Eccentric "Canton style" guards | Mandarin Mansion

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Eccentric "Canton style" guards

Introduction

The so-called “Canton style” tsuba typically portrays two facing dragons chasing a flaming pearl, often among complex scrollwork. These designs in pierced iron are originally seen on Tibetan saddle plates. These designs may have made it from Tibet to the early Manchu aristocracy through the tribute of horses from Mongolian allies, said to be presented with “carved saddles”.

From there, popularity of the style picked up and began to be applied to saber furniture, including guards. Other routes are also possible, Ming emperors like the Yongle emperor were also known for their fascination for Tibetan ironwork.

However the Qing court obtained their taste for this work, some of these guards made it all the way down south to the Canton (Guangzhou) trade port, from which maritime traders seem to have thought they originated, and hance became known as "Canton tsuba". The very first guards of this style are purely Chinese, but the style was soon produced also in Japan and possible other locations across Asia. It was known in Japan as Kwanto-gata, or “Canton-form”.


A Chinese sword guard of the 17th century. This style of guard was the mother of the entire genre of Kwanto-gata or "Canton-form" tsuba.
(This is merely illustrative, not included in this offering.)

If anything, these sword guards represent a pan-Asian curiosity for the foreign, a taste for the odd, the exotic. They are part of a larger culture of maritime relations, that touched the coasts of almost all Asian nations. It’s a complex and exciting field where there is still much to discover.

I put together this group of Canton style tsuba for further study.




1. A quirky "Canton tsuba"



Height & width: 70 x 66 mm
Thickness: 5 mm
Weight: 98 grams

Origin: Probably Japanese
Materials: Iron, gold
Dating: Probably early 19th century
Use: Has been mounted


An Asian export sword guard
An Asian export sword guard

Description
A small sword guard for the wakizashi , the Japanese shortsword. It shows a variation of the classic "Canton style" layout, with two dragons on each side but interestingly, also two pearls. This is a quirky deviation from the scene as originally depicted on Chinese guards and Tibetan saddle plates. On top of that, the dragons seem to be moving into one direction, but with their heads looking backwards... as if confused which way to go now there is not one, but two pearls to chase. It has two places where tendrils were undercut, so one crosses over the other.

The guard is fairly close in style to a guard that comes with a complete set of nanban style sword mounts on our site.

The washer seat is made in a general Chinese angular form it it seems that this piece is probably made in Japan in the 19th century. Such goods found a ready market under those that wanted to convey that they had rangaku or "Western learning".




2. "Chaos amongst the clouds"



Height & width: 77 x 72 mm
Thickness: 5 mm
Weight: 92 grams

Origin: Probably Japan
Materials: Iron, gold
Dating: Probably 18th century
Use: Has been mounted


An Asian export sword guard
An Asian export sword guard

Description
Another somewhat eccentric variation of the Canton tsuba, this piece shows a chaos of little dragons in the sky over a wavy sea, nicely rendered in fine pierced ironwork. There is no pearl in this design, possibly clouded by the many dragons that surround it. The work almost seems like a missing link between the Chinese originals and the famous Hizen Yagami Thousand Monkeys design. The dragons all have tiny golden studs for eyes, like many of the Yagami school monkeys, rabbits and shrimp designs tend to have.

The guard features seven places of delicate undercutting, where one tendril goes over another. The beaded rim is made to represent lotus petals, another design element that was directly copied from Chinese sword guards of the 17th century.

A fascinating and beautifully executed piece.




3. Mokko Canton tsuba



Height & width: 72.5 x 68 mm
Thickness: 5.5 mm
Weight: 92 grams

Origin: Unknown
Materials: Iron, silver, gold
Dating: 18th or 19th century
Use: Has been mounted


An Asian export sword guard
An Asian export sword guard

Description
Another piece showing strong influence from that typical Chinese openwork tsuba shown at the beginning of the page. Its most notable feature is that it is of mokko form, with four lobes. It shows the flaming pearl, rather stylized, being chased by two dragon. Oddly, only one of the two dragon has a head. The other looks like the head was never carved, yet that area does have golden overlay decoration. (?) It has two places where tendrils were undercut, so one crosses over the other.

A most peculiar piece. The element in the bottom is probably another pearl, but highly stylized and almost beyond recognition. We know it is probably a pearl because it looks a little bit like the first guard from the grouping on this page.

The washer seat (seppa-dai of this piece is of a form normally seen engraved or inlaid on the facing side of some Chinese guards. In this case, it's decorated with clouds and with a silver border. These features are highly unusual for both the typical Chinese and Japanese sword guards, but oddly are seen often among these strange Asian export hybrids.




3. Octagonal guard



Height & width: 61 x 56 mm
Thickness: 4.5 mm
Weight: 62 grams

Origin: Unknown
Materials: Iron, gold, shakudo
Dating: 18th or 19th century
Use: Has been mounted


An Asian export sword guard
An Asian export sword guard

Description
We kept this insignificant looking tsuba for last. But beware, there is more than meets the eye.

Of very small size, possibly for a tanto. It is of octagonal form, with beaded rim that is a strong reference to earlier Chinese pieces. It has almost chaotic looking tendrils with various places that are undercut. The two apertures, "hitsu-ana", are lined with flaming borders. One of the two was plugged with shakudo, a common practice for such openings that were not used by a by-knife (kogatana) or pin (kogai). It is worth noting that shakudo was a very expensive material, and thus the tsuba must have been valued by a previous owner to get this treatment. The other hitsu-ana has a narrow shakudo border added to the inside, probably to align is exactly with the position of the handle that was to protrude though the guard.

The guard carries two Chinese characters in places where they are also often seen on purely Chinese guards. The characters read top character reads 天主 tianzhu, the name for the catholic God. Christianity was outlawed in Japan soon after its arrival in the 16th century, and punished by death. Many Japanese Christians practiced the faith in secret.

The flames seen around the hitsu-ana are most likely subtle references to the logo of the Jesuit Order, who brought Christianity to Asia.

An exciting piece. Whoever had it risked his life owning it.

Logo of the Jesuit order
Logo of the Society of Jesus, a.k.a. the Jesuit Order, as used from 1541 onwards.



Price of grouping:

€ 1800,-



Interested? Questions?
Contact peter@mandarinmansion.com




Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards

Asian export sword guards




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