Europe and western Asia, Chinese people predominantly used bronze, brass and even iron coins. Silver was only circulated among rich people and nobles before Ming dynasty. Possessing silverware had been a dream of ordinary farmers for thousands of years. Starting from about 16th century in Ming dynasty, as more silver came from Japan, Europe and South America through trade, silver finally reached the hands of Chinese farmers. Women in kitchen started to wear silver hairpins. They felt richer, although they were still working in the kitchen.

Silver symbolic locks became popular in a much later period, in my view not until early 1800s, when adults had quite some silver to spend. Symbolic locks were big. They were hung on the neck of children, who not care about those dangles as well as their moms did. I did not find any reliable recording of silver locks before 19th century. Some records were likely to be necklaces with fancy shaped pendants instead of symbolic locks.


Figure 1
Obverse: Alta table with ume, water lily, vase, book, fan, etc.
Reverse: Plain
Zhejiang or Jiangsu province, Qing Dynasty 8th year of Xian Feng Emperor 1858 Qing

The earliest item I have with reliable year inscription is one made in 1858 (8th year of Xian Feng Emperor)(Figure 1). This lock is actually a copper one with a layer of silver, which is not an uncommon case. From the enlarged image, we can see that the silver layer worn out after the inscription was punched in.

Also, the theme displayed on the lock appeared very often before mid-Qing dynasty decoration arts and became less popular afterward. Therefore the date of this lock is reliable. Can it be used to judge the time of other symbolic locks? It’s hard; because the symbolic lock culture quickly spread into every city of this huge land, and diverted into hundreds of local styles in less than fifty years.

By looking at the style of a lock, experienced collectors and dealers can tell which province, even which city, it was produced (Figure 2 and Figure 3 are two examples). As for era, the best one could tell is either late Qing or Republic period, which spans less than 200 years.

The life of silver symbolic lock culture is short. It was officially terminated by the Cultural Revolution, starting from 1966. But it was dying anyway, as the silver period had passed.


Figure 2
Obverse: Squirrel and grapes
Reverse: Chang Ming Bai Sui 
Hebei Province, probably Qing Dynasty


Figure 3
Obverse: Guan Yu (God of Righteousness and
Reverse: Three of the eight immortals
Fujian Province, probably Qing Dynasty

Yi is a PhD student in Virginia Tech. He loves collecting and studying old things, particularly ancient world coins and old Chinese silver symbolic locks. He is one of the earliest people to introduce ancient Greek and Roman coins to Chinese collectors through internet. Here is a link to his online coin store.


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  1. Posted April 7, 2010 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    The lock shape amulet was worn as pendant for kids, was to “lock or seal” life of that kid in his/her body (preventing soul to escape from the body).

    The lock shape thing that hang on top of the front door of the house with auspicious symbols (shou, fu, bats, plum blossom..etc) engraved on it , is to lock or seal life of family members who live in the house.

    That idea was started from the Ming Dynasty.

    Have fun
    Anita / jadetalk forum

  2. Posted April 5, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Now I know why Chinese people loved to collect silver because of its insufficient supply in the history.

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