27. Chinese Puzzle Rings
Sunday, 04 Jan 2015
A recent customer of ours turned out to have a collection of more than 1,600 Chinese puzzles (190 of these are silver puzzle rings and bracelets), and a website devoted to Chinese puzzles in general. This site is http://chinesepuzzles.org

Peter and Wei haven't yet gotten around to putting up a section specifically for puzzle rings, but this is part of what he said about them :

"There's no written documentation of Chinese puzzle rings, so our only information is anecdotal. For example, here's an article that a friend wrote for us many years ago. Glenn dates these rings to the 18th-19th centuries, and we have no reason to doubt this. It may well be that puzzle rings came to China from the Middle East by way of the Silk Road. All the 4-band rings have the same configuration as the Turkish rings, with examples of each orientation. The main difference is in the ornamentation, which can make the rings much more difficult to solve."

I asked if he had any information about their history in that country, and in reply I received an article that had been written by a friend of his. Peter has graciously allowed us to display the information he has provided, which I appreciate.


Chinese Puzzle Rings
by Glenn Vessa,
Owner of Honeychurch Antiques,
Hong Kong, October 19, 1998

My information about Chinese puzzle rings came to me from an old Pekinese dealer, now dead, who had been a rather important dealer in Beijing before the war. As you know, most of the Chinese antique dealers in Beijing were Muslim. I don't know why this developed, but it was perhaps almost like the Jewish thing in Europe—there were restricted businesses they were not allowed to join, but they could be money changers and antique dealers.

But old Mr. Yang fled from China with the takeover in '47 and came down here. After Nixon's visit in 1972 when Americans were allowed to visit the mainland I would travel along with him, and many of the people who ran the government warehouses disposing of this stuff either knew him or had worked for him or one of his relatives in the old days. So we did have quite good access to what there was available. And we spent a lot of evenings talking about things, and he was always very interested in these puzzle rings because he was also very adept at putting them back together again.

And he was the one who suggested to me that they were used by the Manchu army as a means of identification of what we would call a division or a brigade, but they called banners, based on the banner they carried, and there were subdivisions of these banners—what they were called I don't know—but I suppose like our troops. And apart from this means of identification they served perhaps a joyful purpose of playing drinking games. He remembered as a boy that there were still a lot of, I suppose, ex-soldiers hanging around Beijing after the First World War playing with these things. And he said that often camel drivers who brought coal into Beijing would also wear these things.

So that's the only direct evidence I have of them, except that it was corroborated by this German friend of mine who has made a study of Chinese silver jewelry who said that it was his opinion that they were used as a means of identity. And also because they are all large sizes they were obviously not made for women. On average they are much larger than the normal Chinese silver finger ring. Men normally didn't wear silver rings, so most of the non-puzzle rings were intended for women. Many of the small rings with repousse figural designs have scenes from well known Pekinese operas and they were sold as a sort of souvenir, I suppose, by touring companies of operatic players.

Mr. Yang died of diabetes about three or four years ago. He had two wives who both had bound feet. He was Muslim, but pure Chinese. Many of the dealers in Hong Kong today came from Muslim families, but some seem to have given up that faith.

I have never tried to break the rings down by design. It's clear they were not mass produced, because while the overall design may be similar you never find two exactly the same. The most common design is a center boss either in the round form of the long life ideograph or the long form of the same ideograph, both flanked by bats. Sometimes, the yin-yang symbol appears in place of the round form of the long life ideograph. Often, butterflies appear flanking what would seem to be a stylized ideograph. The most common figural design found on four-banded puzzle rings is that of two men facing each other across a chess table with a chess board in place. Enamel on silver puzzle rings are quite rare and when found, there always seems to be losses to the enamel. Sometimes the applied design has broken off completely and you find an example like this, with only the wires left. The bits that form the designs are only tacked down so we find many with either total losses to the design or partial losses. Then we find rings with overall design of flowers which lack any flanking elements. As the flowers are quite stylized it's hard to tell exactly what kind they are. Then, you get "strangers" with designs never seen before, at least by me. For example, this piece which appears to be three standing female figures.

The three types of Chinese puzzle rings I have come across are nine-banded ones, six-banded and four-banded. Four-banded are by far the most common, nine the next most common, and six-banded examples are quite rare. The nine- and six-banded types are relatively easy to reassemble as the rings simply loop together.

Dr. Werner Burger has made extensive studies of Chinese silver. Silver, until the First Opium War, was a cheap commodity in China. But to pay the indemnities levied by the English following the 1847 Opium War, which were paid in taels of silver, the price of silver went up. The purer the silver, the easier it is to work, so artisans would much prefer to work with material of a high silver content, say, at least 80% silver content and ranging up to Britannia standard (95%). The Chinese had no stamping laws in the English sense, but often individual makers would stamp their work "Pure Silver" when, in fact, it might vary between 80% and 95%. I have had several of these puzzle rings assayed and they worked out at between 90% and 95%.

With the end of the 2nd Opium War in the 1850's, there were further indemnities to pay and the price of silver again increased. We then start to see silver becoming debased (more copper being used in the alloy and less silver being used). For example, it is from this period that we start to see bracelets made of half-hoops of silver and half-hoops of rattan which start to replace solid silver bracelets. Bracelets and rings also become much lighter gauge (weight of material).

Werner Burger feels most of the four-banded puzzle rings pre-date the 1840's and many of them date from well back into the 18th century. He hasn't seen this particular lot, but he's been looking at puzzle rings for a long time and has a large personal collection. My feeling is that the puzzle ring is probably a Turkic invention passed into China like so many other things, like the sport of wrestling. Some people have said they have seen Han Period wire puzzle rings of bronze, but I have yet to see convincing proof. I have never seen any Han Period silver jewelry.