Chinese Thumb Rings: From Battlefield to Jewelry Box
It is not often that an implement of warfare evolves into an item of jewelry. But that is precisely what happened with Chinese archer’s rings.
From ancient times, archery in Asia was well developed for warfare, hunting, and sport. Archery implements have been unearthed in Chinese tombs going back at least 4000 years. The Mongolian warriors who conquered China in 1271 to establish the Yuan dynasty owed much of their success to their skill in shooting arrows from horseback. Their implements, techniques, and tactics allowed them to shoot their targets from galloping horses and then twist around in the saddle for a parting backward shot after passing. The Manchu clan that conquered China 400 years later to establish China’s final dynasty, the Qing, was equally skilled with bow and arrow. Their prowess with archery—again, especially from horseback—allowed a relatively small band of Manchus to conquer all of China and rule it for over 250 years.
A number of technological developments contributed to the success of archery in north-eastern China. Among these was the use of archer’s rings, called she in ancient China (modern term banzhi). The archer’s ring is used on the thumb of the stronger hand, the one that pulls the bowstring. In addition to protecting the thumb, the ring provides a precise release action for the bowstring. The sidebar explains how these thumb rings were actually used.
Archery was also used for hunting game. Upcoming bow-and-arrow hunts were mentioned in Chinese “oracle bone” inscriptions dating back 3,500 years. From its beginnings in warfare and hunting, archery soon became a sport, and later, a skill that any cultured Chinese gentleman was expected to master. Up through the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) archery remained one of the standard examination tests for civil service.
Embellishing the Rings
It’s surprising that an item as small and plain as a cylindrical thumb ring can provide so much opportunity for artistry. Much of the enjoyment of these rings comes from the materials they are made of. The earliest archer’s rings were usually made of horn, jade, or ivory. But as archer’s rings became more ornamental and less practical, the materials that could be used expanded greatly. In this way they are very similar to Chinese snuff bottles, and many of the same materials were used.
The archer’s ring must be reasonably hard and durable. To a Westerner the obvious choice of material would be metal, but surprisingly few metal rings are known. Perhaps forming a ring from bronze or silver was simply not challenging enough for the Chinese artisan.
Archer’s rings in various hardstones are the most common. Of course the stone that holds the place of honor in China is jade. Nephrite jade is in fact a very practical choice as it is the toughest (hardest to break) of all stones, and lovely as well. As we have seen, the oldest known archer’s ring was made of this precious material. By the Qing dynasty, archer’s rings had mostly become personal adornments rather than utilitarian accessories for archery, and many of them were now made from the other type of true jade, jadeite. Jadeite, which was not used in China in significant amounts until the late 1700s, comes in a more exciting color palette than its sister jade, nephrite. Nephrite’s subtle colors, and jadeite’s more brilliant hues, along with the swirls and patches of contrasting color often seen in jade, make even an undecorated thumb ring a thing of beauty.
Although many thumb rings are left undecorated to show off the material, others have a design or inscription incised into the ring’s cylindrical surface or carved in low relief. Agate is another popular material for thumb rings, and the artist often takes advantage of that material to carve cameo style scenes through contrasting layers of color.
In India, the archer’s rings are usually of the tabbed form, rather than the cylindrical Manchu style. Many of these are nephrite jade, and India’s Mughal rulers had them decorated with elaborate inlays of gold and precious stones.
Glass can be used for thumb rings, either overlay carved, as in a snuff bottle, or simply imitating another material such as jade. The famous snuff bottle collector Emily Byrne Curtis had a clear glass ring painted on the inside with butterflies and flowers to match one of her inside-painted snuff bottles. The pair is illustrated in Bob C. Stevens’ The Collector’s Book of Snuff Bottles. The inside of her ring is lined with silver to protect the painting.
It is interesting that early rings that show signs of usage and burial are often thinner walled and carefully shaped on the inside instead of being precisely cylindrical, as if custom fitted to the archer’s thumb. Some early rings are also carved with designs on the inside, possibly to increase the archer’s grip on the ring.
One issue that arises with cylindrical rings is “which end is up?” These rings usually have one end chamfered and the other concave (dished in). Logically one might think that the concave end should go against the bowstring to provide the sharpest release action. But Stephen Markbreiter in his 1975 Arts of Asia article argues for just the opposite, since placing the concave end toward the thumbnail provides more freedom of movement for the thumb. Even paintings showing archer’s rings being worn are of little help in resolving this question, since few of the subjects ever actually used the rings in archery. Most rings with scenes or inscriptions on them support Markbreiter’s view, if we assume the scene is to be viewed by the wearer, not by others.
