Chinese pigeon whistles


The MIM keeps two groups of Chinese pigeon whistles : four, whose origin is unknown, were offered by Victor Mahillon before 1896 (inv. 0707-0710), and twelve are a present of the Imperial Government of China (inv. 2164) following the 1905 International Exhibition in Liège.

The whistles are attached to the backs of the pigeons and oriented so that the air can penetrate them and make sounds during the birds' flight. They are usually made of small gourds and bamboo tubes topped with bevelled bamboo capsules. The horn has also sometimes been used and there are now plastic whistles. Some are simply made of a gourd or two pipes, but others have extravagant shapes and can gather up to twenty-five whistles with different sounds. However, the total weight must not exceed a few grams in order not to interfere with the bird's flight.

The catalogue of the 1904 Saint-Louis Purchase Exposition (Missouri, USA) describes pigeon whistles as "toys" whereas they are considered as "bimbeloterie" in the 1905 Liège Exhibition. However, in 1904 the catalogue quotes that they produce a “plaintive sound, which after a while becomes anything but unpleasing to ear”  and Liège’s  catalogue states they are used to "protect these birds from the birds of prey that are numerous in the North by their noise". This protective function is often mentioned, and may be the origin of the invention of those whistles. Their utilitarian purpose, however, is supplanted by the pleasure of these objects and their sound, long familiar in the Peking sky. While pigeon whistles are generally associated with Peking and northern China, A.C. Moule also mentions their presence in Hangzhou.

At the Beijing pigeon market, up to thirty and forty models of whistles were sold : this is far from the simple protection of birds. The manufacture of whistles was both a small craft and a hobby for enthusiasts : books have even been dedicated to it.
The presence of more and more foreigners in China in the 19th century also made the pigeon whistle and the cricket cage an original and easy souvenir to bring back home. From that time on, illustrated articles  in European magazines were devoted to them.

Victor Mahillon took advantage of international exhibitions to enrich the MIM collection. In particular, he acquired many Chinese instruments presented at the Liège Exhibition in 1905. Indeed, our compatriot Jules Van Aalst, whom Mahillon had known for a long time, worked at the Imperial Customs and Postal Service. He was appointed Deputy Commissioner for the Chinese section of Liège and the MIM received part of the instruments exhibited through him. Some still bear the label of the Saint-Louis Exhibition, where they also represented China the year before. The MIM received so 12 of the 23 pigeon whistles sent by the city of Tientsin (Tianjin).

Picture of the pigeon and diagrams of a pigeon whistle: Wang Shixiang, Beijing pigeon whistles, Shenyang, 2000

Pigeon market in Beijing, based on an old postcard
Pigeon whistle - inv. 0710
Pigeon whistle - inv. 2164-03
Pigeon whistle - inv. 2164-07
Pigeon whistle - inv. 2164-10
Diagram of a pigeon whistle
Diagram of a pigeon whistle
Pigeon at rest with a whistle
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Interview of Zhang Bao-tung by More China