Joy of Jades

This spearhead of nephrite jade set in a bronze socket embellished with turquoise, shown actual size, was crafted circa the thirteenth to the twelfth century B.C.
Photograph courtesy of the Harvard University Art Museums, copyright © 2003 President and Fellows of Harvard College

Since remote antiquity, the Chinese have prized jade far above all other substances, holding it in higher esteem than most cultures view gold and diamonds. The origin of this unique fascination remains an enigma. It is easy to speculate, however, that Neolithic people (c. 6000-c. 1600 B.C.) found it a hard and tough substance, ideal for agricultural implements and weapons of war, and came to revere the rare stone itself. By late Neolithic times, with the discovery of other hard but less valuable stones, jade articles had already assumed a ceremonial role as objects of ritual and insignia of rank, losing any utilitarian function. Reverence for jade had become an established cultural phenomenon by the time of Confucius (c. 551-479 B.C.), who likened the stone's qualities of hardness, purity, constancy, and beauty to the virtues of his "Superior Man." By the time of the Han dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Daoist alchemists had included jade in their pharmacopoeia, preparing elixirs of powdered jade for the living to ensure longevity (with luck, immortality), and prescribing jade burial suits and other paraphernalia to prevent decomposition of the corpse.

Thanks to the 1943 bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, A.B. 1886, LL.B.'89, the Harvard University Art Museums claim the West's finest and most comprehensive collection of early Chinese jades. Comprising more than 700 pieces that range from the Neolithic era through the Han—such "archaic" works are the most prized by scholars and connoisseurs alike—the collection rivals in quality, rarity, and importance Winthrop's better-known bequest of European paintings and drawings (a touring selection of which appears in a special exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this fall; see "Unveiled," March-April, page 42). Sadly, escalating insurance and other costs after September 11, 2001, have stalled a comparable traveling exhibition planned for the jades (as well as Winthrop's Chinese bronze ritual vessels and his Buddhist sculptures). Hence this brief tasting.


Although the source of the jade used in the earliest times remains unknown, by the so-called Warring States period (480-221 B.C.), the Chinese were importing jade, mostly in the form of river pebbles, from Khotan, then considered a remote site in the distant hinterlands of Xiyu, or the Western Regions. That stone, a form known as nephrite, has continued to be the preferred form of jade down to the present day.

The jade carver's art, meanwhile, has developed continuously in China from Neolithic times to the present, a run rivaled in length and supremacy of achievement only by that of the potter. Technically, however, jade was not "carved." Rather, its surfaces were gradually worn away and shaped through the patient application of a hard abrasive medium. In early times, fine quartz sand served the purpose. Crushed garnets—not prized themselves as gemstones—may have been introduced as abrasive material in the eighth or ninth century A.D. and natural corundum was most likely adopted in the twelfth or thirteenth century. Jade-working tools, which acted only as agents for carrying the abrasive medium, were necessarily simple in Neolithic times; they included cords and thongs as well as implements in wood, bamboo, and bone. With the advent of bronze technology in the Shang dynasty (c. 1600-c. 1050 B.C.), jade workers doubtless added metal tools to their stock. By the sixth to fifth century B.C., such substantial rotary tools as the cutting wheel and various drills and discs had been introduced. Although opinion varies considerably on the first appearance in China of the diamond point (an instrument capable of direct cutting), its emergence sometime after the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) no doubt revolutionized jade working.

Tiger plaques like these, seven and a half inches wide, could be strung together and worn, with tinkling effect.
Photographs courtesy of the Harvard University Art Museums, copyright © 2003 President and Fellows of Harvard College

Neolithic and Shang jade carvers produced ritual and ceremonial implements, insignia of rank, articles of personal adornment such as earrings, bracelets, and hair ornaments, and even a few small sculptures of unknown function representing humans and animals. The leaf-shape spearhead illustrated here, modeled on a functional bronze weapon, would have been affixed to a wooden pole; it served as a badge of office rather than as a weapon of war and one can imagine rows of high officials standing before the Shang king, each holding the emblem appropriate for his rank. The piece reflects the Shang preference for stone of sea-green color, just as its longitudinal crest, chamfered edges, and smoothly polished surfaces reveal the taste for subtly decorated jades. The turquoise-inlaid bronze socket, with its lively animal mask and striking diagonal striations, creates the perfect foil for the subtly finished blade. A similar spearhead was recovered from the c. 1200 B.C. tomb of Lady Fu Hao, the consort of a late Shang king, establishing the date of this piece and suggesting that it might well have come from one of the royal tombs at Anyang in Henan province, the last Shang capital.

Jades crafted some six centuries later during the Warring States period were primarily articles of personal adornment, such as the tiger plaques shown. The small perforation at the center of each animal's back and the openwork elements along the lower edges allowed these plaques to be incorporated into elaborate assemblages, the various elements linked together with silver chains or silken cords. Ancient texts, in fact, celebrate the tinkling, almost musical, sounds created when the jades touched together as the wearer moved. Probably imported from Khotan, the translucent nephrite of these plaques is a highly appealing golden yellow marked with dark brown, revealing the Warring States-period taste for mottled stone. The common striations and tonal markings indicate that these two plaques were hewn from the same small boulder, separated like two adjacent slices of bread. Thus, they are a pair not only in terms of subject matter and decorative style but in shared geologic origin. Warring States-period jades characteristically feature relief canted edges and raised spiral embellishments set against highly polished grounds, as seen in these plaques. This perfect marriage of exquisite design and superb craftsmanship has led many scholars and connoisseurs to conclude that the finest of all Chinese jades were created during this period. These carvings probably were produced in northwestern Henan, near Luoyang. Similar plaques were recently recovered from the tomb of the king of Nanyue, near Canton, in Guangdong province; although the tomb dates only to 122 B.C., it included a number of earlier pieces from northern China, suggesting how Warring States-period jades were esteemed as heirlooms by the Han dynasty.

With their masterfully conceived designs, exquisitely wrought forms, and consummately finished surfaces, Chinese jades never fail to delight and captivate. As the standard by which all other jade collections are measured, the Winthrop bequest, happily, affords all serious students of these special works of art the opportunity for in-depth study at Harvard.

~Robert D. Mowry


Robert D. Mowry is the Alan J. Dworsky curator of Chinese art at the Harvard University Art Museums; he is also senior lecturer on Chinese and Korean art in the department of the history of art and architecture.


More about Jade

To call jade "a dark green stone from China" is wrong on three counts. First, jade is a generic term that includes two visually similar but geologically different stones: nephrite and jadeite. Second, jade comes in a variety of colors, from white (overall the preferred color for nephrite throughout Chinese history, although different dynasties preferred different colors) to black; the "spinach jade" hue best known in the West was the least prized in traditional China. Third, although native deposits of jade are known today in China, the stones worked in the past came from without: the best nephrite from Khotan, the slightly harder jadeite from Burma, and the spinach jade variety of nephrite from Siberia, probably beginning in the eighteenth century.



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