Chinese Burr Wood Toggles

19th Century

Xinjiang Province, China

Twelve Hua mu (flowery wood) buttons with well worn patinas; the reverse with a variety of shaped eyelets for attachment.

Hua mu is the name used for burrs of fruit and nut, camphor, poplar, amboyna and padouk woods and although the primary purpose of the toggle was to fasten objects to a belt or cloth girdle the Chinese tradition was that spirits dwelt in certain trees and that these showed themselves in the burrs so they would also serve as protective amulets against disease and malevolent spirits. Indeed large specimens of burrwood as can be seen in this collection were sometimes worked into toggles as scholars objects with the surface smoothed and polished to show the fine figuring and these, too large to be worn, were kept in the home as amulets. Particularly significant were the burrs from such trees as the peach, called 'wood of the immortals' which was known to have protective and healing powers.

The burr develops on a trunk or root from the thwarted development of a bud which in turn gives rise to the swirls in the grain which look like water rushing around rocks in a raging river; described by one Chinese scholar as follows, "When it is cut, within it there are the forms of mountains and streams, flowers and trees".

Before the relatively modern invention of the pocket the necessities of the day would have been carried in a pouch; the toggle served to secure the pouch. A cord was threaded through a hole in the reverse of the toggle and passed behind a belt or sash worn around the waist. Suspended from the cord would be the pouch; the toggle ensured that the cord would not slip from behind the belt in the same way as a Japanese netsuke.

Toggles were worn in far western China by the borderlands of northern Yunnan and western Szechuan, by Tibetans and by the Mongols of Inner Mongolia. This suggests that they were introduced into China from forested regions of northern Asia and maybe as far away as north eastern Siberia.

Diameters ranging from 3.5 to 13 cm (1.25 to 5.25 in)

Substance and Symbol in Chinese Toggles Schuyler Cammann 2005
Traditional Chinese Toggles by Margaret Duda p. 48

1804 / 2584b
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