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CHINA'S JADE CULTURE

 
Jade has been revered and fashioned into exquisite ritual objects and artworks for 7000 years in China. Its durability and tactile qualities became metaphors for human virtues and for spiritual realms. It was even ingested as an elixir for immortality.  

Heaven and Earth
Liangzhu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dating to the Neolithic period (3300-2300 BCE), produced jade bi disks and decorated cong cylindrical square objects. They accompanied the deceased into the afterlife but their original symbolism and function are lost. The round bi and the square cong were later associated with the idea that heaven is round and earth is square, a central concept in ancient Chinese cosmology. Theses jades of supreme craftsmanship and beauty are housed in a museum designed by David Chipperfield Architects, in a setting that complements the aesthetic quality of the objects.

Armor for the Afterlife 
During the Han Dynasty (206-BCE-220 CE) members of the nobility were buried in suits made of thousands of pieces of jade tied together with gold, silver, copper or red silk, depending on the person’s status. The jade was believed to prevent the body from decay and preserve the soul. Several Chinese museums exhibit jade suits, including the National Museum in Beijing, Nanjing Museum, Xuzhou Museum, Provincial Museums in Hebei and Henan, and the Museum of the Mausoleum of the Nanyue King in Guangzhou.
   
Emperors and Objets d'Art
The jade objects collected by Chinese emperors over the centuries are masterpieces of sculpture, both miniature and monumental. Some echo the past and were inspired by artifacts from antiquity. Others are feats of ingenuity and embody millennia of skill and admiration for this precious stone. See them in context in the halls of the Forbidden City in Beijing and highlighted in the galleries of the Palace Museum in Taipei.

Confucius and Jade
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; angular, but not sharp and cutting, like righteousness; hanging down (in beads) as if it would fall to the ground, like (the humility of) propriety; when struck, yielding a note, clear and prolonged, yet terminating abruptly, like music; its flaws not concealing its beauty, nor its beauty concealing its flaws, like loyalty; with an internal radiance issuing from it on every side, like good faith; bright as a brilliant rainbow, like heaven; exquisite and mysterious, appearing in the hills and streams, like the earth; standing out conspicuous in the symbol of ranks, like virtue; esteemed by all under the sky, like the path of truth and duty.    

Recommended reading:
Rawson, Jessica. Chinese Jade: From the Neolithic to the Qing,
London: The British Museum Press, 1995.

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Decorated cong, Liangzhu jade,  
(c.2500 BCE). 
Pictured at top: Jade burial suit of Prince Jing of Zhongshan (Liu Sheng), Western Han Dynasty (206 BCE-9 CE). 



 


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