Exhibition of Chinese miniature treasures used on clothing

5 May 2023
An exquisite exhibition of miniature wearable sculptures, once worn on traditional Chinese robes, is on display at the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney until April 2024.
Miniature jade sculpture of cat

Toggle in the shape of seated cat. Credit: Powerhouse.

Chinese Toggles: Culture in Miniature is a bilingual exhibition developed in partnership with the Powerhouse, whose collection of toggles is one of the largest in the world. Co-curated by Chau Chak Wing Museum curator Dr Shuxia Chen and Powerhouse curator Min-Jung Kim, the exhibition is the third project collaboratively produced by the two institutions.

“These wonderful objects can be enjoyed for their artistry which is why they are becoming highly collectible. But as practical items they also provide an insight into the physical, spiritual and cultural lives of the people who wore them for over 300 years,” said Dr Shuxia Chen.  

“These exquisite toggles highlight the significance of the Powerhouse Collection. The Powerhouse is thrilled to be collaborating with the Chau Chak Wing Museum at the University of Sydney to continue to present our collection in new ways,” said Lisa Havilah, chief executive of the Powerhouse. 

Traditional Chinese garments did not have pockets and carrying small pouches, containing money, spectacles, tobacco, and flint or knife sets on a belt at the waist was common practice. Belt toggles, known as zhuizi in Mandarin, are small carved ornaments used as counterweights and fasteners on cords tied around the belts. 

Prominent fashion accessories through the 1600s–1800s the toggles gradually disappeared in the early 1900s as Western styles of dress became more fashionable across China.  

 “Zhuizi represent a variety of figures, plants, animals, and everyday objects deeply associated with Chinese culture and daily life, from pomegranates to lotus roots, from tigers to silkworms, from abacuses to a zither,” said Dr Chen.  

“Typical of much Chinese iconography the objects are also chosen because of their word associations – so eggplants feature, because their name changshou, meaning long and thin (which suggests longevity), is also pronounced the same as ‘long life’.  

“Their motifs also have strong symbolic associations, drawn from Chinese legends and mythologies such as Tang Sanzang and his three disciples – Sun Wukong (‘Monkey’), Zhu Bajie (‘Pigsy’), Sha Wujing (‘Sandy’) from the story Journey to the West, one of the most enduringly popular Chinese Ming dynasty classic novels. 

“Belt toggles had a practical use but perhaps more importantly they also expressed the wearer’s wishes for good fortune, wealth, fertility or longevity and were regarded as lucky charms.”  

Wood was the most used material for toggles followed by ivory and jade. Other materials included agate, glass, brass, iron, porcelain, jet, seashells, amber and turquoise. Materials such as antler and gila bean, were believed to have medicinal properties or auspicious connotations.  

The 80 toggles on display are accompanied by 50 more objects showing how they were used including belt pouches, fans, traditional robes, posters and photographs.  

“It is a delight to view these objects that combine form and function to embody Chinese folk traditions, beliefs and symbolism while demonstrating material culture and craft skills, said Min-Jung Kim. 

Toggle of a miniature abacus with a hidden compartment.

Miniature abacus with a hidden compartment. Credit: Powerhouse.

Scientific analysis

The Chau Chak Wing Museum and Powerhouse partnered with Sydney Analytical, one of the University of Sydney’s core research facilities that provides state-of-the-art instruments and technical expertise, to study some of the ivory and jade toggles featured in the exhibition.  

“It is a great benefit to have access to this scientific analysis onsite at the University in the same location as the Museum and we have been in close collaboration for many years. In this instance their analysis has been able to tell us that what we thought was an ivory gourd toggle is in fact made from bone and that another toggle that is ivory appears to have been dyed green to pass for the more expensive jade. A beautiful ‘arts of the scholar’ toggle which is an unusual yellow colour has been proved to be a type of soft jade favoured by the cultural elite.”  

In-depth research of all the toggles, including the scientific analysis, will be featured in an upcoming book published by Power Publications. 

The Powerhouse collection was donated by Hedda and Alistair Morrison. This exhibition was made possible thanks to the Pauline and Tim Harding Asian Collection Fund, and David Anstice AO and Ana-Maria Zaugg. The Gordon Darling Foundation is the exhibition publication sponsor.

Exhibition details 

What: Chinese Toggles: Culture in Miniature 

Where: Level 1, China Gallery, Chau Chak Wing Museum 

When: 5 May 2023 until 4 August 2024 

Opening hours: 10am–5pm Monday to Friday (until 9pm Thursday); 12–4pm Saturday and Sunday; closed public holidays  

Cost: Free

Verity Leatherdale

Manager, Faculty Media and PR

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