Art in Quest of Heaven and Truth, Masterpieces of Jade Collection, Taiwan National Palace Museum

Jade, cool and hard to touch, yet gracefully beautiful and tenderly warm to look at, is the most constant element that withstands time and a culturally rich object that more than anything else holds the deep feeling and profound thinking of the Chinese people.

As far back as over seven thousand years ago, our forebears had learned from the toil of life such as digging and logging that “jade” was a stone of beauty and eternity. With a glistening sheen just like the springtime sunshine, believed to be high in jingqi (vital force or energy), this beautiful jade was fashioned after the concept of yang and yin into round bi discs and square cong tubes, and marked with deistic and ancestral images as well as “encoded” symbols. A power of “affinity” born of “artifacts imitating nature”, so they hoped, would enable dialogues with the Supreme God, who imparted life through mythical divine creatures and thus created humans. Out of this early animistic belief, came the unique Dragon-and-Phoenix culture of China.

Humanism arrived with passage of time and social development. Gradually dissociated from animistic properties, jade ornaments in the shapes of dragon, phoenix, tiger, and eagle, originally symbolic of clan-families’ spiritual gift, or innate virtue, took on new interpretations as Confucian gentlemen’s virtues: benevolence, rectitude, wisdom, courage, and integrity.
During the Six Dynasties and the Sui-Tang era consecutive waves of foreign influences arrived and impacted the Chinese jade art significantly. Free from either spiritual or Confucian undertones of jade, newly formed literati class in the Song and Yuan dynasties was keen on both nature and humanity; their art was in quest of realism and ultimate truth. Along with realism, however, archaism existed in support of political orthodoxy, popularizing antiquarian styles for jades. Jade carving exemplified the quintessence of the Song and Yuan culture.

Arts and crafts developed into an age of sophistication in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Starting in the mid-Ming, the region south of the Yangzi River enjoyed great economic prosperity; jade carvings became ever finer and more elegant under the patronage of literati and rich merchants. In the 2nd half of the 18th century, the conquest of the Uygur region of Eastern Turkistan further gave the Qing court direct access to and control of the Khotan nephrite mines; jadeite also started to come in from Myanmar with the active development by Qing in the southwestern region. Driven by the imperial house’s taste, jade carving experienced an unprecedented thriving period.

Throughout the nearly eight-millennium development, jade carvings have first embodied the Chinese ethic of religion that was in awe of heaven and in reverence of ancestors. Then art in pursuit of realism in both form and spirit peaked after the medieval China, manifesting the academic heritage of Chinese scholars in seeking the intrinsic nature of things. The two concepts jointly attest to our national character as well as the deepest and most profound connotation of the ancient Chinese jades, the art in quest of heaven and truth.

The Spirit of Jade
In the remote past when people had to struggle for survival against the merciless forces of nature, they also realized a fact that the radiant sunshine dictated all facets of living in the universe. The movement of the sun brought in the alternation of day and night, changes of seasons, blossoming and withering of plants, and the very existence and sustenance of us humans. That ever-refreshing vital force of the universe, which kept all life forms going and thriving, was called yuanqi or jingqi (sap, energy). Primitive men believed that in everything, i.e. heaven, earth, sun, moon, mountains, rivers, plants, trees, etc., and in every phenomenon, such as wind, rain, thunder, lightening and so on, there existed an animating force, a deistic spirit.

As our early forebears picked up bamboo, wood, stones, and bones, turning them into tools, they found that a few stones were not only hard and enduring, but also beautiful and tender. Amazingly tools made of this fine material more than once helped them through tough crises as if by magic, while its radiating sheen looked just like the springtime sunshine which woke the world back to life. They figured that the beautiful stone was also imbued with the life-catalyzing jingqi and gave it an elegant name yu, i.e. jade.

They further believed that with its jingqi which was already enabling humans to commune with deities, the beautiful jade could acquire an even higher power of affinity if fashioned after the way the universe orbited, or into the images of the clan ancestors. Time passed; from the middle to late Neolithic period (c. 6000 to 2000 B.C.E.), scattering villages gathered as alliances and gradually developed into states. Society stratified and classes formed; a group of wise shamans capable of channeling with deities emerged to govern the affairs of all, led by a chief shaman. Through the beautiful divining jade they received wisdom from spirits, engaging dialogues with heaven and earth.

The Virtue of Jade
From 2000 B.C.E. to 581 C.E., i.e. 4000 to over 1400 years ago, came and went six different dynastic periods in Chinese history: the Xia, the Shang, the Zhou, the Qin, the Han, and the Six Dynasties. During this long history spanning about 2500 years, except for the short-lived Qin and basically the disunited Six Dynasties, the royal houses of the other four major dynasties emerged in turn from the western and eastern parts of China Proper. They ascended to rule one after another, their power waxed and waned, and over the time their cultures assimilated with each other. By the Han dynasty, ethically and culturally they had come to integrate into an almost indivisible one, ushering in a new era of unification. It was also during this formative process that the superstitious belief in the “spiritual nature” of beautiful jade held by early people was gradually moralized under the influence of humanism and Confucianism as society advanced.