A Famous Set of Rings
Even more impressive than a well-carved single ring are sets of rings. Several rings of similar or complementary types, in a fancy case, made the perfect gift for a friend (or bribe for an official). The cases holding sets of archer’s rings are often as impressive as the rings themselves.
The seven Qianlong rings, identical in size and shape, are of white jade, light and dark green jade, “red skin” green jade, and archaic Han jade. The rings are incised with scenes of mountains, pines, and clouds and the Emperor’s poems in his own calligraphy. One white ring, for example, is carved with the poem “Fishing Alone at Hanjiang River,” a poem Qianlong likely composed specifically for this ring as the figures and calligraphy are in complete harmony. These poems provide revealing insights into the ruler across several decades of his reign.
The round lacquer box that holds the rings is carved with a design of three fish and flower scrolls. The inside of the box is incised with two additional Qianlong poems, including “Song of the Jade Archer’s Rings.” The base has a four-character Qianlong reign mark. Each ring is kept in a yellow silk liner within separate compartments to prevent damage. The Imperial workshops devoted extraordinary care to the design and workmanship of these masterpiece rings and their container.
With the modernization of China in the 1920s, thumb rings became useless even for status purposes, and great quantities became available for other decorative uses. Most of these rings are made of low-quality jade or pseudojade, and are still being made today. They appear on all sorts of made-in-China objects where a small cylindrical decoration is needed. These include miniature flowerpots, handles for Chinese charcoal-heated irons, opium lamp barrels and opium pipe dampers, parts of walking sticks, scroll ends, napkin rings, snuff bottles, saltshakers, toothpick holders, and even as mouthpieces for Chinese musical instruments. A few examples are shown here.
A Word for the Collector
Collecting Chinese thumb rings shares many similarities and advantages with collecting snuff bottles. Several dozen rings can be housed in a single small padded box. The rings are less fragile than snuff bottles, less expensive, and are available in the same broad variety of materials and artistic motifs. Like so many Chinese decorative arts, top-quality archer’s rings were once easy to find at very low cost. But the better examples sought by collectors today—interesting rings of top-quality material, with good carving, signs of use, and no damage—have become scarce and costly. The beginning collector should become acquainted with the limited literature on the subject and see as many collections as possible before making any serious purchases. An exceptionally fine collection of more than 500 thumb rings is housed in the Grayson Archery Collection at the University of Missouri Museum of Anthropology.
Whether you wear your archer’s rings, collect them, or merely admire them in a museum, you are honoring a humble object that contributed to the conquest of China itself.
Dwyer, Bede. “Early Archers’ Rings,” Journal of the Society of Archer-Antiquaries, Vol. 40, 1997; summarized by the Asian Traditional Archery Research Network at http://www.atarn.org/chinese/thumbrings/archers_rings.htm
Markbreiter, Stephen, “Curio Notes,” Arts of Asia Vol. 10, No. 5, Sept-Oct 1975, pp 78-83.
Selby, Stephen. Chinese Archery, Hong Kong University Press, 2000.
Sotheby’s Ltd. “Private English Collection of Fine Chinese Thumb Rings, Jade Carvings and Snuff Bottles,” London, 6 December 1995.
Sotheby’s Ltd. “By Heavenly Mandate: Important Historical Works of Art of the Qianlong Reign,” Hong Kong, 8 April 2007.
Thewlis, Graham. “Chinese Thumb Rings,” Arts of Asia Vol. 15, No. 3, May-Jun 1985, pp 80-86.
of Missouri Museum of Anthropology Chinese Thumb Ring Collection
Far East Gallery http://hoffmanjade.com
|How the Archer’s
Ring Was Used
Supreme among Asian archers were the Mongols, who trained from childhood and shot both forward and backward from horseback. In the “Mongolian draw” (or Mongolian release) the thumb with ring, just below the first joint, is hooked around the string and under the arrow. The last three fingers curl into a fist and the tip of the thumb is placed on the second joint of the middle finger. The index finger is then locked over the thumbnail to help draw the string and steady the arrow. This technique was common throughout Asia, as well as in Persia, Turkey, India, and parts of North Africa.