The Chinese exalted jade. Their name for it, “yu,” means “pure” and “valuable.” Chinese poet T’ang Jung-two wrote: “The magic power of heaven and earth are combined to form perfect results; so the pure essences of hill and water become solidified into precious jade.”

Jade amulets were popular in China; women wore jade earrings, necklaces, and rings. Because the Chinese viewed jade with such reverence, they rarely used it for something purely utilitarian. However, a vase, cup, plate, bowl, or snuff bottle gave Chinese artists – masters of jade carving – the opportunity to combine utility with art.

Some 250 stunning examples of their craftsmanship are showcased in an exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, “Jade: Ch’ing Dynasty Treasures from the National Museum of History, Taiwan,” through Sept. 7. Many of the works, which are from Taiwan’s national museum and private collections, have never been seen before in North America.

Soft and hard jade. What we call “jade” really is two types of stone: nephrite, with a soft look and feel of wax; and jadeite, hard and sparkling like ice. The difference between soft and hard jade lies in the chemical and mineral structure. The range of nephrite colors includes white, grayish white, green, dark green, yellow, and black and can be opaque or semi-translucent. Of the materials used in Chinese jade carving, nephrite has the longest history.

Jadeite, called ying-yu (hard jade) or “ts’ui-yu” (white and green jadeite), is a tough material. It’s also called “fei-ts’ui,” derived from “fei,” an ancient name for a male red bird, and “ts’ui,” a female green bird.

Suitably cut, jadeite emits a clear musical tone when struck and maintains vibrations for a long time. Thus, it frequently was used to manufacture bells, sounding plates, and tubes. Jadeite has a fine variety of colors, from black through brown to green and white.

Jade of varied colors was used for the six precious tables in Chinese worship of the four cardinal points of heaven and earth. Lapis lazuli was used for sky and red coral for a sacrifice at the altar of sun, but yellow jade was used for earth and white jade for ceremonies before the altar of the moon.

The Ch’ing Dynasty exhibit. The Han Dynasty (206 b.c.-20 a.d.) is considered the height of jade carving in China. But during the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644-1912), artisans created much larger and more intricate carvings. In this era, a Hindustani influence emerged and jadeite, a rare material found only in newly conquered Burma, was introduced.

Among the treasures on display in Houston is a gorgeously decorated Hindustani cup, inlaid with jewels, with the elegance and refinement typical of the high craftsmanship devoted to “yu.” There is a Hindustani-style white nephrite teapot that may have played an essential role in the tea ceremony of royalty. Hindustani jade carving, such as a white nephrite cup in the shape of a chrysanthemum petal, is unique and distinct from traditional Chinese carvings.

Some pieces in the exhibit required years of patient work. One example is a necklace typical of those worn by Ch’ing Dynasty officials – a string of 108 beads of sandalwood, coral, and jadeite.

A carved table screen from the Ch’ien-ling period (1736-1795) with gold script on 10 slim tablets of gray-green nephrite extols the virtues of Emperor Ch’ien-lung, who gave the dynasty its name. The double-sided tablets, mounted in carved wood frames hinged to form a screen, praise the virtues of his reign. The screen honors the emperor for his military prowess and wise judgment.

Other pieces include a white and green belt buckle made of jadeite. The buckle is deeply carved and reveals mountains receding into the distance and lush, green landscape with people and pavilions. A multitude of lovely snuff bottles are beautifully decorated.

Some items in the collection symbolize the divine. A lavender-green jadeite vase decorated with flowers and birds is similar to those that for thousands of years embodied the “spirit of heaven” for the Chinese. Kuan-Yi – the goddess of mercy – was frequently the subject of carvings made in palace workshops. The exhibit features a green jadeite Kuan-Yi holding water jugs.

Among the many figures on display is a unicorn with bovine hooves and a lion’s tail – a mystical, auspicious creature in China. It’s remarkable to see how the stone, a tough material, is worked into complicated forms and elaborately carved.

“Mountain with Six Imperial Poems” is a carving that demonstrates the artist’s reverence for jade. Further evidence of the material’s lofty status is “Nine Tribute Ruyi Scepters,” a gift from the King of Vietnam to the Emperor Ch’ien-lung on the 15th year of his reign (1750).

The breathtaking items in the collection vividly demonstrate the appeal of jade to Chinese artists as well as poets. Li’Chi’ extolled the gem in a classic work:

“Benevolence lies in its gleaming surface

Knowledge in its luminosity

Uprightness in its unyieldingness.

Power in its harmlessness

Eternity in its durability

Moral leadership in the fact that it goes

from hand to hand without being sullied.”

Other Classic Stone Carvings

Quartz or rock crystal, because of its transparency and hardness, was known as “waterjade” (“shuijing”) in ancient times. Though the mineral is not part of the jade family, its superb transparency and prismatic qualities led to its use for eyeglass lenses and watch crystals. In the past, it was used mostly for plates and vases. Because carvers produced dramatic shapes, quartz became one of the most important stones in jade carving tradition.

Agate (“manao”), also a quartz, was both imported and native to China. It has been used since the Neolithic period for necklaces because of its brilliant color and rich grain. Lapis lazuli, not native to China, has a deep blue color called “blue gold,” very popular in necklaces. Lapis lazuli may contain golden pyrite, “golden square waves,” while lighter blue stones contain calcite used in ancient China as inlay stones for burial items.

Turquoise, ranging from blue to bluish-green, has been used in China since the Neolithic period. Mainly imported from Persia through Turkey, it was called “Turkish stone.” In recent years, turquoise has been discovered in China and is now used for inlay. In the Ch’ing Dynasty, turquoise was carved into figurines, brush rests, and other objects to decorate scholars’ studios.

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