According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: During the late Neolithic period, beginning around 8,000 to 7,000 years ago, rulers possessing the important powers in matters of religion and the military created the worship object from jade to worship the deities and ancestors. To honor the Spirit of the Heaven and Earth the round pi disk and square ts'ung tube were designed to accommodate the belief that the heaven was round and the earth square They believed that the lives of their forefathers originated with God and were mediated through supernatural beings. They accordingly depicted on these jade objects their visualizations of these divine images, and went so far as to incise meaningful markings as a form of worship. Relying upon jade's unique qualities of material, form, ornamentation, and markings, they sought to command mystical forces in the hope of communicating with the spiritual realm and partaking of divine wisdom. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

Ancient Chinese believed that their ancestors originated with God and communicated through supernatural beings and symbols, whose images were placed on jade ornaments. Ancient shaman most likely used jade ornaments with divine markings to command mystical forces and communicate with gods and ancestors. Jade was also used in ancient burial ceremonies.

In ancient times jade was wedged or cracked from a stone and most likely shaped by artisans using grind stones. Metal tools had not yet been invented. It took a considerable amount of time to shape, polish and engrave the elaborate pieces displayed in museums. Most are though to have been created for royalty or nobility.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““Myths about the birth of humanity from birds permeated the coastal areas along eastern China. As a result, religious art from this region is richer in concrete and abstract animal patterns. Most of the jade carvings from inland western regions of China tend to be simpler, but the rich resources of the loess highlands yielded pottery painted with a wide palette of colors. Shapes of and patterns on both jade and pottery objects as well as altars and tombs for sacrificing to the ancestral gods were round and square to symbolize the ancestral view of the universe as being an all-encompassing circular heavens and the square four corners of the earth. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei]

“Already at the dawn of Chinese civilization, cultural practices such as worship and an appreciation of jade had already matured. Through the integration of clans, diverse cultures gradually came to produce a similar common form. Passed down through the ages, jades in the form of ritual objects, as opposed to pottery, bronzes, lacquer wares, and porcelains, even more

Websites and Sources: Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; International Colored Gem Association gemstone.org

Neolithic Chinese Jade Pieces

In the Neolithic period (5000-2000 B.C.), priests and military men used jade pieces in the worship of deities and ancestors. The most common ornaments — round pi discs and square ts'ung tubes — symbolized the round heaven and the square earth. Jade ornaments in ancient China were used as authority objects and emblems of power. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: The jade objects "pi", "ts'ung", "kuei", and "chang" followed in the legacy of functional ritual objects from the late Neolithic period, so that they became items imbued with the divine and souls of the spirit-ancestors, while at the same time becoming "auspicious objects" signifying the status of the worshipper. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

According to the Shanghai Museum: In the period from about 6000 B.C. to 2000 B.C., ritual and ornamental jades with strong regional features emerged across the country. Distinctive among them were the jades produced by the different Neolithic cultures: the zoomorphic- and geometric-shaped forms of the Hongshan Culture of the Liao River reaches; the bi (disc), cong, fu and yue (axe) jades of the Liangzhu Culture of the Taihu Lake reaches; and the zhang (scepter) and dao (knife) jades of the Longshan Culture of the Yellow River reaches. Each of these artifacts had its own function and meaning. Producing such jades required skilled labour and a high degree of specialization. A true expression of the dawn of Chinese civilization, they were so fine and precious that only tribal chiefs and shamans could own them. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Examples of Neolithic jades at the National Palace Museum, Taipei include a Jade Axe from the Yangshao Culture (c. 5000-3000 B.C., length: 13.2 centimeters; width: 6 centimeters; depth: 1.4 centimeters): 2) Jade Knife from the Longshan-Qijia System (c. 2500-1700 B.C., length: 11.3 centimeters); 3) Jade Gui Tablet Late Shandong Longshan Culture (c. 2200-1900 B.C., length: 24.6 centimeters; width: 7 centimeters; depth: 1.2 centimeters, with an abstract face of a god wearing a crown and the face of a god with fangs and a crown; 4) Jade Bi Disc from the Liangzhu Culture (c. 3200-2200 B.C., diameter: 13.44 centimeters, engraved with a "bird on the altar"; 5) Jade Cong Tube from the Late Liangzhu Culture (c. 2500-2200 B.C., height: 47.2 centimeters, on the straight flutes are four walls with engraved code symbols; 6) Jade Pig-dragon from the Late Hongshan Culture (c. 3500-3000 B.C., height: 7.8 centimeters; width: 5.65 centimeters; depth: 2.6 centimeters); 7) White Stone Eagle Staff Pommel from the Late Hongshan Culture (c. 3500-3000 B.C., height: 9.8 centimeters; width: 5.1 centimeters; depth: 2.9 centimeters).

