Confucius once said, “A gentleman should be like a piece of jade.” He held the characteristics of jade in high esteem, and that a gentlemen should strive to be like the characteristics enshrined by jade.
Jade, cool and hard to touch, yet gracefully beautiful and tenderly warm to look at, is the most constant element that withstands time and a culturally rich object that more than anything else holds the deep feeling and profound thinking of the Chinese people.
As far back as over seven thousand years ago, our forebears had learned from the toil of life such as digging and logging that “jade” was a stone of beauty and eternity.
Jade the mineral is hard and tough. Both nephrite and jadeite range between 5.5 and 7 on the mineralogical scale of hardness. And the earliest humans had used them as arrowheads and cutting tools.
Over the long span of time, the pairing of Gui-and-Bi jades by the Zhou people became the core of Chinese jade ritual. The Han royal house came from Pei County in the Jiangnan region where the ancient Yue custom of “Jade Burial” originated; the practice reached its acme during the dynasty. Foreign elements such as bixie (避邪 warding off evils) amulets and horn cups, reaching China, also adopted jade carving as the medium to exhibit their beauty and took up additional mystic aura that was distinctively Chinese.
First, lifelike realism, the most prevalent changes and characteristics of the time, as exhibited in the increasing adoption of natural elements such as flora, fauna, and human figures for aesthetic expressions.
Next, the inherited culture of jade which as a medium between deities and humans symbolized the orthodoxy of Dao the Way and governance, as exemplified by the Jade Album of slips inscribed with the ritual shan prayer to Land Deity by Emperor Zhenzong of Song dynasty.
Left to right
- 元 玉凌宵花
Jade Chinese trumpet creeper, Yuan dynasty, 1271-1368 C.E.
- 元 大雁玉帶飾
Jade belt buckle with “wild goose” motif, Yuan dynasty, 1271-1368 C.E.
- 元 螭虎啣芝紋玉頂
Jade finial with “chi tiger holding lingzhi” motif, Yuan dynasty, 1271-1368 C.E.
- 元到明代 仿古玉劍璏
Jade scabbard slide in antiquarian style, Yuan to Ming dynasty
- 元至明 秋山玉頂
Jade finial with Autumn Mountains motif, Yuan to Ming dynasty, 1271-1644
Left to right
- 明早中期 玉花卉紋雙耳瓶
Jade Vase with double handles and flower pattern, Early to mid Ming dynasty
- 明 玉荔枝紋盒
Jade case with litchi pattern, Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
- 明中晚期 玉人物紋鹿鈕蓋蓮花式執壺
Jade Ewer with lotus-style handle, deer-shaped lid knob, and human-figure pattern, mid to late Ming dynasty
- Jade vase with “chi tiger holding lingzhi (靈芝)” – Yuan Dynasty (元朝) (1271-1368) to Ming Dynasty (明朝) (1368-1644) period
Ming dynasty may be considered as one of the most intriguing and complicated times in Chinese history, at once a totalitarian rule which was extremely conservative and a merchandise economy which started to loosen up its traditional, rigid social hierarchy. In art and culture, the duality expressed itself through highly changeable, even contradictory styles in juxtaposition.
Jades of the period was no exception to the zeitgeist and developed into brand new looks combining humanistic and secular tastes. Influenced by the concept that “the art of craft approaches Dao the Way”, the Ming literati assist artisans in creative works, which sometimes could even lead to the appearance of brand names, highly regarded by all.
Part of 19 pieces of carved jade that made up a belt.
The Pieces de Resistance
In the collection of the National Palace Museum, two of the most famous works on display are “Jadeite Cabbage” and “Meat-shaped Stone,” which is why these two are often exhibited together for visitors to appreciate.
Jadeite cabbage, Qing dynasty (1644-1911) 清 翠玉白菜
This piece is almost completely identical to a piece of bokchoy cabbage. Carved from verdant jadeite, the familiar subject, purity of the white vegetable body, and brilliant green of the leaves all create for an endearing and approachable work of art. Let’s also not forget the two insects that have alighted on the vegetable leaves! They are a locust and katydid, which are traditional metaphors for having numerous children. This work originally was placed in the Forbidden City’s Yung-ho Palace, which was the residence of the Guangxu Emperor‘s (r. 1875-1908) Consort Jin. For this reason, some have surmised that this piece was a dowry gift for Consort Jin to symbolize her purity and offer blessings for bearing many children.
清 肉形石 Meat-shaped stone, Qing dynasty (1644-1911)
At first glance, this meat-shaped piece of stone looks like a luscious, mouth-watering piece of “Dongpo pork.” Made from banded jasper, it is a naturally occurring stone that accumulates in layers over many years. With time, different impurities will result in the production of various colors and hues to the layers. The craftsman who made this meat-shaped stone took the rich natural resources of this stone and carved it with great precision, and then the skin was stained. This process resulted in the appearance of skin and lean and fatty layers of meat, the veining and hair follicles making the piece appear even more realistic.
Qianlong and His Jade
Under the patronage of the jade-loving Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty, jade carvings enjoyed unprecedented growth and peaked. Another contributing factor was the steady inflow of raw materials from Khotan after His Majesty conquered the Uygur region of Eastern Turkistan in 1760, his 25th regnal year. All elements and conditions were perfectly in place for a thriving jade industry where an interesting phenomenon of diversity also emerged: the market’s taste diverging from the imperial preference, elegance and vulgarity coexisting, and the retro clashing with the trend. All added to the fun and richness of the period looks.
- 清 乾隆 「信天主人」青玉
Jade Seal of“One Who Believes in Heaven”, Qianlong Reign, Qing dynasty
- 清 舐犢情深鈕未刻石印
The most recent carvings from the late Qing to early Republican era, to explore the favorite jade types and characteristics of the modern jade lovers.
About the National Palace Museum
The National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院) was originally founded within the walls of the Beijing Forbidden City in 1925, the present-day National Palace Museum moved to Taipei’s Shilin District following the Republic of China government relocation in 1949 with an official opening for the public in 1965.
Over 600,000 of the most precious artefacts within the collection were moved to Taiwan to prevent their desecration during and after the Chinese Civil War.
Due to the enormous numbers of collection spreads over 4 floors and 2 exhibition halls, the museum’s exhibits continuously rotate, as only a small percentage of the museum’s collection can be displayed at a given time to prevent wear and tear, so there will always be a new series of collection being exhibited on each visit!
National Palace Museum
No.221, Sec. 2, Zhishan Rd., Shilin Dist., Taipei City 111001, Taiwan (R.O.C.)
Tel : 886-2-2881-2021
Date Visited : Oct 2018