Jades from Traditional China

Chinese jade is a new field in the study of world art and global culture. The enormous strides China has taken in opening the field of jade art to world expertise are evident in the overwhelming number of discoveries made through excavations, mostly of Neolithic date but also of early historic Xia, Shang and Zhou. Archaeology even involves later dynasties that end with the Qing in 1911. Archaeological discoveries of jades have been both geographically broad, in representing most of today's political map of China, and novel in documenting new jade types that heretofore were not known to exist. New finds have allowed greater study of jade technology, particularly the process of working jade, both before and after the entrance of metal tools that came during the protohistoric Longshan period.


The climax to the sudden deluge of jade finds from new sites in China came this past fall of 1998 when the Centre of Archaeology and Art at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, led by the archaeologist and professor Tang Chung, sponsored an international symposium titled 'East Asian Jade: Symbol of Excellence.' Although the focus of this conference was primarily on the Chinese Neolithic through Han eras, other eras and all cultures outside Of China that
were either influenced by China or influenced China were represented. Over eighty papers were presented by leading experts in the field of early Chinese jade or by archaeologists with ongoing excavations of sites of jade-working cultures. It was eye-opening to learn, for example, about the technical differences between so-called 'soft' nephrite and the harder stone, jadeite, at present known only in the ancient East Asian culture of Japan, and in the
better known Mesoamerican Olmec and Mayan cultures in the West. It was also informative to learn that nephrite from the region of Lake Baikal in Siberian Russia was independently worked as early as the Neolithic. In addition, it was learned that nephrite works of art found in northwest Gansu and Xinjiang provinces were influenced by central Chinese Longshan, Erlitou and still earlier southern Liangzhu cultures.

Perhaps most revolutionary in terms of our understanding of the unique position of jade in East Asia are the finds confirming that early China— initially the Liao and Yangtze River experienced a remarkable 'Jade Age' valleys and gradually the Yellow River valley— comparable to the later Bronze Age. These cultures include Hongshan, Dawenkou and Shandong Longshan in northeast China; Liangzhu in central-south and coastal China; and Erlitou and Shandong-Longshan in central-north China; plus peripheral cultures, such as Binan in Taiwan, Shixia in Guangdong, Sanxingdui in central Sichuan and Qijia in Gansu.
Jade, as with bronze much later in China was the most prominent material employed artistically to symbolize religious and political power during the end of the Stone Age and early historic period. The initial concentration of jade-working cultures in northeastern, coastal-central and south China is culturally impressive, as is the gradual influence of these cultures on all areas covering the present map of China and China's southern neighbor of Vietnam. Evidently rivers were significant avenues of commerce for the highly prized nephrite
jade which came to represent for early China the most significant commodity of elite display and authority.

Newly published finds, although most dramatic in documenting the precocious use of jade at the end of the Stone Age have also been important in documenting the second peak of jade-working that came during the eras of Late Spring and Autumn, Warring States, Han, and Northern and Southern Dynasties, The exquisite beauty of jades from these periods is represented by an enormously large number of recently excavated imperial and aristocratic
tombs. Finds dated to the Spring and Autumn through Warring States periods range all over the map of China: in the north, there are the Guo state cemetery at Sanmenxia and Pingliangtai burials at Huaiyang, both in Henan; the Ancient Lu city cemetery in Changzhi, Shanxi; the Zhongshan state burials in Pingshan county, Hebei and those considered southern, such as the Chu state cemeteries at Xichuan, Henan and Jiangling, Hubei; the Marquis Yi of Zeng burial in Suixian, Hubei; Yenshan burials in Wu county, Jiangsu; the Xinzhou burials at Feng county, Hunan; and the Duke Yang burial at Changfeng county, Anhui, to name just a few, it should not be surprising that the jades from these tombs are surprisingly consistent in type and quality. The three categories of jades most popular in these tombs include firstly, personal adornment in the form of mostly belt buckles and pectoral chains; secondly, fittings for weapons, mostly bronze or iron swords; and thirdly, jade body suits or parts of these.

The list of excavated sites with royal quality jades belonging to the Han, Qin and Northern and Southern Dynasties is just as long. Most attractive have been those jades from the Western Han tomb of the King of Nanyue in Guangzhou, Guangdong province that Peter Lam organized for exhibit in Hong Kong in 1991. The jades unearthed from the environs of the First Emperor of China's residence, Afang Palace in the eastern suburbs of Xian and Weiling mausoleum of Han Emperor Yuan outside Xianyang, Shanxi are equally stellar in terms of quality. The jades from royal Han tombs in many different provinces, ranging from Jiangsu, to far southwestern Guangxi; far northeastern Hebei and Shandong; and southern Hunan are also compelling. What is remarkable about these jades is the consistent high quality and similarity showing that competition in the arts kept the art at a very sophisticated level. Many more jade types belonging to the category of furniture, such as chops and seals, containers of various sorts, small-scale sculptures, furniture attachments, a few archaistic ritual forms, plus the additional three categories of jades cited above appear in larger quantities at this time in the history of Chinese jade.


Jade is literally China's crown jewel. The mastery of its manipulation did not end with the early historic imperial eras. Rather, it continued to be a major art form in all later periods, including the Tang, Liao, Jin, Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. Once on a roll, the deep-seated love for the properties of jade continued to be expressed, unmarred by competition from other artistic media. Most impressive is the fact that jade continued to be worked not only in small-scale proportions to decorate the ends of toggles, as functional receptacles for a scholar's desk, or as vases decorating an aristocrat's residence, but as a
work of art to be enjoyed from a strictly aesthetic point of view. From Tang times on the interest in rebuses and visual punning was prevalent in the arts.

As a consequence of this new literati interest, a whole new variety of animal and human imagery, mythical and imaginative appeared as subjects in jade. Jade also began to be carved as large-scale objects d'art during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The emphasis on aesthetics is well represented in Tang jade finds from the cache at the Hejia village outside of Xian; the royal tombs of Prince Li Jing and Li Zhen in Xian; and Southern Tang burials in Nanjing, Jiangsu; and the burial belonging to Wang Jian in Chengdu, Sichuan. Royal Northern and Southern Song, Liao and Jin dynasty jades have also been recovered from tombs in Beijing, Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang provinces. The contents of the imperial mausoleum of Emperor Wanli at Dingling Beijing and the imperial collection belonging to the Manchu Qing Court collection have also recently been extensively published.

The latter publications make available documented jades of Song through Qing date that can be used for historical analysis. Jades from these later periods may now be more specifically analysed as part of a longer evolution that had its beginning around 5000BCE, during the Neolithic. Assembled here is an array of exquisite jades dating from the Neolithic through the Qing eras. Their individual characteristics highlight the superior quality and unique position of jade-working in traditional China.


Originally written by Dr. Elizabeth Childs-Johnson , and published by Weisbrod Collection (Adapted).