Jue (Slit Ring) from Majiabang Culture (5000–3350 BC) is one of the oldest jade pieces at the Shanghai Museum. Some jade ornaments appeared at that period. This piece of Jue was the one designed as an ornament to put on the ear by the ancient people. It was made of white chalcedony in ring shape with a notch. Gently pull down the earlobe to make it thinner and then clip the Jue to wear. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Cong with Anthropomorphic Mask Design is a typical artefact of later Liangzhu Culture (3300–2300 B.C.). With a height of 39.3 centimeters and 15 sections, it belongs to the larger pieces of the jade Cong of this kind both at home and abroad. On the four sides of each section it is decorated with symmetrical simplified anthropomorphic mask patterns. It is rare to see such a flying bird pattern on the top opening.

Cong with Anthropomorphic Mask and Flying Bird Design was a sacrificial vessel as well as an object used for burial and funeral ceremonies. This piece was carved with the simplified deity mask pattern on the upper part and the simplified mythological creature mask pattern on the lower part. Both sides of the masks are decorated with flying birds, symbolizing the messengers of the deity.

Divine Figure at the Shanghai Museum is completely intact. The jade texture is crystal clear and the craftsmanship superb. It is the only extant piece found in the world so far. Wearing a flat-topped hat and two earrings, with hands crossed at the chest, this image is generally believed to be a wizard conducting a religious rite and communicating with spirits.

Jade Scepter is an important example of Liangzhu Culture, formed from the combination of a jade Yue (axe) and two small accessories. As a symbol of power, the sceptre was often held by clan chiefs whose power combined the military, political, and magical.

Pendant with Design of Eagle Snatching a Human Head consists of two eagles, with the bigger one snatching a man's head, reflecting the customs of offering sacrifice to the totem deity of the winning side with the enemy's head during primitive clan war, the custom of ‘Killing and Offering Sacrifice’.

Neolithic Circular Jades

Circular jades were fairly common in the Neolithic period. Although they were usually discs with a hole in the middle there were pronounced regional differences. Northern jades from the Hongshan culture (4000-3000 B.C) were transparent green in color, thin on the outer and inner edges, and decorated with images of interlocking clouds and linked circular shapes. Northern jades pieces were mainly worn as ornaments.

Southern circular jades from the lower-Yangtze Liang-chu culture (3200-2300 B.C.) were mostly green and often dotted with white spots. Used primarily as ritual objects, these circular jades were about 20 centimeters in diameter with a central hole drilled from both sides. Raised edges lined the central hole, while the outer edges were flat and circular. The small arc-curves sometimes seen on the surface are remnants of the cutting and carving process.

Northwestern circular jades from the Lungshan culture (2500-2000 B.C.) and Shensi and Kansu Qichian culture (2000-1600 B.C.) have a surface with straight lines and a central hole drilled from one side with an angled wall and an upper rim larger than the lower rim. Eastern jades from the lower Yellow River Ta-wen-kou culture (4300-2300 B.C.) were mostly small sized objects influenced by northern and southern styles.

A Liangzhu Disc (cac3200-2100B.C.) At the Palace Museum, Taipei is 25 centimeters in diameter with a 4.2 centimeter-in-diameter hole and a thicknessof 1.25 centimeters: Originally dark green and brown, much of this jade has a web-like pattern of greyish-white discoloration. The outline of the disc is round with imperfections along the rim. The hole is small in relation to the disc and was drilled from both sides with traces of the drilling still visible. About 0.8 centimeters from the edge is an engraved motif 4.3 centimeters tall of a “sacred bird standing atop an altar.” The lower part of the bird and the inside of the altar are no longer visible and only the three beads are prominent. This is a typical example of a jade disc from the late Liangzhu Culture.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei ]

Neolithic Jade Figures

Neolithic Chinese also made jade figures of humans or human-like creatures. Popular animal shapes included the dragon and phoenix - both divine animals revered in ancient China — and real life animals with similar attributes. Jade was used for tomb objects carved to honor ancestors, exorcise evil, and protect against disasters. Personal jade items were worn in order to purify one's soul.

