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The Mystery of Jade

Updated: Nov 4, 2018

The word “jade” communicates a sense of mystery. In Chinese, “jade” ( 玉 ) refers to a fine, beautiful stone with a warm color and rich luster that is skillfully and delicately carved. In Chinese culture, jade symbolizes nobility, perfection, constancy, and immortality. A variety of salubrious and magical qualities have also been associated with jade, and even today jade is widely worn to ward off bad luck and promote inner energy or chi (*). For millennia, jade has been as intimate part of the lives of Chinese of all ranks and classes, and has throughout Chinese history been 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. “ In various polished and carved forms, jade plays many roles in Asian cultures. 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 center, called a pi ( 璧 ), was carved to honor the spirits of earth. According to ancient Chinese legend, the phoenix and the dragon are animal deities that are the life-source of family clans. For this reason, jade was often used as material for carving phoenixes and dragons worn as ornaments. These ornaments symbolized the noble bearing of a gentleman, and are the origins of the Chinese saying: “The gentleman’s morals are like jade.”

Indeed, the Chinese character for self-cultivation, li, ( 理 〕, is the ancient character for carving jade. From the dawn of Chinese history, jade has been likened the human personality: beautiful but rough in essence, difficult to shape, yet capable, through painstaking work and diligent artistry, of transformation into a work of matchless beauty.

Jade is an essence produced through the natural forces of rivers and mountains over eons. However, if it is not skillfully cut and polished, there is no way for the potential richness and luster than people prize to be realized. The Chinese have a saying that goes, “If jade is not properly cut, it cannot become a useful item. “Cutting is an important step in the process of producing jade articles.

The manufacture of Chinese jade was already highly developed by the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th century B.C.). The Chinese of 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 (220 B.C. to 206 A.D.), Chinese jades reached a second peak in their development. Artists had at their disposal more advanced tools and efficient methods of polishing jade and created masterpieces unsurpassed even today. One technique involved carving an article with several components out of a single piece of jade, demonstrating the high sophistication of the artists’ mastery. From this point on, jade artists could handle practically any technical demand in their craft.

The development of jade utensils after the Sung (960-1279 A.D.) and Yuan (1279-1388 A.D.) dynasties tended towards pure 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 other reasons. Such articles included writing-brush holders, writing-brush washers, water cups, armrests, and red ink paste boxes for name chops. Fine and exquisite

workmanship endowed each piece with richness, luster 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.

In 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 aristocrats; just about everyone in the developed world 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 mankind’s quest for beauty and cultivation

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