Adorned in Brilliance: A Kingfisher Headdress and its Royal Symbolism

6 minute read

Our first response to a museum object like this is probably a ‘what?’. We glance down to the right, and find that it is a headdress, that it was created in the late 19th century, that it was worn by a bride on her wedding day or by an aristocratic lady, and that the brilliant halcyon colour that reminds us of a kingfisher is indeed kingfisher feathers.

A headdress made of small pink and white bead, gilt, and blue kingfisher feathers.

Figure 1. A pre-Manchu elaborate headdress made of small white beads, gilt, and kingfisher feathers. China. Late 19th century. MAA Z 42505.1-2.

Such a ‘what’ then leads to a ‘how?’. There is a metal frame, string and white beads, a hidden paper structure, and inlaid feathers. The National Museum of Scotland has generously shared information about the process of restoring a similar headdress. 

And then there is the question ‘why?’. And for this we need to do some digging. We must never forget that the nobles of the Qing were highly literate people, who were comfortable with several classical texts, and certainly not naïve to the significance of the kingfisher.

There are some clues on the headdress itself. Beside the dragon at the centre, there are the characters 奉天誥命, which mean ‘The decree of the Emperor, entrusted by Heaven’.

A collage of two images. Both show Chinese characters created in the headdress using kingfisher feathers.

Figures 2 and 3. Characters 奉天 (left) and 誥命 (right), which together mean ‘The decree of the Emperor, entrusted by Heaven’. China. Late 19th century. MAA Z 42505.1-2.

And above the dragon we have 聖旨 ‘by permission of the sage’ (the Emperor).

Chinese character created using blue kingfisher feathers.

Figure 4. Character 聖. To its right is character 旨. Together these mean ‘by permission of the sage’ (the Emperor). China. Late 19th century. MAA Z 42505.1-2.

We have iconography to match the prestige of these statements: dragons, phoenixes, and the characters for sun 日 and moon 月 on either side.

A collage of two images. On the left, the Chinese character for sun, underneath the figure of a dragon, both created using blue kingfisher feathers. On the right, the Chinese character for moon.

Figures 5 and 6. Character for sun 日 (left) and moon 月 (right). China. Late 19th century. MAA Z 42505.1-2.

From this we know that it must have been worn by the queen or by a very highly ranking concubine. Nobody else would be allowed to wear a phoenix, let alone receive permission from the Emperor to do so.

But why feathers? There is the simple answer: they are beautiful, the colour is striking, and after all, doesn’t everybody seek beautiful clothing? But then there are some elements that complicate the story. It is quite well established that the wearing of animal products at an earlier stage in China was associated or explained with relation to the behaviour of the animal. Roel Sterckx has written in some detail on the subject. He has described targets made of animal skin that supposedly allowed the archer to appropriate the power of the animal. He has noted that when animals are gifted in classical texts, they are chosen based on their links between their natural behaviour, real or imagined, and the ‘social conduct desired of the human officer in question’ (Sterckx, 2017: 174). 

Four Chinese men dressed in traditional clothing, possibly holding swords, and wearing hats with pheasant feathers attached on either side. They are standing in front of a tent.

Figure 7. A mural depicting military men wearing hats with pheasant feathers attached on either side. Source: Wallace, L. V. (2020). ‘Does a Feather in Your Hat a Barbarian Make?’, in The Art and Archaeology of Bodily Adornment, eds. Sheri Lullo and Leslie V. Wallace. pp. 161-175. New York: Routledge.

Feathers are almost certainly worn according to similar ideas. Warriors in the imperial army would frequently wear the feathers of the brown-eared pheasant, described in classical texts as a bruiser, a fighter, a bird that didn’t know when it was dead, and kept fighting. There are examples of murals in which such feathers can be seen in the cap of a soldier. Apparently they were so prevalent that the army was commonly known as the 羽林 (yulin, the forest of feathers).

A collage of two images. On the left, a koklass pheasant in a forest. On the right, a Manchurian brown-eared pheasant.

Figures 8 and 9. Left – A koklass pheasant. Source: Asif N Khan. Right – A Manchurian brown-eared pheasant. Source: Somongkol Teng.

In other walks of life, those associated with the otherworldly would often adorn themselves in white feathers. There are plenty of references to ‘feather robes’ (yuyi 羽衣), ‘feather garments’ (yufu 羽服 or yuchang 羽氅); or more specifically ‘crane garments’ (hechang 鶴氅) and ‘crane cloaks’ (heqiu 鶴裘) in early and mediaeval texts. In poems or texts describing mystical experience, white feathers would sprout from the bodies of immortals as they flew away to mystical lands. Zornica Kirkova has translated a typical poem by Cao Zhi which depicts the mythical king Huangdi (or the ‘Yellow Emperor’ Speeding his Carriage 驅車篇): 

‘He partook of the aurorae, rinsed his mouth with Drifting Flow; And fur and feathers then mantled the form of his person; Rising up and away, he trod the outskirts of emptiness; Aloof and high he ascended to sequestered tenebrity; Equal in span of years to the Father in the East; He spends the ages now in perpetual prolongation of life’ (Kirkova, 106: 54). 

Even in the very earliest pictorial sources we find in China, immortals are depicted with wings.  