A description of a Neolithic figure (ca.4000-3100 B.C.) by the National Palace Museum, Taipei goes: “Height: 6.3 centimeters, width: 2.7 centimeters, thickness: 2.3 centimeters: This figurine is carved from greenish jade that has turned greyish-white and is speckled brown. The figure wears a conical crown divided into three levels, and the facial features are distinguished by slanting eyes and a protruding nose and mouth. Though apparently nude, there is no indication of gender. The figure kneels with hands clasped in front. The back of the neck has a hole drilled through it. A similar kneeling figure in stone, three times taller than this one, was unearthed at a Hongshan culture site in Inner Mongolia, but the hands and feet are even more detailed. A seated jade figure with comparable facial features from the Hongshan Culture is also in the Chan-chi-hsuan Collection in Taipei, suggesting that this posture perhaps had some significance. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Salamander-Human: Height: 10.8 centimeters, width: 9.2 centimeters, thickness: 2.1 centimeters: Much of the greenish jade here has turned white. The head and raised hands of this standing figurine appear similar to those of a salamander. The head, looking up, is marked by prominent eyes, a pointed snout, and etched lines behind. A long curving snake is carved in relief along the arms and front of the chest. Spiraling forms protrude from the upper thighs like coiled snakes. The feet, heel-to-heel, appear in a horizontal line. A hole was drilled from the back from one shoulder to the other, and traces of drilling are still evident. \=/

“The salamander is an amphibian of which there are many species. The large newt belongs to this category and is marked by a body 60 to 70 centimeters long. In Chinese, it is commonly called a “doll-fish” or “man-fish” and found in northeast China. This unusual jade figurine combines the features of a newt or a salamander with a person and probably has some spiritual importance in primitive religion. It is said to have been unearthed in Inner Mongolia. Such features as the quality of the jade, the staining, and the etched lines are close to jades from the Hongshan Culture. The raised hands and the drilled hole are similar to a jade bear “spirit” in a British collection. This piece reflects the style of primitive art in northeast Asia and may be a relic from a people closely related to the Hongshan Culture. \=/

Shang and Zhou Jades

Shang Dynasty (1700-1100 B.C.) circular jades are generally similar to northwestern circular jades. Later Shang pieces featured raised inner rims and thin outer edges, sets of carved concentric circles and images of curling dragons, fish, tigers and birds. During the Zhou Dynasty (1100-221 B.C.) jade pendants were very popular and the level of their craftsmanship was unmatched in any future period. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties jade objects were important objects in ceremonies and rituals. In the Western Zhou period (1100-700 B.C.) the type and number of circular jades used in ceremonies represented a person's social status. Circular jades from this period were often cut into symmetrical pieces to form sets of two or three pieces.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““The status of an individual in ancient society was determined by his perceived degree of association with the supernatural The li ritual for worship established channels of communication between the profane and spiritual worlds and promoted harmonious relations in society. The authority object stood as an emblem of the ruler's power and status.Originating in the late Neolithic, the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, this authority object and system of worship adapted and evolved according to the various political systems and social organizations of the respective time period. Whether in the worship ceremony held in the ancestral shrine or at the meeting convened by the ruler with his vassals, they assumed metaphysical significance and formed an integral part of the worship ceremony. As a consequence, they are referred to as ritual objects. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“The precise delimitation between the Shang and Zhou dynasties has remained an issue of controversy. As a reference to the viewer, one expert s opinion on the subject has been adopted in an effort to clearly arrange the displays in a chronological sequence. During the Easern Zhou Dynasty, humanism made its appearance. Recasting the ancient shamanistic practices into a system of moral beliefs with application to daily living, the Confucian scholars directly compared the virtuous man to jade. Pendants achieved great popularity and were exquisitely executed, attaining a degree of perfection unmatched in future ages.

According to the Shanghai Museum: “Jades of the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou Dynasties (21st century-771 B.C.) reached a new height. The rulers of the time established a system of using ritual jades to consolidate their political power. Sets of new ritual jades appeared in addition to those inherited from the pre-historic past. At the same time, ornamental jades appeared in some profusion, carved into animals or mythological creatures, some of them combined with human figures in complex shapes. By this time, jade ornaments had become a fashionable accessory of the nobility, a mark of gentlemanly distinction. In keeping with the artistic forms of the time, the carvings were stylized and elegant.[Source: Shanghai Museum]

Shang and Zhou Dynasty Jade Objects

According to the Shanghai Museum: “Jade objects for ceremonial use include the Gui (ceremonial blade), Qi (notched axe) and Ge (halberd) in addition to traditional ones such as Bi and Cong. Meanwhile,elites wear jade on their garments to show their social status,which stimulated further development of jade ornaments. These ornaments were commonly taken in the shape of animals and mythic deities. Development of jades after the mid Western Zhou dynasty The mid-Western Zhou period witnessed significant changes in jade ornaments. In addition to those for ceremonial use, jade pendants became diversified in style and form. Jade phoenix, a bird with a feathery crown, a hooked bill and sharp claws, became a common motif. This phoenix was sometimes associated with other creatures to make a complex design. During the early Spring and Autumn, jade production followed the tradition of the late Western Zhou, showing a random style in linear carving. [Source: Shanghai Museum, shanghaimuseum.net]

Ornaments on Funerary Face Covering was burial jade used by the ancient upper class nobles, commonly known as jade facial cladding. First make the jade in the forms of the five sense organs on the face and then thread on a square-shaped silk, and finally cover on the face of the dead. This tradition carried on from the late Western Zhou dynasty to the Warring States Period, and evolved into the jade burial suit system in the Han dynasty.

