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Time Period: Early to Mid Twentieth Century

Category: Accessories

Accession Number: 1993.12.13

Donor: E.W. Lawton


The China Netsuke, as it has been labeled, is an ornament worn by countrywomen suspended from the top buttonhole of a coat. The monkey image, carved out of what is thought to be soapstone, is a charm and the glass is a compass. The donor information states that the item was given to Clara Dyer in the early to mid twentieth century by her bible woman in whose family it had been. It was later moved to the University of Rhode Island's Historic Textiles and Costume Collection in June of 2014. The focal piece of the item, the monkey, is 1.75 inches (4.5 cms) long, and .75 inch (2 cms) across. Above the monkey is a dime-sized, glass compass. There are two, 5.5 inch (14 cms) tassels below the monkey: green on the left and pink on the right. Each tassel has a symbol embroidered around the gathering at the top. They are joined by a woven knot at the base of the monkey. A darker green, 5 inch (12.5 cms) rope-like string connects to the other side of the accessory, where two more tassels hang from a more elaborate woven knot. They are slightly shorter at 4 inches (10 cms) each, with pink being on the left and green on the right. A loop hangs between them, which may be used to secure the attachment to the other side once it is looped through the button whole of the coat it is accessorizing.


A woman named Clara Dyer was born in 1875 and passed in 1966. She was a Methodist missionary in Ch’angli, Hopei Province in Northern China from the turn of the twentieth century on, about fifty years.[1] While in China, she wrote letters home to her family about every six months. An assortment of these letters is part of the University of Oregon’s library. Although it is not confirmed that the previous owner of this accessory is the Clara Peal Dyer that is mentioned, the time period and line of work is in correlation with that of the history of this piece. The letters entail personal stories and insight into what was occurring socially and politically in China at the time.

Missionaries are those who deliver or supply religion to the indigenous who receive it in their own way and practice. Clara Dyer would have had relations with various young Chinese women as she mentored them and taught them the religious values she traveled there to spread. The role of Bible Mission-Women is to introduce and make women and children read the Bible, help and educate the poor, and to be charged with ministry as evangelists.[2] Although it is not documented who her bible woman was, the netsuke gifted to Clara Dyer can be seen as a bridge of acceptance of the new culture and ideals.

Netsuke is in Japanese traditional dress: a small piece of ivory, wood, metal, ceramic, or other material, carved or otherwise decorated, and perforated for use as a toggle by which a purse, etc., may be attached to the belt of a kimono. Now, they are more usually an ornament or collector's item.[3] Netsuke originated in 17th century Japan as a means for men who wore robes known as kimono, which lacked pockets, to hold their belongings.[4] Netsuke is a good word to describe this item, although it is a Japanese term rather than Chinese like the item. One of the most appealing qualities of the netsuke is not what is carved into it by the artist who created it; but rather, it is the smoothness and luster brought about by successive generations of loving, handling, and wearing it.[5] This netsuke monkey has smooth and seemingly worn edges that add to the character of the accessory.

Sitting just above the monkey's head is a small compass. Pocket compasses are relatively simple in construction, but quite elegant. Their variety of styles is expressed in the skill and craftsmanship that was an essential part of their creation.[6] The dime-sized, glass compass on the piece looks to be encased in brass with an intricate brass needle on the inside to tell the direction. Although small, the compass adds another focal point and a practical use for the accessory.

A fun and playful creature, the monkey, is also associated with folklore and symbolic significance. For those born under the ninth sign of the Chinese Zodiac, the Monkey charm allegedly offers protection and good fortune when worn or carried. The Monkey charm symbolizes intelligence and resourcefulness.[7] These qualities are fitting with the fortune that Clara Dyers' bible woman might have wanted to give her. The monkey charm on the netsuke is carved out of what appears to be soapstone. Soapstone was carved into figurines and bowls in many countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[8]

The knots hanging above the tassels may also have a symbolic reason for being placed there. People have always thought that knots possess magical power for good and evil, and therefore, in many parts of the world knots have played, and still play, an import role in magic and religion.[9]

Although not confirmed, the green and pink tassels are suspected to be made of silk. First produced in China around the fourth or fifth millennium B.C., silk has fulfilled a wide range of social, economic, and political roles in Chinese culture for many thousands of years. Silk represented one of the nation’s primary agricultural and commercial products. It symbolically emulated and reinforced a social and economic pattern that formed the basis of China’s social structure as well as well as its prosperity. For more than two millennia, the export of silk served as one of China’s primary links to the world beyond its borders.[10] Because silk is such a large part of the Chinese culture, it is an important that it was incorporated into the tassel.


Sydney Scannell, TMD 224H S15

Last updated:

March 24, 2015

Other Images

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  1. ^ "Guide to the Clara Pearl Dyer Papers 1935-1941," nwda, accessed March 8, 2015, http://nwda.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv84486.
  2. ^ Christine Sungjin Chang, "John Ross and Bible women in the early Protestant mission of northern Korea and Eastern China" (The Institute of Cross-Cultural Studies in Seoul National University, 2008).
  3. ^ Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford University Press, 2015).
  4. ^ "Netsuke," Collectors Weekly, Market Street Media LLC, 2007-2015, accessed March 9, 2015, www.collectorsweekly.com/asian/netsuke.
  5. ^ Raymond Bushell, The Wonderful World of Netsuke: With One Hundred Masterpieces of Miniature Sculpture in Color, (Japan: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1964).
  6. ^ "Magnetic Compasses," Wordtrade.com, accessed March 9, 2015, http://www.wordtrade.com/science/technology/compasses.htm.
  7. ^ "Jade Monkey: Large," Fengshuishopper.com, accessed January 6, 2015, https://www.fengshuishopper.com/products.php?cid=23&id=400.
  8. ^ "Soapstone," Kovels.com, accessed March 20, 2015, https://www.kovels.com/price-guide/alabaster-ivory-jade-marble-other-natural-materials-price-guide/soapstone.html.
  9. ^ Cyrus L. Day, "Knots and Knot Lore," Western Folklore, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp. 229-256, (Western States Folklore Society, 1950).
  10. ^ Lee Talbot, Chinese Silk: A Cultural History, by Shelagh Vainker, The University of Chicago Press, 2005, Chicago Journals, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40663140