Chinese Jade: The Change of Aesthetic Taste Throughout History

Archaeological discoveries in China show that jade objects were created as early as the Neolithic Age. Since then, the art of Chinese jade carving has developed continuously over seven thousand years. The time span alone gives us an idea of the extraordinary significance of jade in the history of Chinese culture. Jade is distinctive not only because of its origins but because of the way in which it is both a manifestation and reflection of Chinese culture.

Throughout the long development of Chinese jade carving, the objects of each era reflect the society's philosophical outlook and political reality, as well as contemporary craftsmanship, technology, artistic styles and aesthetic taste. By looking at the shape, ornamentation, carving technique and style of each piece, we can discover the cultural, philosophic and artistic spirit of the times. We can also witness significant changes in aesthetic taste over time. 

The reasons for changes in aesthetics are quite complex, having to do not only with the refinement of jade-carving technique but also with broader social and historical developments, as well as the influence of other cultures and variations in artistic style. Thus, the study of changing Chinese taste in jade is of value to both art scholarship and the understanding of Chinese culture — jade is a path towards beauty.

Generally speaking, I believe that the history of Chinese jade can be divided into five periods: the Formative Period, the Brilliant Period, the Transitional Period, the Flourishing Period, and the Period of Stable Development.

The Formative Period

For the purposes of this essay, we will call China's Middle and Late Neolithic Ages — from around four to seven thousand years ago — the "Formative Period of Chinese Jade". Archaeological excavations have revealed particularly elegant jade.” artifacts from the five-thousand-year-old Dawenkou culture in modern-day Shandong, many exquisite jades have also been found at sites of the Liangzhu culture in Zhejiang province, which date to about four thousand years ago. 

Such discoveries have made it clear that Chinese jade carving began in the Stone Age: As early man manufactured stone objects and put them to use, he discovered the even more splendid substance called “jade”. The Han etymologist Xu Zhen's definition of jade as "that stone which is beautiful"(shi zhi mei zhe) reveals the Stone Age process of recognizing jade.

Of course, Neolithic jade carvers used many different types of raw materials in their work, varying with location and culture. Though "jade" was a general term used to describe a variety of stones modern mineralogists identify only two substances as "true jade"—nephrite (ruan yu), and jadeite (ying yu). From the Han Dynasty on, nephrite, found in Hetian, Xinjiang, has been the primary material used by Chinese jade carvers.

Neolithic jades fall by and large into three major types. The first group is that of tools and weapons, including jade spades and axes, The second is that of religious and ritual objects, such as gut tablets and cong tubular beads, and thirdly there are decorative items such as jue and bi discs and awl-shaped objects (chui sing qi). Even at this early stage, jade work had reached an astonishing level of skill in the selection of materials, drilling techniques, design carving and the polishing of stone. 

An outstanding example of such skill is exhibit #3, an awl-shaped ornament very similar to Neolithic fades in the collection of the Palace Museum in Taipei. Such ornaments, which come in a great wealth of types, have been excavated at the sites of the Liangzhu, Dawenkou and Shixia cultures. They show that early man already knew basic polishing techniques and moreover how to preserve the natural color and veining in the jade. 

Neolithic jades such as this one are not only of cultural significance but have an important aesthetic value. Because jade apparently held such a vital position in the late Neolithic Age, some scholars have recently suggested including a "Jade Age" between the Stone and Bronze Ages on the dateline of Chinese history. This might be an appropriate means of representing this unique feature in the development of Chinese civilization.

The Brilliant Period 

The Xia, Shang and Zhou Dynasties (ca. 1850-221 BCE) hold a prominent place in Chinese history, the Confucians in particular regarded the "Three Dynasties" as the ideal model for later society. Though at present no major archaeological evidence has been recovered from the Xia, those Shang and Zhou jades that have been unearthed or handed down as heirlooms show a marked progress in carving technique, as well as a mature artistic style. Because of the advances in technique and especially because of the ever-increasing use of jade in ritual and worship, and in the social life of the time, I term this period the "Brilliant Era of Chinese Jade”.