Ornament with Dragon and Phoenix Design is a a kind of decorative pattern combining man and animal designs began to appear among the jade wares in the Western Zhou dynasty, which was rarely seen in other eras. With a phoenix on top and a dragon below in the composition, this pattern was the trendy design of the mid and late Western Zhou period, also fairly common on the bronze wares of the same time. It might be related to the legend of the rising of Zhou ‘phoenix singing on the Qishan Mountain’, implying an auspicious meaning.

Ge (Halberd) with a Turquoise Inlaid Bronze Haft is a ceremonial weapon, found mainly in the Xia and Shang periods. The inside (the hilt) of this piece is made of bronze inlaid with turquoise. It was of the highest quality and was usually possessed by royalty.

Qi (Notched Axe) with Animal-mask Design was use din rituals. In the Xia, Shang and Western Zhou dynasties, in order to consolidate power and regulate the rites, the rulers established a system of meaningful jades, as a result of which a series of jade ritual objects appeared. Other than sacrificial vessels, there were also some ceremonial objects in imitation of bronze weapons, which were not for practical use, but only to increase the majesty of the state on important ceremonial occasions.

Jade Pendants in Animal Shapes were most common in the Shang and Zhou periods with distinctive features of shapes and structures. Most of them were carved on one side while fewer were seen with circular engraving. The cutting is simple and concise, well reflecting the motion of the object, contributing to the accomplishment of both the spirit and the appearance. The jade tiger, with its mouth slightly open, feet stomping against the ground and tail curled upwards, looks as if it is running.

Jades of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods

Against a background of social change and economic progress in the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods (770-221 B.C.)s, Chinese jades entered a transitional phase. According to the Shanghai Museum: To meet the needs of a new society, new varieties of jade were created one after another. Ritual jades ceded their dominance to ornamental pieces, with sets of jade pendants made up of differently sized and shaped components gaining much popularity. Jade belt hooks and sword ornaments also appeared in considerable numbers. In decoration, coiled and interlocked dragon motifs prevailed among other varied and unusual designs, all distinguished by fine workmanship and romantic spontaneity. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Jade production showed its diversity in form. Jade ornaments replaced ritual jades to represent the mainstream. Jades were widely used for elite burials due to lavish funeral habit. During the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods, one of main decorative designs was dragon or dragon-like beasts. The workmanship was extremely delicate and gorgeous. From the Western Han dynasty, however, jade designs were getting simplified and smooth. Animal motifs became more vivid.

Jue (Slit Ring) with Dragon Design is a lovely piece. During the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States periods, all kinds of dragon designs appeared, vying for the crown of novelty and beauty, either with one head and two bodies, or two heads on one body, or three dragons entangling together. This work is carved in intaglio technique, with the double dragon heads engraved on both sides of the notch on the same body, forming the ‘two heads one body’ image.

Ornaments on Funerary Face Covering was burial jade used by the ancient upper class nobles, commonly known as jade facial cladding. First make the jade in the forms of the five sense organs on the face and then thread on a square-shaped silk, and finally cover on the face of the dead. This tradition carried on from the late Western Zhou dynasty to the Warring States Period, and evolved into the jade burial suit system in the Han dynasty.

Xie (Thumb Ring) with Interlocked Cloud Pattern is an example of a practical object that grew into an artistic one. A xie, also known as an archer's ring, used to be a practical object to wear on the thumb for pulling the bowstring in ancient times. It later gradually evolved into a kind of ornament. It first appeared in the Shang dynasty, later became a fashion in the Qing dynasty.

Double-ring-shaped Bi (disc) with Grain Pattern features a popular motif.Grain pattern was a fashion in the Warring States Period, which was widely adopted in a variety of art works. This jade disc is formed by two concentric circles with grain patterns on both sides, expressing the wish of ‘good weather for the crops, bumper harvest of all grains’ in heavenly worship ceremonial.

Circular jades made during the Spring and Autumn and Warring States period (722-221 B.C.) were smaller than those from the Shang and early Zhou periods. They contained carved images of curling chih dragons, grain seeds, and cloud patterns. During this period circular jades were commonly worn by people. Materials other than jade, such as agate and glass were used to make "jade" ornaments.

20080302-jade suit of liu sheng 113 bc.jpg
Jade suit of Liu Sheng, 113 B.C.

