Katherine Anne HARPER

Workroom in the jade factory at the Yangzhou Commune. Jade sculptures and ornaments were made in factories like this one and exported or sold to tourists. Propaganda posters line the walls of this particular factory. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Closely associated with China for more than 7,000 years, jade has been personified with moral attributes and used for religious, ceremonial, and decorative purposes throughout history.

Jade (yu), a hard, luminous stone available in various colors (including white, yellow, green, gray, mauve, and brown), has been an artistic medium in China from at least the fifth millennium BCE. The term “jade” is generally given to two types of stones: nephrite, a crystalline calcium magnesium silicate from northeastern China (Jiangsu Province) and Central Asia’s Khotan and Yarkand regions; and jadeite, a green, glassy sodium aluminum silicate mineral of the pyroxene family from Myanmar (Burma). It is nephrite, however, that early Chinese artists used to create ritual objects, personal items, and ornaments.

Valued originally for its innate beauty, jade came to be conceptualized as having moral virtues and magical properties; mythology claimed it was the congealed semen of a celestial dragon. The Han dynasty scholar Xu Shen (c. 58–147 CE) characterized jade as having five virtues: wisdom, as typified by its purity and penetrating sound when struck; courage, in that while it can be broken, it cannot be bent; integrity, as signified by its translucence; charity, epitomized by its bright warm luster; and equity, represented by its sharp angles that injure none.

Special techniques for carving jade were necessary because of jade’s exceptional density. Unlike most other stones, which can be chiseled, jade must be carved through an arduous abrasion process utilizing drills and quartz sand. This labor-intensive process makes jade artifacts very costly. From earliest times, jade was the ultimate symbol of wealth and power, and thus, the finest workmanship and artistry were lavished on the precious stone.

The earliest artistic use of jade occurred in the Hongshan culture of the middle Huang (Yellow) River basin, Liaoning Province, from the fifth to fourth millennia BCE. Examples of jade carvings in this period include coiled dragons, owls, turtles, and cloudlike plaques. Jade carvings are so predominant among Hongshan artifacts that some scholars have referred to this period as the Jade Age.

Ritual use of jade in burials continued in China throughout the Han dynasty (206 BCE–24 CE). Jade objects were positioned on, around, and under the bodies of the deceased in their tombs. Thus jade was regarded as having more than social status; it had ritual and protective properties as well. The most extraordinary examples were found near Lingshan, in Hebei Province: In the tomb of Prince Liu Sheng and his wife Princess Dou Wan, the two royal figures were covered from head to foot in outfits made entirely of jade plaques drilled at the four corners and fastened with gold wire. It is believed that these functioned as shrouds, protecting the body from decomposition and from attack by evil forces.

Jade implements were important in conducting affairs of state during the Shang (1766–1045 BCE) and Zhou (1045–256 BCE) dynasties, in that various pieces came to signify specific courtly ranks. Because jade was identified with the imperial court and with great virtue, it became likened to the Confucian ideal of the perfect gentleman (junzi).

Beginning in the Warring States period (475–221 BCE), jade was used increasingly for secular items and personal adornment. By the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE), the secular use of jade was widespread. Jewelry, fine vessels, and utensils, as well as objets d’art that had no particular religious connotation, were crafted from jade. Decorative and functional items such as bowls, cups, dishes, jugs, vases, containers, hair ornaments, beads, and bracelets received lavish, delicate ornamentation.

After centuries, the art and tradition of working with jade spread westward from China through Central Asia into India and Turkey. There are fine examples of carved jade from the Mughal Empire (1526–1857), known as Hindustan jades. Many of these are embellished with intricate designs that incorporate precious gems held in place with gold filigree.

Jade Working in Ancient China

In his work Science and Civilisation in China, scholar Joseph Needham discusses the appeal and importance of working with jade and other semi-precious stones.

The Chinese had begun fashioning objects of jade at least by about –5000 [BCE]. By the end of the Neolithic period, jade had clearly established its primacy among the semi-precious stones suitable for “carving” and it would continue to grow in importance in the succeeding centuries…

Because of the rarity of jade deposits in the Chinese heartland, jade played no significant direct role in the history of Chinese mining. It was important, indirectly, however, in two ways: (1) its combination of prestige and rarity led Chinese to search widely for other stones that most resembled jade, and (2) the Chinese love of “carved” jade, which is not carved at all since jade, either nephrite or jadeite, is too hard to be cut even by steel tools alone, led the Chinese to search for the most effective abrasives that could be used for shaping it.

Neolithic stone carvers used many other minerals and stones along with jade to make ornaments. A very early example comes from the Ho-mu-tu culture south of Hang-chou Bay where fluorite was used along with jade to make ornaments. At another site, near Nanking, jade and agate were used together.

Source: Needham, J.. (1999). Science & civilisation in China, vol. V: 13. Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge University Press, 174–175.

After thousands of years, jade remains so closely identified with Chinese culture that the medals presented during Beijing’s 2008 Summer Olympics were inlaid with a ring of jade.

Further Reading

Beijing Olympic Medal Unveiled. (2007, March 27). Retrieved on January 9, 2009, from http://en.beijing2008.cn/67/83/article214028367.shtml

Born, G. M. (1982). Chinese jade: An annotated bibliography. Chicago: Celadon Press.

Laufer, B. (1946). Jade: A study in Chinese archaeology and religion (2nd ed.). South Pasadena, CA: P. D. Perkins with Westwood Press & W. M. Hawley.

Watt, J. C. Y. (1989). Chinese jades from the collection of the Seattle Art Museum. Seattle, WA: Seattle Art Museum.

Yang Xiaoneng. (Ed.). (1999). The Golden Age of Chinese archaeology: Celebrated discoveries from the People’s Republic of China. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Source: Harper, Katherine Anne (2009). Jade. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China
, pp. 1193–1195. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Visitors at the Han tombs look in fascination at the jade burial suit of Liu Sheng, constructed of jade tiles and gold thread. Jade is a precious stone that during the Han dynasty was considered to have preservative properties. But when modern archaeologists excavated the burial suits, they found the bodies within completely deteriorated. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

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