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Chinese Jade from Ancient Times to the Present

by the Education Department of the Asian Art Museum

The wise have likened jade to virtue. For them, its polish and brilliancy represent the whole of purity; its perfect compactness and extreme hardness represent the sureness of intelligence; its angles, which do not cut, althought they seem sharp, represent justice; the pure and prolonged sound which it gives forth when one strikes it represents music.
Its color represents loyalty; its interior flaws, always showing themselves through the transparency, call to mind sincerity; its iridescent brightness represents heaven; its admirable substance, born of mountain and of water, represents the earth. Used alone without ornamentation it represents chastity. The price which all the world attaches to it represents the truth. To support these comparisons, the Book of Verse says: “When I think of a wise man, his merits appear to be like jade.” And that is why the wise set so great store by jade . . .

— Confucius  孔子 (551 BC – 479 BC)

Neolithic jades – such as the bi discs and cong tubes described above — are often found in burial sites, suggesting a ritual significance. By the time of the Zhou dynasty (771-221 BCE), when the Book of Songs was written, the prescribing of jade as an aid to attaining immortality was well established. Deceased royals might be buried in a jade suit with jade plugs inserted in body openings. The use of jade in burial ritual continued into and beyond the Han Dynasty (100S BCE-100S CE, about the period of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire), when in addition to body plugs, other jade objects were interred with the deceased. Jade cicadas, for example, representing rebirth, might be placed on the deceased person’s tongue.

Early dynastic jades also took the form of belt hooks, archer’s rings, and guards for swords. During the earliest Chinese dynasties, the Shang and the Zhou, pendants became an increasingly popular adornment. Through the centuries, jade ornamentation had become increasingly codified, so that by the Han dynasty its use as a means of distinguishing one’s social class was firmly entrenched.

Fewer jades survive from the centuries following the fall of the Han dynasty in 220 to the end of the Tang dynasty in 906 than from earlier or later dynasties. Changes in funerary practices meant that not as many pieces were included in tombs where they were protected from the ravages of time. In addition, these works had not completed the transition from ritual object to cultural artwork and were not collected as they were in later dynasties. The earliest animal figures from this time of transition show something of the ritual spirit of the Han dynasty, but they soon evolve into fanciful mythical beasts and playful representations. During these centuries signs of an emerging antiquarian spirit appear in jade imitations of early metallic or ceramic objects. This anticipates an important trend in China from the Song dynasty (960-1279) onward.

In the modern dynasties (the Ming, 1368-1644, and the Qing, 1644-1912) jadework became more self-conscious and referential. Often – as with the monkey and peaches sculpture – jades alluded to a work of literature or some other aspect of China’s cultural heritage. Or they might involve a sort of witticism known as a rebus. Rebuses are hidden meanings or verbal puns arising from characters that have double meanings; they usually refer to auspicious signs or wishes.

During this period, jade objects for the scholar’s studio began to be produced, such as brush rests, paperweights, and seals. In keeping with the referential spirit of the modern period, such objects were sometimes made in imitation of earlier forms in other mediums, such as bronzes and lacquers.