The gilding of metals in China

Paul Jett and W. T. Chase


The oldest gilded metalwork known in China comes from archaeological finds and consists of bronze articles wrapped in gold foil. A particularly spectacular find in Southern China dating to the period of the Shang dynasty (ca. 1700-ca. 1050 B.C.) includes forty-one bronze heads, a number of which are partly covered with gold. At about the time of the Warring States period (480-221 B.C.), the technique of fire gilding (also called mercury gilding) came into general use. Both silver and copper alloys were used as substrates for fire gilding. Another technique used for the adornment of copper alloys in combination with mercury gilding was mercury silvering – many examples of the use of these materials come from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). The use of mercury gilding for copper alloys included its application to leaded tin bronze (at least as early as the fifth century A.D.) and continued into the modem period. Silver alloys from about the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) onward were treated differently. Among gilded silver pieces attributed to the Tang dynasty, one finds both mercury gilding and the use of leaf gilding. X-ray fluorescence analysis of leaf gilded silver in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art does not indicate the presence of mercury. Leaf gilding was employed on silver until, at least, the latter part of the Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1279). In spite of what we know about the history of gilded metals in China, much remains to be learned.

1995 | St. Paul | Volume 3