Of the 590 jades excavated from the well-known tomb of Lady Hao of the late Shang Dynasty, more than 300 were ornaments and over 160 ritual objects, while weapons and tools accounted for only 60 pieces each. Compared to the Neolithic Age, more ritual and decorative objects appeared during the Shang, such changing taste in jades has origins deeply rooted in social history.

The distinctive features of symbol and ornament found on Shang and Zhou Jades were no doubt influenced by the exquisite bronzes for which this era is famous. Simply put, the artistic style and aesthetic tastes of the two media can be said to parallel each other.

Within this"Brilliant Era" the Spring Autumn and Warring States periods(ca.770-221 BCE) represent its apex. Techniques in jade carving developed rapidly and the available supply of mined raw jade increased. 

In the realm of thought, jade acquired a cosmological significance. Eastern Zhou Confucian thinkers outlined a system of beliefs in which jade took on deep moral, religious and political meaning. In their writings, they laid out systems for the ritual use and wearing of jades and advanced a theory investing the ideal jade with supernatural properties. This theory and the ritual organization survived for more than two thousand years- through the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

The Confucian ritual texts the Zhouli (The Rituals of Zhou) and the Liji (The Book of Rites) expound on jade at length. The Zhouli’s oft-cited set of stipulations about the use of jade— "Make from jade the six qi" (yi yu zuo liu gi and "Make from jade the six rui" (yi yu zuo liu rui)—heavily influenced jade use in ancient times. The "six qi" — bi discs, zong cylinders, gui tablets, zhang blades, buang pendants and hu animal plaques — were used in sacrifices to Heaven, Earth and the gods of the Four Directions. The shapes of these ritual objects reflect the ancient Chinese cosmology of a round heaven and square earth, as well as the philosophical belief in the harmony of nature and human being. The six rui, on the other hand, had practical significance as symbols of noble rank, with certain shapes specific and exclusive to particular ranks. Thus jade had an even more privileged role in Zhou society. 

New inventions for fashioning tools in the Spring & Autumn and Warring States periods advanced jade carving techniques. Relief work and engraving were employed to a generous extent and the decoration became more meticulous, with smooth and easy lines.

The Transitional Period 

The era covering the Qin, Han, and Six Dynasties might be termed the "Transitional Period of Chinese Jade". It is useful to think of this time as a connecting link between the Brilliant Period of the Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties and the Flourishing Period of the Tang and Song dynasties to follow. In terms of technique Han Dynasty jade work appropriated and consolidated the achievements developed before the Qin Dynasty unification of the empire. In addition during the Han, the Confucian system of jades of ritual and rank advanced one step further. 

Another notable achievement of the Han is Emperor Han Wu Di's (157-87 BCE) opening of relations with the peoples to the west. Foreign trade and traffic expanded and the importation of nephrite increased, until finally this stone became the primary type of Chinese jade. This time also saw a marked increase in the number of jades produced for ornament and burial use. 

As was noted earlier with regard to Shang and Zhou bronzes, different art forms in the Han mutually influenced each other. The Han is especially known for its stone sculpture done in a grand and heroic style typical are the stone animals which stand before the tomb of the Han general He Chubing in Shaanxi province. These animals have a majestic and energetic feel and are sculpted in a simple and unadorned manner.

Han jades reveal a similar style and taste, exhibit #8 being a particularly outstanding example. In this type of jade ram especially we can see a strong resemblance to stone sculpture in line and posture. Professor Na Zhiliang notes such a similarity in A Collection of Illustrative Plates of Chinese Jade, picturing a similar jade figure in illustration #298c. Professor Na comments that this seems to be the common model for stone or jade ram figures during the Han.

The period of the Six Dynasties (covering the Wei, Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties) was a chaotic time. Accordingly, the development of jade carving was obstructed by war and turmoil. Thus, one rarely sees jades unearthed from Six Dynasties tombs, or even handed down from this time. Because of the scarcity of examples, some scholars have described this period as a low point in the history of Chinese jades. However, as seen in this exhibit those pieces from the Six Dynasties are just as exciting as the earlier Han Dynasty pieces. 

Most of the Six Dynasties pieces known today are animal figures Accordingly, the Han and Six Dynasties animals in this exhibition provide a vivid example of the variety of aesthetic taste extant in the two periods as seen in exhibits 7, 8, 9 and 13.