Jade from Han Dynasty

During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.), the imperial family held jade in great esteem. While alive they wore jade pendants and ingested jade powder. When they died were covered and stuffed with jade. Banners and tomb tiles were imprinted the round pi disk, which was believed to assist the deceased reach the next world quicker. In the Han period, jade objects were believed to possess auspicious meaning, their uses and functions multiplied. Circular jades — often containing images of twin-bodied animals, mask patterns, grain seeds, rush mat designs, curling chih dragons, and round tipped nipples — decorate buildings. Engraved dragon and phoenix patterns were popular in the Han imperial court.

According to the Shanghai Museum:“Based on the achievements of earlier dynasties, Han jades evolved further. In addition to zoomorphic and mythical designs, stylized cloud, ‘reed-mat’, and nippled patterns came into fashion in jade decoration. As a result of the typically Han custom of lavishing care on building and furnishing tombs, the nobility interred funerary jade on a scale that surpassed all previous dynasties. Pieces intended to be placed in the mouth of the deceased upon burial were carved in the shape of a cicada, while those put in the hand were in the shape of a pig. The carving was simple but vigorous. Meanwhile, the influence of magical beliefs led to an increase in jade amulets. However, political disunity and warfare blocked the transportation of the stone from western Asia, leading to the gradual decline of the jade-carving industry and a dwindling of jade products. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Xianbeitou (belt buckle) with Dragon Design is a belt buckle for the emperor's robe. There are a number of small holes on the dragon, supposed to be inlaid with precious stones. The inscription on the back records the manufacturing time, the manufacturing agency, the object name, the man-hours employed, and the name of the maker and so on. Based on textual research, it is an object used by the emperor in the Jin dynasty. Constitution Shanghai Museum]

Sword Ornamental Fittings was a sign of nobility. The upper-class nobles in ancient times often decorated their swords with jade, known as sword ornamental fittings. It first appeared in the late Western Zhou dynasty and went down to the Western Han and Eastern Han dynasties, ceasing to be popular thereafter.

Zhi (scabbard slide) with Dragon and Phoenix Design is a fine piece. Zhi (a slotted jade fitting attached to a sword-scabbard) is the accessory of an ancient sword. This piece of work in grey jade texture is relatively thick and heavy. It is carved with the design of coiled interwoven dragon, phoenix, tiger and serpent images in low relief with artful technique. It is one of the most complicated and delicate jade pieces of its kind seen so far.

Ornament with Design of the Four Holy Beings (Rosefinch, Turtle, Dragon and Tiger) features a design popular in the Western Han and Eastern Han dynasties, symbolizing the four spiritual creatures of ‘north, south, east and west’. Rare and precious, the ornament with design of four holy beings is said to be able to ward off evil and bad luck, and bring health and longevity.

Jade Suits from Han Dynasty

The greatest expressions of the quest for immortality were the jade suits that appeared around the 2nd century B.C. About 40 of these jade suits have been unearthed. The jade suit of the 2nd century B.C. Prince Liu Sheng unearthed near Chengdu, Sichuan province was made of 2,498 jade plates sewn together with silk and gold wire. Liu Shen was buried with his consort who was equally well clad in a jade suit. Sufficient room was made for the prince's pot belly.

Jade suits were believed to slow decomposition and effectively preserve the body after death. A jade suit unearth in Jiangxi Province was made of roughly 4,000 translucent pieces of jade held together with gold wire. Designed to form fit and cover the body, it has the shape of a robot from 1950s B science fiction movie.

Jades in Imperial China

The imperial family and the scholar class prized jade objects that were both beautiful and practical. Jade was fashioned into flowers, birds, people, landscapes and other subjects that were also featured in painting and poetry. Artist tried to craft pieces that incorporated the natural shape of jade stones, which were usually river pebbles. The resulting shapes had auspicious meanings.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “From the Six Dynasties (220-589) onward, social change and the rise of Buddhism brought upon the gradual decline of jade veneration. The art of jade carving was revived from the Song Dynasty (960-1279), but by then it had lost most of its former significance.[Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“The appreciation of archaic Chinese jades involves more than just the enjoyment of their solemn aloofness and brilliant luster. One must look beyond their physical properties — what can be seen and touched — to the metaphysical spirit that they embody. This spirit is born of the Chinese veneration of heaven and ancestors. It grows moreover from a culture that seeks to live in harmony with nature. In presenting this selection of refined jades, appealing to many different tastes, this special exhibition hopes to share with viewers this age-old Chinese tradition of placing equal importance on the metaphysical as well as the physical.

