1993 / 7月
Hsieh Shu-fen /photos courtesy of Huang Li-li /tr. by Robert Taylor
Last year Taiwan consumed some NT$300 million worth of amber, most of which was made into Buddhist articles such as prayer beads and bead bracelets.
Prayer beads can be made at any time, but since the passing of the Ching dynasty, their blue- blooded cousins the "court beads" have been consigned to the museums.
The Buddhist Sutra of Sapindus Mukorossi relates that to free their minds from discontent, Buddhist disciples could carry with them 108 bodhi tree seeds strung together into prayer beads, so that whether walking or at rest, by chanting the sutras and intoning the names of the Buddha, moving one seed along the string for each recitation, they might put their minds at peace and better practice their faith.
Perhaps this is why, with the recent upsurge in religious fervor in Taiwan, prayer beads have come back as an evergreen accessory, and can be seen being worn or on sale everywhere. Many people wear bracelets of prayer beads regardless of whether they are Buddhist believers. Recently, even some civilian and military police officers have taken to wearing prayer-bead bracelets, making their superiors worry that these will detract from the overall appearance of the law enforcers' uniforms.Ching Dynasty uniform?
In fact, the extent of our modern fashion for wearing prayer beads is nothing compared to our ancestors. One need only look at the court dress of the Ching Dynasty to know this. As well as the inevitable archers' sleeves, four-crawed-dragon robe, epauliere and peacock-feather hat, a long string of "court beads" across the chest was generally de rigueur for the princes and high-ranking ministers of the time.
These court beads developed from prayer beads. Prayer beads were first commonly used among the devotees of Mongolian and Tibetan esoteric lamaist sects, and only later spread to other Buddhists. Chi Juo-hsin, a writer at the National Palace Museum's Department of Antiquities, notes that the Manchurians of the Ching Dynasty were devout followers of Lamaism, and the death of a Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama or other religious leader from the Tibetan and Mongolian regions, and the birthdays of Ching emperors and empresses, would be marked by presenting strings of prayer beads in amber or coral.
The Ching royal family and nobles were tremendously fond of these prayer beads which had been blessed by high-ranking lamas, and would wear them as lucky charms to protect themselves from harm. Later this developed into a fashion, the beads' simple form became more complex, and they were officially defined as an accessory to court dress. Thus "court beads" were born, as an item of dress peculiar to the Ching court.
Naturally court beads, worn as an accessory to official court uniforms when in audience with the sovereign, discussing affairs of state, entertaining guests or meeting other officials, are a far cry in with their use and significance from the prayer beads originally used by Buddhist monks, nuns and disciples to count the number of recitations when chanting the sutras.
In their external form the two are very similar, both comprising a string of 108 beads, "but court beads were more complicated, with the addition of 'Buddha's heads' and pendants," explains Chen Hsia-sheng, another writer at the Palace Museum's Department of Antiquities. Every 27th bead in a string of court beads had to be of a different material from the rest, and was known as a "Buddha's head" (some prayer beads also had these). The pendants were groups of beads or silk tassels which branched off from the main string, each string of court beads having three pendants at the front and one at the back (see illustration).
What was the origin of these special features of court beads? For want of historical records, we do not know. But in some Chinese operatic productions where not much attention is paid to the costume and props, one can often see performers wearing strings of beads without pendants, thus turning the court beads back into prayer beads.Symbols of rank and status:
Court beads were symbols of official rank and status, or of promotion and imperial favor. Under the Ching rules of dress, the only people entitled to wear court beads were nobles of the imperial house, civil officials of the fifth rank and upwards, military officials of the fourth rank and up, and such officials' wives. In other words, if they were not lucky enough to be born into the imperial family, "common people who managed to pass the imperial examinations and were promoted up through the ranks in the ordinary way would generally take at least twenty years, even if their careers ran smoothly, before they could rise to the fifth rank and gain the right to wear court beads," explains Chi Juo-hsin.
As well as the categories just mentioned, some officials charged with managing official ceremonies and protocol or with drafting documents for the emperor, along with close imperial bodyguards, and some other officials who were of insufficient rank but were frequently in the presence of the emperor, were exceptionally allowed to wear court beads as a sign of imperial favor.
The materials used for court beads also differed according to occasion and rank. For example, the emperor himself would wear court beads of large Sunghua River pearls for great state occasions; when offering sacrifices to Heaven he would wear beads of lapis lazuli, and when sacrificing to the Earth, beads of yellow or russet amber.
