I only ever saw one other pair of boots like this one," Wu Tung
As Matsutaro Shoriki Curator of Asiatic Art at the Museum of
Fine Arts in Boston, Mr. Wu carried through the acquisition of this
rare early 11th-century artifact of the Liao Dynasty. It was added
to the MFA's collection in June 1995.
Although the pair of boots Wu saw years earlier in North China
were, he admits, "more elaborate than ours," nevertheless, "our
pair is unique in the United States."
Whereas the pair in China was found about 20 years ago in a
royal tomb together with headgear and mask, the MFA's were in a
collection in Japan. "They had been acquired in China during World
War II," Wu says. "The Japanese have traditionally been avid
collectors of Chinese artifacts.
"I think someone of the nobility or aristocracy would have been
buried in these costly boots. They are made in silver for two
purposes: for lasting longer; and because silver, or gold, are
precious metals and carry social status."
In spite of the fact that they are size 8-1/2 ("rather large"),
Wu identifies them as women's boots. "The decorations on them are
of the phoenix. In Chinese art, the phoenix motif is just the
opposite of the dragon motif. The dragon is usually identified with
the male - king or emperor - whereas the phoenix is always
associated with Her Majesty - queen or empress."
He points out how "very well designed" the "shape and contour of
the boots are. The stitchings that normally occur on a pair of
leather boots are repeated on these silver ones." The craftsmen
"actually went to the trouble of making a rather realistic
imitation: Silver wire went through the holes - quite
Wu first saw them at a London dealer's. "They were dirty. They
had not been given a good boot-shining! They looked dull on the
surface. Actually, they looked like lead.
"But as soon as I lifted them - their weight gave away the fact
that they were not lead. However, only after our laboratory did a
thorough analysis did we realize that the silver they are made of
is of a purity of more than 90 percent. The hammering is
remarkable; they are not heavy or thick.
"We are afraid to polish them; we don't want them to look as if
they were just made yesterday. What we have done is highlight the
gilt phoenix and ruyi-shaped clouds - 'auspicious' clouds - so they
stand out quite well against the dull silver background." As to the
silver background, Wu says: "I think it's better to leave the
Wu describes the cultural background of such a pair of boots:
"They were made under the Liao Dynasty, which was established in
Northeast China by nomads who called themselves 'Khitans. …