“Virtue” originally referred to “innate nature”, a neutral and amoral concept. Back in the time remote, people believed that the Supreme God (called tian, Heaven, in the Zhou dynasty) sent divine creatures to endow life upon the ancestors of clans. The benefits of wearing jade carvings were therefore many-folded: it joined the vital force of beautiful jade with the magical power of divine creatures, accordingly enabled dialogues between deities and humans, and last but not least manifested the innate divinity of the wearer, i.e. “virtue”. By the Eastern Zhou dynasty, however, the original aspects of jade ornaments had been long forgotten; Confucians took a more rational view at the qualities of beautiful jade and associated them with the fine “virtues” of a junzi figure: benevolence, rectitude, wisdom, courage, and integrity. Junzi, initially meaning “rulers”, also transformed in the Eastern Zhou dynasty into “gentleman-intellectuals of high virtues”.

Over the long span of time, the pairing of Gui-and-Bi jades by the Zhou people became the core of Chinese jade ritual. The Han royal house came from Pei County in the Jiangnan region where the ancient Yue custom of “Jade Burial” originated; the practice reached its acme during the dynasty. Foreign elements such as bixie (warding off evils) amulets and horn cups, reaching China, also adopted jade carving as the medium to exhibit their beauty and took up additional mystic aura that was distinctively Chinese.

The Blossoms of Jade
The momentum of development for Chinese jades slowed down for a while during the consecutive turns of regimes from the Wei to Jin and then to the Southern and Northern Dynasties, whereas contemporarily in Central Asia the craft of jade and stone enjoyed a relatively active growth and continued into the era of Sui and Tang dynasties. These foreign, exotic works, coming into China either as tributary gifts or merchandise, injected fresh blood into the aged Chinese jade. Subsequently, ethnic Han people confronted and interacted closely with Khitans, Jurchens, and Mongols. The long-term contact, impact, and influence ranged over eight hundred years spanning from the Sui, Tang, and Five Dynasties ultimately to the Song, Liao, Jin, and Yuan dynasties. Out of these drastic changes and exchanges was born a significant new life of Chinese jades. The regenerated jade culture grew, expanded, and flourished, embracing ever more colorful contents and aspects, just like fully-nourished buds in rich blossoms.

The Blossoms of Jade section consists of four themes. First, lifelike realism, the most prevalent changes and characteristics of the time, as exhibited in the increasing adoption of natural elements such as flora, fauna, and human figures for aesthetic expressions. Next, the inherited culture of jade which as a medium between deities and humans symbolized the orthodoxy of Dao the Way and governance, as exemplified by the Jade Album of slips inscribed with the ritual shan prayer to Land Deity by Emperor Zhenzong of Song dynasty. Third, Song archaism which followed on the very Dao orthodoxy and resulted in controversial imitations and fakes greatly impacting subsequent Ming and Qing jades. Though few relevant items can be properly dated the cultural significance of the issue is too important to ignore. Last but not least, jade works of nomadic peoples, vivacious and free-spirited, at times even sumptuous, giving us new perspectives into their cultures and life styles.

The Ingenuity of Jade Carvings
Ming dynasty may be considered as one of the most intriguing and complicated times in Chinese history, at once a totalitarian rule which was extremely conservative and a merchandise economy which started to loosen up its traditional, rigid social hierarchy. In art and culture, the duality expressed itself through highly changeable, even contradictory styles in juxtaposition. Jades of the period was no exception to the zeitgeist and developed into brand new looks combining humanistic and secular tastes. Influenced by the concept that “the art of craft approaches Dao the Way”, the Ming literati assist artisans in creative works, which sometimes could even lead to the appearance of brand names, highly regarded by all.

Under the patronage of the jade-loving Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty, jade carvings enjoyed unprecedented growth and peaked. Another contributing factor was the steady inflow of raw materials from Khotan after His Majesty conquered the Uygur region of Eastern Turkistan in 1760, his 25th regnal year. All elements and conditions were perfectly in place for a thriving jade industry where an interesting phenomenon of diversity also emerged: the market’s taste diverging from the imperial preference, elegance and vulgarity coexisting, and the retro clashing with the trend. All added to the fun and richness of the period looks.

After the Qianlong zenith of refinement Chinese jade arts gradually sloped to a lull during which new ideas were brewing; the most significant turn was with the very concept about “jade”. For 7000 years, jade to Chinese had always meant creamy, tender nephrite with its quiet beauty, whereas now jadeite arrived in its dazzling emerald green, soon capturing the hearts of recent and modern Chinese. Its glamour has since reigned.

The Ingenuity of Jade Carvings section consists of four themes. First, an updated review of the notion “Rough and Large Ming Jades”, to better understand the versatility present in Ming styles. Next, the palace jades inscribed “imperially made”, “for imperial use”, or with imperial poetry, to let these imposing royal jades to speak of their own grandeur, and to reveal how Emperor Qianlong had steered the period styles of his beloved jades. Last, the most recent carvings from the late Qing to early Republican era, to explore the favorite jade types and characteristics of the modern jade lovers.

