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How is jade carved?

by the Education Department of the Asian Art Museum

Without being worked, jade cannot be shaped into a vessel;
without being educated, people cannot be shaped into virtuous citizens.

— from the Trimetrical Classic, a Song dynasty (960-1279) primer on the Confucian Classics


Jade cannot be carved. Because of its hardness, it can rarely be shaped by chiseling or chipping but must be worn away by abrasion with tools and hard sand pastes. This is a process that requires immense patience – even with modern machinery equipped with diamond-tipped burrs that grind out intricate designs, it remains laborious. Yet jade appeared in Chinese cultures several thousand years before metal tools existed. Neolithic jade artisans worked with bamboo, bone, and stone tools, using a drilling or bow action to abrade the jade with sand. Because the process was so labor-intensive and time-consuming, jades reflected the ability of a ruling elite to command resources, and therefore came to symbolize power, status and prestige.

Nephrite’s fibrous nature makes it a great challenge to the craftsman. Yet, as overcompensation, its toughness makes possible the rendering of plates, bowls, and vases paper-thin, as well as the cutting of chains from solid blocks of stone. Nephrite is the better material, in general, for such elaborate work, but the superb craftsmen of China have successfully wrought the more sensitive jadeite in similar fashion.

In the jade-carving workshops of today, there are thought to be as many as 30 kinds of jade in use. Famous among the jade workshops on mainland China are those in Qingtian (Zhejiang province), Shoushan (Fujian province), and Luoyang (Hunan province).