Chinese earring fashion: a living legacy

Chinese earring fashion today is based on the long history of a unique civilization. When we explore the history of this fashion, we discover that women are almost the same 2,500 years ago as they are today. In fact, Chinese women in the past used to be buried with their favorite earrings and other jewelry. Archaeologists have found a variety of earrings while working on historical artifacts from China. The evidence strongly supports this very old trend.

“Erdang” is a kind of ancient earring that was worn piercing the human earlobe of women. It was also one of the most popular jewelry items displayed by Chinese women in ancient times. In Guangzhou, which is located in southern China’s Guangdong province, a piece of pottery was unearthed. It dates back to the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220). It showed a woman dancing with Erdang earrings. There is an important dictionary compiled by Lui Xi, a scholar of the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) which is titled “Shiming” (Interpretation of Terms). According to Shiming, Erdang earrings were first worn by ethnic women in remote border areas. Later, this fashion trend spread to central China as well.

The oldest Erdang pendant was discovered in the Chu State Tomb. It dates back to the spring and autumn period (770-476 BC). Archaeological excavations showed that wearing Erdang earrings had become quite fashionable during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and during the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). These ancient earrings were generally made of certain materials. These materials include gold, jade, silver, ivory, marble, glass, and crystal.

Glass Edrang earrings were in fashion mainly due to their bright colors and shimmering, translucent facets from the time of the Han Dynasty to the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581 AD). The literate Chinese in these time periods wrote admiration poems in praise of these extra special pieces of jewelry. Over the past decades, Chinese archaeologists have discovered thousands of glass Erdang earrings in ancient tombs such as those already described. Tombs of the dead with Erdang earring artifacts are found around the vast field. This is especially the case in central China’s Henan, Hunan and Hubei provinces.

In Changsha, which is the capital of Hunan Province, between 1952 and 1964 dozens of Han Dynasty tombs were found with a plethora of Erdang glass earrings. In fact, the colors of the Erdang glass earrings were very diverse. They included the colors blue, green, purple, black, and white. Also, these earrings were transparent or translucent. What most impressed these experts and archaeologists was the fact that many of these artifacts still glowed when they were unearthed.

During the Han dynasty, empresses, imperial concubines, and princesses wore earrings in a very different way. The earlobes were not pierced with earrings. Instead, these women attached the Erdang earring to a hairpin. Then the earring would hang next to her ears. According to the Shiming text, these earrings were called “zan ‘er” or hairpin earrings. They were a symbol of royalty more than an ordinary jewel. The ancient scholar Lui has noted in his classic work that royal court hairpin earrings were to remind imperial women of their duty to heed wise counsel. So when the emperor spoke to the royal women, they had to remove their hairpin earrings out of respect in order to give him their full attention.

In further research on ancient Chinese earrings, scholars have found that many ancient women liked to wear a single earring rather than a pair. Individual earrings have been found in one third of Han Dynasty tombs throughout China. What all this information points to is the undeniable fact that earrings in China’s fashion culture (as well as in the rest of Asia) are a living legacy that has not diminished over time. Women have always felt “naked” without earrings. It was the same in the past as it is still today. So … savor the time you spend choosing your earrings and enjoy them for a lifetime. You won’t be the first woman to do it!