The materials for the court beads worn by officials and their wives were less strictly defined than the emperor's beads. Chi Juo-hsin believes that this may have been because rules for the wearing of court beads were only incorporated into the system at a late date, so that there was not time for all aspects to be regulated. Furthermore, the beads had to be provided by the officials themselves, so that these accessories to court dress became objects of competition in terms of material, color, lustre and carving.Finding their way into common people's homes:
In the years of war and disorder towards the end of the Ching Dynasty, the rules on wearing court beads gradually fell into disarray. If only they had the money, even the common people were able to secretly buy and collect beads and string them together. During the reign of the Ching emperor Kuanghsu (1875-1909), a man named Li who lived close by the Summer Palace narrowly escaped confiscation of his property and execution when a string of tourmaline court beads worth a king's ransom, which he kept hidden in his house, aroused the envy of the court eunuch Li Lien-ying, who was all-powerful for a time.
After the change to the Republic, court beads were no longer needed and were naturally forgotten, so that many sets of beads were reworked into other pieces of jewelry, or found their way into antique and curio shops. All that remained was the superstition that as they had "seen the emperor, the Son of Heaven," they could drive away evil and protect one from harm.
It has only been in recent years with the fashion for prayer beads that court beads have also been remembered and their status has been restored. The wife of Chang Hsiu-cheng, chairman of Taipei's Lai Lai Sheraton Hotel, due to her interest in collecting strings of pearls and beads, occasionally came by a few strings of court beads, and she became interested in their origins and development. Attracted by their beauty, she began assembling and restringing sets of beads herself, and recently she selected items from her collection and works of her own for an exhibition of Chinese bead art at Taipei's Chang Foundation gallery.
The exhibition reminded author Hsia Yuen-yu, whose grandfather was a Ching official, that when he was a child his family had several strings of court beads, but no one knew what they were or what they were for, and they were finally given to the girls of the family to break up and make into other jewelry.
A former ambassador's wife whose ancestor was a high-ranking Ching official had two strings of court beads in her trousseau, but she too never set much store by these pieces of "headgear" which were "just too long to wear to go out." Recently she had the agate and green jade beads of the pendants restrung as a necklace to give to her daughter, but was surprised to find that her daughter, when she learned their origin, was filled with dismay that the pieces had been broken up.Count away your troubles:
Unlike court beads, prayer beads, their use and appearance untrammeled by rules and regulations, have never been forgotten. Apart from the 108 beads of a normal string, "they also come in sets of 54,42, 21 and even 1080 beads," explains Liao Kuei-Ying, Executive Curator at the Chang Foundation, adding that the "bracelets" of only 18 beads which are most commonly seen today are also a kind of prayer beads.
"Perhaps the number of beads should be decided according to their size. If large beads are used, then a string of 108 would hang down to one's knees, and wouldn't be very convenient to use either," she says.
Nor is the material for prayer beads limited to agate and amber. Jades and semi-precious stones such as coral, quartz, lapis lazuli and turquoise, along with animal and human bones, wood and the seeds of various trees, are all commonly seen materials.
The prayer beads in the Chang Foundation exhibition included quite a number with beads carved from walnut shells or fruit stones, with designs such as the 18 arhats and stories from buddhist scriptures, displaying to the full the artistic skill of the artisans of the time.Healthy, wealthy and wise:
However, of all these materials, recently local people's preference has been for amber and beeswax. A guesstimate by a trade source puts Taiwan's consumption last year of amber and beeswax at NT$300 million, which would make it the world's biggest market. This is probably connected with the fact that esoteric Buddhist sects ascribe to amber and beeswax prayer beads the power to attract wealth and good fortune. Based on his observations, the same source expects coral, which is thought to promote health and longevity, to be very popular this year. Doesn't this also to some degree reflect the psychology of society in Taiwan?
Be that as it may, the real test of faith is in people's hearts; after all, court beads were not able to save the Ching Dynasty from its downfall.
When Ching Dynasty empresses, imperial concubines and high officials' wives wore court dress, they would add three strings of court beads, making their appearance even more splendid (the picture shows a painting of the Ching emperor Chien Lung's empress).
Court beads were originally derived from prayer beads. These were first worn by followers of Tibetan and Mongolian esoteric lamaist sects and only later spread to China proper. (drawing by Lee Su-ling)
Recently prayer beads have become a popular fashion accessory, and can be seen on sale everywhere. If they prefer, customers can buy the beads and string them together themselves.