Jade objects found in ancient and imperial China: 1) Ritual implements: pieces used in sacrificial ceremonies, like jade Bi disc, Cong, Gui (blade) and Zhang (scepter); 2) Ceremonial objects: pieces used as symbols of military power, such as jade Fu (axe), Qi (notched axe), Yue (axe), Ge (halberd) and Dao (knife) in the form of tools or weapon; 3) Ornaments Worn by a Person: jade Jue (earring), Huang (arc-shaped pendant), Zhan (hair-pain), Zhuo (bracelet), Kua (belt), scabbard ornaments, and pendants in shape of animals or human beings. Some pieces were worn in sets; 4) Burial objects such a Han, Wo and Sai (jade pieces put in the mouth, hands and nose of the dead upon burial). They were believed to have a protection function for the corpses; 5) Decorative objects Jade pieces in shape of human figures, animals, ancient bronze wares, mountains and table screen used for decoration purpose; 6) Daily utensils Jade belt hook, cup, bowl, plate, teapot, paperweight, brush holder and some other pieces of stationery. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Jade Pieces from the Tang Dynasty

During the Six Dynasties and Tang Dynasty, jade artistry went into a period of decline. Stones similar to jade but not jade itself were used in ceremonies. The only jade artifacts from this period that have survived are items like combs, belt plaques, hairpins and pendants. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““During the Six Dynasties and the Sui-Tang era consecutive waves of foreign influences arrived and impacted the Chinese jade art significantly. Free from either spiritual or Confucian undertones of jade, newly formed literati class in Song and Yuan dynasties was keen on both nature and humans; their art was in quest of verisimilitude and ultimately truth. Along with realism, however, archaism existed in support of political orthodoxy, popularizing antiquarian styles for jades. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“From the Six Dynasties to the Tang Dynasty, jade artistry within the heartland of China suffered a decline. Despite the glory of the Tang Dynasty which saw the resumption of the large-scale feng-shan ceremony and other ancient traditions, the sets of tablets used in this ceremony were now fashioned only using beautiful stones (as jade simulants). Among the relics passed down the generations, only the jade belt plaque, comb top, hairpin ornament, pendant, etc. can still be found. More likely than not, a portion hail from the lapidaries of the tribes in China's West.

According to the Shanghai Museum:“By the Tang and Song dynasties, jades had moved beyond courtly ritual to become more widespread in society, becoming utilitarian, everyday objects as well as curios, toys and personal objects. The decorative repertoire was extended as animal, bird, flower and mountain grove motifs gained in popularity. Figures of musicians engraved on Tang jade belt plaques reflected contemporary cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries. Song-dynasty jade ornaments shaped like flowers and birds, or in the form of a child holding lotus flowers, imparted the flavour and fashions of the time. While they absorbed Tang and Song influences, the jade artifacts of the Liao and Jin dynasties mirrored their own nomadic cultural character by depicting hunting scenes. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Belt with Musicians Design: Jade belts were first seen in the Northern Zhou period, as a jade ornament to represent different ranks of the officials in ancient times. The Tang dynasty saw strong national strength with the opening to the outside world and frequent cultural exchanges between the east and west, thus many exotic things became the decorative themes of jade wares. This jade belt consists of twelve plates that are carved with the images of music players of minority nations, with deep-set eyes and Norman noses, wearing narrow-sleeved clothes and long boots, either dancing gracefully or playing musical instruments. The details on the face and the lines of the drapes are smooth and concise, and their expression and gesture natural. Many Hu musicians gathered in the Tang dynasty and Hu music was all the rage at that time. The patterns on the band plates reflected this historical scene.

Sunflower Petaloid Dish with Dragon and Cloud Design: Jade vessels in the Tang dynasty included bowls, cups, handless cups, cases and so on. The rim of this plate is shaped like twelve mallow petals, which perhaps was influenced by the shape and structure of gold and silver wares or porcelain. With the mild and crystal clear texture of the jade, the exterior of the vessel is carved in relief patterns of two dragons playing with a pearl, which is a typical dragon design style of the Tang dynasty. It is very rare in the excavated and handed down relics of this kind. Not only can this plate be used as furnishing, but also for practical use.

Ornament with Design of Hunting Scene: The jade ware of the minorities of the Jin period had distinctive grassland themes. With designs of ‘Spring Water’ and ‘Autumn Mountain’, these ornaments reflect the hunting scenarios of the two seasons of the northern nomads. ‘Spring water’ depicts the spring hunting scene when the emperor and his men go to the lakeside to round up swans by releasing the fierce gyrfalcon to snap and bite the head of swan. When the swan dropped to the ground, the men would stab and then share the swan meat together. The spring water jade ornament adopts the approach of Qiao Se, meaning the smart arrangement of colour according to the texture and colour of the material. The scene of the black gyrfalcon preying on the white swan is carved and represented through the different colours of the jade, forming a sharp contrast, which creates an aesthetic appeal full of tragic feature.

