David Helliwell of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, writes the excellent blog Serica – some notes on old Chinese books. In his latest post he included an illustration of a paizi 牌子 (literally, a “plaque”). It reminded me of pieces in the BM’s collection of Chinese charms. Was there a connection?
The paizi illustrated on Serica, blog post “Chinese leaves” (5 Nov 2018) (from 新鍥全補天下四民利用便觀五車拔錦 三十三卷 / (明)徐三友校 , 明萬曆丁酉建陽書林鄭世魁刊本)
I searched Serica for more examples of paizi and found another one:
The paizi illustrated on Serica, blog post “Our earliest Chinese acquisition” (29 Dec 2012), with the comment “There is a printed colophon (paizi 牌子) at the end of the book bearing the words 「福河陳心齋梓」, indicating that it was printed by Chen Xinzhai from Fuhe.”
So, while I was thinking of “plaque” as a physical object, the book world thought of paizi as a “printed colophon”? (Like a seal, and a seal impression?) Time to ask the expert.
David Helliwell replied immediately to my questions. It turns out that paizi refers to a colophon in this style, and that paizi are very common in commercial editions of Jianyang and Jinling (Nanjing), which were the books that came to Europe in the early 17th century. For several decades now, David and other experts have been compiling a catalogue of these books, available online here – and accessed through a beautiful home-page featuring a paizi!
I searched the list for 牌子 and found 18 instances – the catalogue is not illustrated, but the paizi are usually transcribed.
Turning to the pieces housed in the BM collection of charms, these are the pieces that most closely resemble the printed colophons:
(1) British Museum 1993,0639.176 (65 x 42 mm)
(2) British Museum 1993,0639.177 (59 x 38 mm)
(3) British Museum 1981,0326.12 (60 x 38 mm)
(4) British Museum 1989,0627.101 (59 x 36 mm)
As far as I know, no one has looked specifically at such pieces. Francois Thierry illustrates several examples in his catalogue Amulettes de Chine (2008, ISBN 978-2-7177-2402-8)
- nos 39, 41, 84, 367, 369 are the closest (a lotus-leaf suspension loop above, or leaves below, a rectangular plaque)
- no. 419 is a rectangular plaque, pierced for suspension
- no 162 has a lotus-leaf suspension loop above a round disc above a square plaque
- no 163 (similar to 162) has a coin-shape above a square plaque
- nos 42, 49, 69, 138, 202, 247, 294, 329, 345, 358, 363, 366, 368, 487 (with a lotus-leaf suspension loop above a coin-shape)
- nos 370, 417 have a stylized lotus-leaf(?) suspension loop above a coin-shape and leaves below
- nos 108, 118 have a coin-shape at the centre, with lotus-leaf suspension loop above, and/or something below (mostly small pieces)
Alex Chengyu Fang 方称宇, devotes a chapter of his book 《中国花钱与传统文化》 Chinese Charms: Art, Religion and Folk Belief (2008, ISBN 978-7-100-05832-2) to “Hanging plaques and charms of unsual shapes” (挂牌与异形钱) (pp. 313-347). Most of the pieces he illustrates are from the Ming dynasty or earlier. Most are round, with just a couple that are rectangular (nos 319, 227). Some pieces are lingpai 令牌 , a kind of tablet/badge/pass/warrant (eg featuring a leopard, no. 224, and a dog, no. 225 – with a note that these pieces are not listed in Luo Zhenyu’s 罗振玉：《历代符牌图录》(A Compendium of Official Passes). I have previously seen a lingpai for the imperial leopard house, perhaps in Edinburgh, but I’d need to check.
More recent versions of lingpai 令牌 are available in various media:
A screenshot for a search for 令牌 on google images
I’m not sure where I’m going with all this, but maybe there’s a interesting link between the printed colophons paizi and the bronze/brass guapai?
Update, 8 Nov 2018
Many thanks to Alex Fang for the comments below. I had looked only at the paizi-shaped pieces, and had overlooked the coin-shaped charms (round with a square hole in the middle) that feature a paizi as part of design. He illustrates these (nos 148-183) in his book (see above for details). The chapter is titled “Charms with zodiacal signs”. On these charms the paizi is above the hole, and contains a 4-character inscription ( 本命星官 、本命元神、本命星神 ), and the zodiacal animal to the lower left of the hole.
There are a few examples of these in the BM collection, including some from the Tamba Collection (Kutsuki Masatsuna, 1750-1802). Here’s one of them, with 本命星官 in the paizi:
British Museum, 1884,0511.2453 Tamba Collection
Many thanks also to Andrew West (@BabelStone) , Devin Fitzgerald (@DevinFitzger) and others for engaging so expertly with this post on twitter yesterday.