When it came to imperial clothing, the 周禮 (Zhouli), a text describing the organisation of government, including ritual, during the Western Zhou period (c.a. 11th cent.–770 B.C.E.) was very prescriptive. It noted down carefully all the clothes that the King and Queen would wear. The King would adorn himself in furs, while the queen would be dressed in pheasant feathers. There are also a number of references to the Empress in pheasant feathers in the Book of Songs

‘How rich and splendid, Is her pheasant-figured robe! (君子偕老, Legge’s translation, 1861); Large was she and tall, When she halted in the cultivated suburbs. Strong looked her four horses, With the red ornaments so rich about their bits. Thus in her carriage, with its screens of pheasant feathers, she proceeded to our court’ (碩人, Legge’s translation, 1861). 

Birds such as pheasants and mandarin ducks, who exhibit a high degree of sexual dimorphism, would later become emblematic for a harmonious couple. Even in the Book of Songs, the oldest collection of verse in China, they behave in a somewhat anthropomorphised manner: 

‘Dense is that forest in the plain, And there sit the long-tailed pheasants. In her proper season that well-grown lady, With her admirable virtue, is come to instruct me. We will feast, and I will praise her. “I love you, and will never be weary of you”’ (車舝, Legge’s translation, 1861).

The pheasants stay within the dense forest, just as a good Queen stays within the confines of the palace, and a good King sets out to hunt in the wilds. 

So a few things are apparent. Firstly, there is an association between the real or imagined characteristics of birds, and the wearing of their feathers at points in early and mediaeval China. Secondly, a relationship between feminine behaviour and certain birds is apparent. Thirdly, the meaning of feathers changes according to species. With these things in mind, we turn to the Kingfisher. 

Paul Kroll wrote an article in 1984, ‘The Image of the Halcyon Kingfisher in Medieval Chinese Poetry’. Within, he cautions: 

‘Students of medieval Chinese literature can never afford to take for granted the peculiar qualities and characteristics of the physical objects referred to by poets. All too often individual plants and animals have not the same cultural and literary connotations in medieval poetry that they hold for modern readers’. 

Kroll discovers that there are references to kingfisher feathers as early as the Zuo Commentary on the Spring and Autumn Annals, in about 530 BCE, and the Songs of Chu, from a roughly similar time. The Zuo Commentary famously portrays the King of Chu in a fur cap, ‘halcyon cloak, and leopard slippers’. The message is clear here: I am a wealthy, powerful, and strong man. In the Songs of Chu a shaman describes his king’s dwelling: 

‘In chambers of polished stone, halcyon tail feathers hang from hooked garnet, And halcyon kingfisher [plumes] and pearl-studded coverlets glisten in equal splendour and where Kingfisher draw-curtains and halcyon hangings adorn the lofty hall’ (Kroll’s translation). 

Here the extraordinary meets the otherworldly, but since these were real physical objects, the extraordinary can be brought back into the ordinary. 

Kroll finds a number of other poets expressing sorrow at the capture of these beautiful birds, and wondering whether they wouldn’t be happier flying about in the wild than adorning a King’s cloak or hall: 

‘How could they know that the thoughts of lovely women; Covet them as highly as yellow gold? Their bodies are broken in those lands of burning sun; That their feathers may be strewn in the shadows of jade halls. Softly hanging-shining ornaments for one’s hair; Lushly fringed-glistening on a brocade coverlet?’ (Kroll’s translation). 

It is their beauty that brings about their ruin. 

In the second century BCE, Kroll finds a key poem of Cai Yong. The scene is set, a courtyard, a pomegranate tree, and kingfishers flocking there with wings spread. The poet describes how, ‘looking behind, they bring cyan tints to life’. These birds are lucky enough to escape the nets and traps left behind by fowlers, and they find safety in the courtyard of a 君子 (junzi, Lord), ‘With docile hearts entrusted to the purity of milord; Cock and hen are here ensured their hundred’. Here Kroll argues that Kingfishers become symbolic of gentle and persecuted beings, they are virtuous creatures whom the gentleman’s purity will rightly shelter. Anyone who has read a little bit of Classical Chinese about how marriage is conceived will find it hard not to draw parallels here between the docile hearts and virtue of the little beasts, and of a maiden to be married, both are safe in the righteous purity of the Gentleman. 

So why, why indeed? Returning to that question that we opened with at the outset. Why would a woman wear a kingfisher feather hat to get married? Just as Kroll cautioned, looking at an object like this, answering questions of ‘What?’ and ‘How?’, we might take for granted those peculiar qualities and characteristics of a physical object referred to in another world of text, image and metaphor. Our reading of his chapter gives us a couple of options, there is the obvious, the glamour, the wealth, the extravagance, the decadence. There is the association with the otherworldly, the imperial, the majestic. And finally, there is that feminine association, just like the pheasant’s feathers, the gentle, beautiful bird hunted for its dazzling feathers can find safety with the righteous gentleman. 

References

Kirkova, Z. (2016). Roaming into the Beyond. Boston: BRILL.

Kroll, P.W. (1984). The True Dates of the Reigns and Reign–Periods of T’ang. Tʻang studies, 2(1), pp. 25–30.

Legge, J. et al. (1861). The Chinese Classics. Hong kong, London: Trübner.

Sterckx, R. (2017). ‘Ritual, Mimesis, and the Nonhuman Animal World in Early China’, in Ritual, Play and Belief, in Evolution and Early Human Societies, eds. Colin Renfrew, Iain Morley, and Michael Boyd. pp. 174. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

 

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