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The word “jade” communicates a sense of mystery. In Chinese, jade refers to a fine, beautiful stone with a warm colour and rich luster, that is skilfully and delicately carved. In Chinese culture, jade symbolises nobility, perfection, constancy, and immortality.
For millennia, jade has been an intimate part of the lives of Chinese of all ranks and classes, and it is viewed as the most valuable of all precious stones. Jade is found in mountains and riverbeds, and Chinese consider jade to be “the essence of heaven and earth”.
When polished and carved into various articles, jade is attributed with certain cultural characteristics. In ancient Chinese cosmology, the firmament was considered to be round, and the earth square. Thus, a round jade ceremonial ornament with a hole in the centre, called a pi was carved to honour the gods of heaven, and a long hollow jade ornament with rectangular sides, called a ts’ung, was made to honour the spirits of earth.
According to ancient Chinese legend, the phoenix and the dragon are animal deities that were the life-source of family clans. For this reason, jade was often used as a material for carving phoenixes and dragons worn as ornaments. These ornaments symbolised the noble bearing of a gentleman, and are the origin of the Chinese saying, “The gentleman’s morals are like jade.” Sacrificial and auspicious articles were used in ancient institutionalised rites, and are generally referred to as “ritual utensils”. Sacrificial utensils were used in offerings to ancestors or in paying ceremonial respect to the gods of heaven and earth. We know from archaeological remains that people of the Neolithic Era carved a great number of round pi and rectangular ts’ung for use as sacrificial utensils. The concept of a round heaven and rectangular earth, which eventually became deeply ingrained in the Chinese mind, may have first emerged around this time.
“Auspicious utensils” were carried or worn by the nobility as symbols of their office or authority. For example, jade axes and spades later evolved into kuei, elongated pointed tablets of jade. When the “son of heaven”, or emperor, dispatched a duke, prince, or other
official for external duty, he would give him a “tablet of authority” to proclaim the task assigned to him by the “son of heaven”.
The traditional function of ritual jade utensils gradually began to wane after the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), when only a small number of sacrificial jade utensils were used in ceremonial rites led by the emperor.
“The living wear jade as a symbol of their moral integrity, and jade accompanies the deceased to comfort their souls”. Over four thousand years ago in China, great quantities of jade utensils were often laid over or around a casket, particularly the pi, representing the round heaven, and the ts’ ung, signifying the rectangular earth. They were a symbolic link of communication between heaven and earth, of exchange between man and the spiritual world. Later, jade articles were carved specifically for burial with the dead, based on the idea that the jade’s qualities of nobility, perfection, constancy, and immortality would prevent the physical body from decay. Examples of jade objects for burial use are a thin, light jade cicada which was placed in the mouth of the dead, and a thick, round jade piglet, which was enclosed in a hand of the deceased.
A cicada goes under the ground and is “reborn” after shedding its skin; and a pig breeds quickly, thus increasing wealth. Thus natural motifs are used to express human desires for reincarnation or increased wealth for one’s family. The development of jade utensils after the Sung (960-1279 A.D.) and Yuan (1271-1368 A.D.) dynasties tended more towards pure craftsmanship and artistry. Except for a small number of ritual jade utensils set out by the emperor in sacrificial rites, the carving of large quantities of jade utensils in this era is attributable mainly to their sophisticated aesthetic appeal.
The majority of carved jade items were ornamental in nature, including pieces for display and items for personal use. But ornamental jade display pieces were also used for reasons. Such articles included brush holders, brush washers, water cups, armrests, and red ink paste boxes.
Fine and exquisite workmanship endowed each piece with richness, lustre, and delicacy, reflecting the high quality of life aspired to by the Chinese. Jade items for personal use included combs, hairpins, bracelets, and waist pendants. Jade ornaments were also set in walking sticks, waist sashes, garments, and caps. Jade ornaments have remained popular up until the present day.
Today in the Republic of China, the purchase, wearing, and giving of jade items as gifts is still very common. Jade is viewed as an ideal gift for couples making a mutual commitment and for one’s children when they get married. Even now, the Chinese retain the idea that in addition to being beautiful, jade can protect from misfortune and bring good luck.
Jade is an essence produced through the natural forces of rivers and mountains over eons. However, if it is not skilfully cut and polished, there is no way for the potential richness and
luster that people prize to be expressed.
The Chinese have a saying that goes, “if jade is not properly cut, it cannot be made into a useful utensil”. Cutting is an important step in the process of producing jade articles.
The manufacture of Chinese jade articles was already highly developed by the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th century B.C.). The Chinese, in this period, had the technology to produce jade articles of every imaginable type, shape, and size. By the end of the Chou Dynasty (11th century to 256 B.C.) and the beginning of the Han Dynasty, Chinese jades reached a second peak in their development. Craftsmen had at their disposal more advanced tools and efficient methods of polishing jade and creating unsurpassed masterpieces. One technique involved carving an article with several linked components out of a single piece of jade, demonstrating the high sophistication of the craftsman’s mastery. From this point on, jade craftsmen could accommodate practically any and every customer demand in their work. In the Republic of China today, the art of jade carving has reached yet another summit in its development.
Traditional forms and modern styles are combined into striking new creations, and modern technology has greatly elevated the quality of workmanship. No longer is jade for the exclusive use of emperors and noblemen; just about everyone in the In the Republic of China has the means to own and wear jade.
Beyond maintaining its historical role, jade artistry has been further developed with creativity and skill, and has become an indispensable part of everyday life. Jade remains an eternal symbol of China’s magnificent civilisation.