Chinese jade from the collection

Chinese jade from the collectionJade has been prized by the Chinese for over seven thousand years as the most precious of all materials, and has been believed to possess near-magical properties. Its enduring and ageless surface texture came to be associated with immortality, while its abstract qualities represented a pinnacle of simplicity and elegance of design. No other culture has valued jade or any other material for such a length of time, nor indeed accorded any material such literary and philosophical attention. From the middle of the Zhou period (1050-256 BC) onwards, the physical qualities of the stone have served as a metaphor to describe the human soul. According to an ancient text, the Zhou Li, dating to about the fourth century BC:

Anciently superior men found the likeness of
all excellent qualities in jade. Soft, smooth and
glossy, it appeared to them like benevolence;
fine, compact and strong, like intelligence ... its
flaws not concealing its beauty, nor its beauty
its flaws, like loyalty; with internal radiance
issuing from it on every side, like good faith. (1)

In a later text (c. 280-233 BC), the Han Feizi, there is a story about a man called Bian He, who presented an uncut jade to two succeeding kings, neither of whom believed that the rough boulder really contained jade and had his feet amputated as a punishment. He cried out in despair, explaining: 'I am lamenting not the loss of my feet but for the calling a precious gem an ordinary stone and for the dubbing of an honest man a liar.' The treasure inside was then extracted and polished; the moral of the story is still quoted today to illustrate how hard it can be for some people to recognize excellence when it is hidden under a rough exterior. (2)

From June to September 1995, the British Museum displayed an exhibition of jades from the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung. This proved a very popular exhibition, and the British Museum is very fortunate that it is now able to devote a whole gallery to Chinese jade, which opened in November 2002. We are delighted that Sir Joseph Hotung, who has been collecting jades for over thirty years now, has agreed to allow his jades to be exhibited on a long term loan basis. The jades are on in the gallery, room 33B, leading directly off the Hotung Gallery of Oriental Antiquities. This gallery is called the Selwyn and Ellie Alleyne Gallery, after the couple who generously funded the refurbishment of the space. This means that there is now a gallery in the British Museum dedicated to Chinese jade, a material which has been associated with the Chinese since Neolithic times and prized by them above the gold and gems we rank so highly in the West. Sir Joseph's jades are augmented by a few private loans and British Museum jades, together with some comparative material in other media. Jade is still highly prized by the Chinese and we are also showing some twentieth-century pieces to illustrate the fact that good contemporary jade carving still exists in China today.

Jade is a hard and exceptionally tough material, and one line of research is concerned with the manner in which it has been worked and the development of jade carving techniques since Neolithic times. For this reason, at the same time as planning this exhibition, we have also instituted a project in collaboration with our scientific research department. They are conducting an investigation, using optical and scanning electron microscopy, to ascertain different techniques of carving by examining the minute tool marks left on the jades. We hope this will allow a relative chronology for the development of jade carving to be established, perhaps establishing a link between 'style' of carving and 'technology'. The results should also help to establish the date at which objects were carved, a frequent problem in the study of jades. My colleague, Margaret Sax, who is in charge of this project will describe this work later in the article.

When we exhibited Sir Joseph's jades in 1995, I wrote about some of the early pieces in APOLLO, (3) so this time I will focus on some later jades. Sir Joseph's collection of jade, with the exception of a few newly acquired pieces, is illustrated and discussed in great depth by Jessica Rawson in the catalogue printed originally in 1995, which has been reprinted especially for this new exhibition. (4) The exhibition is laid out in a chronological fashion along one wall of the gallery, with various highlights picked out in three cases on the other side: they include a case on the Neolithic culture of the Liangzhu, another devoted to animals and humans from the Han dynasty to the present and a third on the pictorial quality of later jades. (5)

The section on later jades in the chronological part of the display features a jade belt set for a man and a pendant set, probably for a lady. In the post-Han period, jade was widely used for personal ornaments, such as pendants, belt, dress and hair ornaments, jewellery and small objects to hang about the person. In the earlier period of Chinese history, jade played a pivotal role in ceremony and ritual. However, in this later period its significance in such contexts gradually diminished, and it was more important for worldly display than display to spirits in the tombs.

Belt sets were introduced to China from the Steppe area. Gold, silver and gilt bronze examples, comprising a variety of plaques and a buckle section first appeared in the third and fourth centuries AD. These designs were simplified in jade: round or shaped plaques were cut square; openwork or pierced and relief designs were cut as incised lines or simple relief on a flat surface. The constraints imposed by jade as a material did not, however, inhibit its use.

By the Tang dynasty, jade was established at the summit of a hierarchy of materials for belts. Such emphasis on jade was probably in part a consequence of the Tang imperial family's interest in Daoism. Within religious Daoism, jade was used to describe many aspects of the immortal worlds. Once established as the primary material for belts, jade remained at the top of the hierarchy in subsequent dynasties. During the time of our exhibition, 'Gilded Dragons, 1999: Buried treasures from Ancient China', I wrote in APOLLO, about jade belts and various other ornaments which we borrowed from China at that time. (6)

The Tang dynasty complete belt set illustrated here (Fig. 1), belonging to Sir Joseph Hotung, is undecorated; it would have been worn as an indication of rank as stipulated by the regulations of the time, and--since Chinese robes did not have pockets--would have had various implements, including knives, suspended from it. However, it was also very popular during the Tang dynasty, a period of great exoticism in China, when the Silk Route was at its height and there were many foreigners at the imperial court, to decorate such jade plaques with scenes of foreign musicians playing their instruments, and one of these is illustrated here (Fig. 4).


Other jades of the Tang or Liao periods, ninth-tenth century, could also be linked with Daoism. A pair of elegant earrings in a brilliant pure white jade (Fig. 2) are of the luminous quality feted by contemporary poets, but such flying angel figures could be regarded as either Buddhist angels (apsarases) or perhaps jade maidens, inhabitants of the immortal heavens of the Daoist cosmos, where such beings were attendants on the Queen Mother of the West. The stylistic character of the earrings reflects both the influence of Central Asian forms introduced to China from kingdoms further west and their origins in a metal prototype, evident from the fine open work and delicate, incised lines.