CHINESE JADE FROM THE CH'ING DYNASTY
(Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, Orange County) "Stone of heaven," a term used by the Chinese to describe what they view as the most precious of gems--jade. To understand the importance of jade to the Chinese is to gain insight into their culture and history.
The use of carved jade has been a integral part of Chinese society for more than 6,000 years, playing significant roles in Chinese politics, economics, philosophy, and religion. Considered the sacred stone of China, the use of jade spans all ranks and classes and holds spiritual as well as commercial values. To the ancient Chinese, it embodied qualities of nobility, perfection, constancy and immortality; a symbolic link between man and the spiritual world.
Jade: Ch'ing Dynasty Treasures from the National Museum of History, Taiwan, consists of 310 works covering the period between 1644 and 1911. The Ch'ing Dynasty marked a decided change in both use and style of jade carving. This is largely due to the Imperial house. They favored the craft and provided carvers with workshops to refine their techniques. As a result, jade carving achieved a high degree of sophistication and aesthetic appeal.
Produced through the natural forces of mountains and riverbeds, there are two distinct types of jade. Nephrite is commonly seen in shades of green but can occur in almost any color. Nephrite is valued for its purity; its smooth glossy appearance symbolic of Confucian virtue. The brighter, more vividly colored jadeite on the other hand, is desired for its shades of bright lavenders and emerald greens.
Symbolism and tradition in Chinese art is paramount and recurrent motifs in jade objects carry significant meanings. Designs found on bowls, plates, table screens and figures can have either religious or sociological connotations. Many accessories revealed the status of their owners. Brush pots, for instance, displayed by painters, or paper weights by scholars.
Flowers and birds, particularly popular motifs, appear as decoration on vases and figurines. The exquisite beauty of the intricately carved Lidded Vase with Flowers and Birds is a fine example of carving mastery. Executed in lavender and green jadeite, flowering trees and long-tailed birds extend around the sides of the vase. The floral motif is abundantly played out in the elegantly draped Jadette Lady. Sporting a floral headdress, she carries a basket of flowers and holds a peony branch in her right hand. No, she is not the local flower vender. She is a symbol of refined taste.
Chi'ing Dynasty artisans were particularly skillful in synthesizing past stylizations and techniques. New techniques also allowed them to imitate bamboo carving, lacquer carving and the designs of ancient bronze vessels. Flower Vessel After an Ancient Bronze Vessel, adorned with bird motifs, illustrates the imitative skill of the carver.
Paintings and sculpture were also influential on jade carving, a tradition that dates back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Jade wares such as Carved Table Screen, often resemble panoramic landscape painting. In a particularly clever touch, five aged men unroll a scroll depicting the mountains and pines they are surrounded by.
Translucent, paper-thin jade bowls with patterns visible when held to the light were influenced by Mongolian Hindustani carving introduced to China during this time. The hardness of jadeite was particularly suitable for delineating extremely fine lines, and carvers were valued for their skill in carving shallow reliefs on delicate surfaces. A tiny cup, decorated with scalloped gold filigree in the shape of branches and leaves, epitomized the rare beauty achieved in this medium. Inlaid with red, green and blue precious stones, it reflects the characteristics of Islamic art.
A favored symbolic gift for emperors and for the literati were ruyi scepters. The scepters had cloud-shaped heads in the shape of a ling-chih fungus, symbol of immortality. The production of fanciful scepters increased during this period. They were carved in an array of shapes and colors and were adorned with a variety of inlaid techniques. Nine ruyis presented to Emperor Chi'ien-lung are part of the National Museum collection. Decorated with dragons, lotuses and persimmons, they are particularly fine examples of ruyi carving techniques.
Items favored not only by the aristocracy, but by the the populace as well, were an enormous variety of costume accessories. Belt buckles, hair ornaments and jewelry were carved with intricate details and meaningful symbols. Stylized animals, for instance, represented family clan deities, with phoenixes and dragons reserved for nobility.
Jade in China is still seen as containing properties that promote good health, good luck and protection. Carved ritualistic and ornamental objects continue to play an indispensable role in many aspects of Chinese life. They are an eternal symbol of an ancient civilization.