The Flourishing Period 

The next period, comprised of the Sui, Tang Song, Liao and Jin dynasties, will be called the "Flourishing Period of Chinese Jade". The Tang Dynasty was a time of power and prosperity in Chinese history, an era when the economy developed, domestic society stabilized, foreign relations strengthened and literature and art thrived, Arts and crafts flourished during the Tang Jade carving no less than ceramics (especially sancai pottery), textiles, precious metalwork and lacquerware surpassed previous levels of artistry, technique and scale of production. Tang jade carvers pursued a realistic style.greatly influencing the further development of jade jade sign during the Song. 

The Tang proved to be a momentous time in the history of changing taste in Chinese jadework. as Professor Fu Zhongmo points out:

“Tang Dynasty jade carving developed with an emphasis on realism, breaking away completely from the patterns and custom of prinitive simplicity that was the legacy of the Han, and before it the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, Tang jade carving was increasingly tied to the sculpture and painting of the time, and its artistic level rose greatly.”

Such tendencies are most visible in exhibits #18, a magnificent bull's head rhylon, and #21, a playful monkey figure. Song taste is founded in this type of realism, and is characterized by emphasis on everyday life and common customs. The great change in artistic values came as jade took on a new look, one that conveyed the richness of life, as can be seen in the exhibits human figures, such as the messenger, #24, and the seated boy, #25.

From a technical point of view, Song skills in jade carving took a great leap forward. Aside from adding greater depth and detail to the ornamental engraving, Song jade carvers employed a technique sometimes called jiaozuo, or artful carving. This technique took advantage of the shape and color of the raw jade, emphasizing designs that highlight the natural beauty of the stone. Exhibit #28, a bird in white jade with brown markings, is a fine example of such ingenious work.

Of course, the word "carving" should he qualified. The process by which jade is shaped is actually one of drilling and polishing (zhuomo in Chinese)in which a number of different tools are employed. Since there is no one-word equivalent for the term zhuomo in English, I have followed J.P Palmer's example and used the word "carving". Carving here describes the artwork itself, rather than the specific technical process. 

Another interesting phenomenon which should be mentioned are the archaistic jades, done in imitation of the Three Dynasties styles Accompanying the rise of Neo-Confucianism-the Song and Ming idealist reworking of Confucian philosophy -jade carvings done in the style of the ancients became popular This trend continued through the Qing Dynasty.

The Period of Stable Development 

Finally, the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties can be described as the "Period of Stable Development in Chinese Jade." During the Ming, skills in jade carving again progressed, particularly in Suzhou and Hangzhou in the south and Beijing in the north. Jade workshops were established in these areas and others around groups of skilled craftsmen. Ming artistic style and taste on one hand continued the Song affection for the subject matter based in daily life and popular customs- many human or animal figures can be found among jade works of the period. On the other hand, Ming "carved" lines possess a new strength, with corners and edges delineated more clearly(as can be seen in the luxuriant lines of exhibit #42, a fu dog with its pup).

During the Qing, the court commissioned jades in unprecedented quantities, and the size of individual pieces reached grand proportions Technically, further progress was made in ornamentation and in the refinement of design. Qing jade carving reached its peak and maturation in the era from Qianlong's reign through the early days of the Jiaqing emperor (i.e. 1736 through the early 1800s.) Qing jade carving by and large looked to other arts such as painting, calligraphy, sculpture and craft-work for reference, Qing jade carvers were also distinguished by their study of the style and technique of jades produce abroad. particularly Hindustan(sometimes called Moghul) jades.

From this summary account we can catch a glimpse of the breadth and great length of the continuous development of Chinese jade work. a history in which each period possesses its own distinctive styles and taste The study of the historical change of aesthetic taste allows for unending pleasure, moreover, only after appreciating Chinese jade can we understand and Its place as the emblem of Chinese civilization. 

Associate Professor Jixiang Peng 

Director. Art Institute 

Peking University 

New York City

July 1994

This English translation of the Chinese scholarly article was originally published in “A Private Collection of Early Chinese Jade Carvings”, Weisbrod Chinese Art Ltd, New York, 1994.



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