Jade Pieces from the Song Dynasty

From the Song and Ming dynasties onward, jade artistry recovered its former grandeur thanks mainly to the emperors, who used jade in official ceremonies, and scholars, who had studied the importance of jade in Shang and Zhou dynasty rituals. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““From the Song and Ming Dynasties onward, jade artistry recovered its former grandeur. Due in part to the emperor's use of jade in officiationg ceremonies, but even in greater part to the examination by scholars into the rituals of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, popular movements both to research and forge ancient jades arose. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

The newly formed intellectual class of the Song Dynasty cultivated their tastes in living. The displayed jade objects from the studio possessed ultilitarian functions in addition to providing visual delight. The most frequently seen motifs were those of flowers, birds, man, and landscapes, a fact which demonstrates the refined taste of the literati. Lastly, as the materials from which jades of this time were fashioned originate as river pebbles, jade craftsmen accommodated their carving techniques to the shapes they encountered. The resulting shapes and patterns were all imparted with deep, and usually auspicious meanings.

“Boy Holding a Lotus Flower in Hand” was a typical artefact of the Song dynasty, and was also a popular theme in the Northern and Southern Song dynasties. According to the customs of that time, at every seventh evening of the seventh month of the lunar calendar when the Cowherd and the Weaver Maid met on the Bridge of Magpies, children would pick a lotus flower and carry it on their shoulders, symbolizing the good wish of having more and more offspring. The manufacture of this work was passed down from the Song dynasty all the way to the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. [Source: Shanghai Museum]

Jade Pieces from the Yuan and Ming Dynasties

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “During the Song (960-1279), Liao (907-1125), and Jin (1115-1234) dynasties, the rivalry between Han Chinese and these ethnic groups resulted in periods of warfare and alliance that did not end until the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). The stylistic development of jade was not slowed down by the political turmoil; in contrast, it was enlivened by the contact, conflict, and fusion of different cultures, presenting more diverse, colorful, and vivid subjects. Zhu Xi’s verse, “because living water ceaselessly flows from the fountainhead, the pond is always clear and clean,” metaphorically describes this lively artistic development that became the model for later generations; while the fountainhead stands for the contact between cultures, the living water represents artistic inspirations. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

According to the Shanghai Museum:“ With increased commercialization and economic growth in the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, jade items were produced and used ever more widely across society. The court and the nobility employed jade to an unprecedented degree for daily life, adornment, display and personal delight. It was also widespread among ordinary people, and treasured by merchants and scholars alike. Each dynasty had its own style: the Yuan pieces are distinguished by their particularly deep engraving, the Ming pieces by their ruggedness and vigour, while the Qing pieces are known for their sophistication and intricacy. The Qianlong reign period of this last dynasty represents the highest point reached by the craft of jade carving. [Source: Shanghai Museum, shanghaimuseum.net]

“Gu (wine vessel) with Three Chi-dragons Design” is typical of the period. The imitated antique jade wares of the Ming and Qing were the copies of the bronze sacrificial vessels of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, but with variations and contemporary features. They were regarded as the re-creation of art. The bronze Gu was formerly used as a drinking vessel. The jade Gu on the other hand was generally used for flower arrangements, known as a flower goblet. This piece of jade work was made from a high grade yellow jade produced in Hotan, Xinjiang, which was pure and immaculate. Many of the jade works in the Qing palace were made from yellow jade, as a symbol of the dignity of the royal families. This flower goblet is carved with three Chi-dragons in relief. The Chi-dragon is a legendary dragon, with the partial tone of xi (happiness), symbolizing good luck. It became one of the main decorative patterns of jade wares together with dragon design after the Han dynasty. The date mark on the base of the Gu is ‘Qian Long Nian Zhi’, meaning ‘made in the reign period of Qianlong’, indicating it was an object used by the Emperor Qianlong.

“Square Plaque with Chi-dragon Design” is a beautiful piece. Legend had it that the Zigang rectangular pendant was invented by the jade carving master Lu Zigang of Suzhou in the Ming dynasty, which was full of literary charm and highly pursued for a time. The jade piece is carved with mutton-fat white jade, decorated with a Chi-dragon (hornless dragon, one of the nine sons of Dragon) design on both sides in different postures. With meticulous cutting techniques, this piece of work provides valuable information for people today to learn about the original state of Zigang plates of the Ming dynasty.

“Censer Cover with Lotus and Egret Design” an ancient censer cover handle of the Yuan dynasty unearthed at Qingpu District of Shanghai. The openwork carving on the cover and holes perforated at the bottom allows the aroma be emitted from the censer. The pattern on the top of the cover is the design of lotus flowers and egrets, depicting a scene in which several egrets are either playing or looking for food among the leafy clump of lotus. The design of lotus and egret, meaning complete success all the way, was an auspicious pattern to wish people success in the imperial examinations.