Jade without Grinding is of No Use
Jade the mineral is hard and tough. Both nephrite and jadeite range between 5.5 and 7 on the mineralogical scale of hardness. The fibrous monocrystalline structure renders extreme toughness, making nephrite one of the toughest minerals. Even tools of copper alloys or iron, cast and made once people learned how to smelt metal, could not cut and grind this tough material. Therefore since the very beginning nephrite has been universally carved with a method called “using stone to grit and groom jade”.

Finely grounded minerals harder than jade, such as quartz, garnet, corundum, or diamond, are used as abrasives in combination with tools of wood, bamboo, stone, bone, and linen, as well as of copper, iron and steel, to cut the jade material and to shape it into forms. The abrasives need to be prepared first by pounding and pulverizing various sizes of stones and grains of sand, then graded into groups and steeped in water for ready use.

The procedure now and past, in rendering products fine or coarse, invariably involves the following steps: cutting open the material, boring holes, shaping into forms, and carving patterns. Regardless of the particular shapes and textures of the tools used, either when the straight blade is slicing back and forth, or the round blade of the cutting wheel spinning in high speed, or the solid or tube drill pressing down in rotations, or the string tool pulling to and fro, a slurry of moist abrasives is constantly added to help the tools in abrading the harder substance against the surface of the jade material. The hard and tough jade can only be cut, shaped, and scraped this way. Except in the final polishing, water is always indispensable so as to lower the high heat produced by friction, to reduce the wear of the tools, and to prevent the jade material from cracking or exploding.

The many millennia-old tradition of Chinese jade carving have developed techniques featuring primitive simplicity or elaborate sophistication. There are raw materials and semi-finished works in our collection, as well as many finished carvings with clear marks of manufacture left at the backs, bottoms, or some less conspicuous spots. All these provide important clues for understanding the tools and procedures used in creating these beautiful jade artifacts.

Dazzling Gemstones and Jewelry
For as long as seven to eight thousand years nephrite has been the yu (jade) used and enjoyed by Chinese. The most common nephrite palette consists of white, bluish white, gray, black, yellow, and green, while brownish red is also possible if permeated with a high concentration of ferric iron.

On the other hand, the jadeite deposits in the northern Myanmar have been mined for nearly five hundred years but it was not until three hundred years ago in the 18th century, when the area went under the jurisdiction of Yunan Province in the Qing dynasty, that this type of jade started to export to China Proper in large quantity. Brightly colored, its reds and greens resemble the glamorous feathers of feicui (kingfisher feathers), so the name “feicui jade”.

Nephrite and jadeite belong to distinctly different mineral families but show similar appearances. Both nephrite and jadeite may exhibit beautiful shades of green, caused by their respective different colorants. Iron gives nephrite (commonly called bi-yu,green nephrite) its graceful greens from “grassy” to vibrant, while jadeite (commonly called cui-yu, feicui jade) dazzles in emerald green because of the chromium content. Both bi and cui are terms describing the splendid variations of color green. However, the two jades are sometimes confused and mistaken for each other, as jadeite consisting of ferrous iron tends to be tinted with a darker grassy green, and top-grade green nephrite often radiates gorgeous brilliance.

Lack of mineral ores of highly-quality precious stones in the Chinese heartland had long restricted the raw materials for jewelry to nephrite and some other semiprecious stones such as chalcedony and agate, which were the earliest alternatives. Quite a number of specimens from the Neolithic Age to the Han dynasty are displayed in the exhibition. Among all quartz types, rock crystal possesses the most prominent crystalline structure and may exhibit a variety of hues either from the presence of different ions or being tinted by irradiation. The Qing court often gave an indiscriminate name, bixi (tourmaline), to any precious or semiprecious stones that were colored and transparent with visible inner cracks. These misnomered items are on display here side by side with real tourmalines for comparison.

Archaeological records show that as early as in the Han dynasty, lapis lazuli and amber had been in use. The materials at the time might have come from today’s Afghanistan and Myanmar. Later since the medieval times the Baltic amber has been another source. The Qing palace life enjoyed a variety of gemstones, many of which were from Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar and Thailand. Lab tests indicate the red gems on display here are ruby, spinel, red tourmaline, or carnelian. Not displayed but in the Museum collections are others including garnet. Qing’s jewelry fashion in mountings and inlays was quite different from Indian or Turkish traditions; two foreign specimens are shown for comparison.

Taiwan National Palace Museum
The National Palace Museum houses one of the largest collections of Chinese art in the world. With nearly 700,000 precious artifacts, the museum’s extensive collection spans thousands of years and consists of magnificent treasures from the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing imperial collections.

In recent years, the National Palace Museum has dedicated itself to melding culture and technology, hoping to make its national treasures and remarkable cultural inheritance more accessible to people around the world.