“Water Pot in a Lotus Shape” is typical of pieces associated with scholars. Most jade objects appeared after the Song dynasty, especially during the Ming and Qing dynasties, which was closely associated with the scholars' view of jade. They were often created in the shapes of animals and plants, with novel and exquisite workmanship. This water pot features pure and bright texture and delicate carvings. With a large and a small lotus seed-pod shaped pots connecting to each other, an egret standing on the side holding a fish in its mouth, the pot looks full of enchanting artistic imagination.

“Hindustan Octagonal Case Inlaid with Gems” is an example of a piece from the frontier areas This octagonal case is a jade ware of Islamic style of the Western Regions. In the Qianlong period, jade wares inlaid with gems prevailed in Hindustan (today's northern India, Kashmir areas). The rulers found great favour after its introduction to China. So the Chinese craftsman made a great number of reproductions. The outlines of the branches and leaves of the flowers and plants were inlaid with gold filigree, with rubies and emeralds in between. The date mark on the base is ‘Da Qing Qian Long Nian Zhi’, meaning ‘made in the reign period of Qianlong of the great Qing dynasty’ and is inscribed with ‘to be preserved and used by all the generations to come’, revealing Emperor Qianlong's great affection for it.

Jade Pieces from the Qing Dynasty

Jade pieces from the Qing imperial court were characterized by their impressive size, neatness and symmetry. Common motifs included dragons, emblems of the emperor, various auspicious symbols, and imperial inscriptions and marks. These jade pieces were often put on sandalwood pedestals or kept in special cases and boxes. During the early Qing Dynasty, jade from Xianjiang was carved into elaborate floral designs, shallow reliefs the thickness of paper and ornaments inlaid with colored glass or gold and silver thread. Jadeite carving really took off in China under the Qianlong Emperor (1736-96) who preferred the varied translucent colors of jadeite to the opaque "chicken bone" jade and "mutton-fat" nephrite that was prized before him. Jadeite from the Yunnan Province and northern Burma was imported into China in large quantities in the 19th century and became prized above all other kinds of jade.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ Jade carving exemplified the quintessence of Song and Yuan culture Arts and crafts developed into an age of sophistication in Ming and Qing dynasties. Starting in mid-Ming, the region south of the Yangzi River enjoyed great economic prosperity; jade carvings became ever finer and more elegant under the patronage of literati and rich merchants. In the 2nd half of the 18th century, the conquest of the West Territory further gave the Qing court direct access to and control of the Khotan nephrite mines; jadeite also started to come in from Myanmar with the active development by Qin in the southwestern region. Driven by the imperial house's taste, jade carving experienced an unprecedented thriving period.

“The National Palace Museum inherited the Qing (1644-1911) imperial collection of ancient jade carvings, which was largely composed of pieces from the upper and central areas of the Yellow River valley. The form and content of this collection not only demonstrates the particular tastes of the Qing court, but it also reflects traditional notions of jade and jade collecting. Traditional attitudes toward ancient jade, which persisted until the end of the Qing, were largely derived from classical texts. The jade kuei tablets, chang (multi-holed jade blades), pi disks, ts'ung tubes, huang pieces, and other ritual objects on display here generally date from the late Neolithic to the early Bronze age (2200-1600 B.C.) . [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei, npm.gov.tw]

“Qing imperial collectors, in an effort to revive the classical ritual systems of the "Three Dynasties" (Hsia, Shang, Chou), deliberately selected pieces that matched the six standard forms of ritual jade recorded in the Rites of Zhou (Chou li), a classic text from the late Warring States period (4thrd centuries B.C.) . These six forms are the kuei tablet, chang blade, pi disk, ts'ung tube, huang, and hu tiger. The direction of the court's collecting efforts were further influenced by the famous Qing connoisseur-emperor Kao-tsung (Qianlong), who particularly admired the green-and-white, pure white, and "sugar-brown and white" jades found near the central and upper reaches of the Yellow River valley. The Chien-lung Emperor not only enjoyed handling the ancient jades in his collection, but he also ordered them inscribed with his calligraphy and outfitted with specially designed stands and boxes. These efforts demonstrate the extant to which Kao-tsung cherished certain types of jade, and, by implication, the impact that his personal taste had on the content of the palace collection. One of the jade kuei tablets on display is an example that was prized at the Qing court.

Image Sources: Mostly from the the Palace Museum in Taipei with some from the Silk Road Foundation, Wikimedia Commons, National Museum in Beijing amd the Metropolitan Museum of Art , Beifan, CNTO and BBC

Text Sources: Palace Museum, Taipei, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2021

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