A hard stone of magnificent colours, jade was once considered a product of heaven and has been carved by the Chinese since prehistoric times.
The Chinese have cherished jade for thousands of years. Considered the most desirable of stones, jade has long been associated with the mystical powers that heal, bring good luck and bestow immortality.
Jade is the name for two hard and colourful minerals known as nephrite and jadeite. Both are semi-precious stones, hard enough to resist being scratched with a steel blade, but they are chemically distinct substances that vary in colour; shades of white, brown, yellow, green, grey-green (celadon), and even red-grey or black are all found in jade.
ORIGINS OF CHINESE JADE
Although China has the richest tradition of jade carving, the raw material is usually imported. For 700 years nephrite has come primarily from the mountains of Chinese Turkestan and jadeite is quarried in Upper Burma by fire-setting, a primitive method where open fires are started and are allowed to burn 11 day before being extinguished at dusk. The cold of the night causes the stone to crack into smaller pieces.
The jade then goes to the carver who studies, handles and taps it to listen to the ring, before beginning to shape it. The earliest carved jade dates back to prehistoric times, a period that saw the beginning of the connection between jade and immortality. Many ancient pieces have been burned or calcified and have a somewhat chalky quality - they are known a 'chicken-bone' jade.
Carvers in the Qianlong period (1736-95) regularly rendered animals in jade, some of which held great symbolic meaning. The water buffalo, for instance, was thought to be a river god and the horse symbolized a sign of the zodiac. The mythological Chinese dragon was dramatic and very popular.
Objects were often practical as well as decorative. Scholars' table items such as palettes, table screens which protected and steadied the scroll, amd ink pots were occasionally made in jade. Jade incense burners had pierced tiers to allow the aromas to escape into the air.
The Qianlong era also saw the introduction of a new way of decorating jade. With the establishment of an Indian School of Jade-cutters in Beijing, Chinese craftsmen learned how to inlay fine tracery and set jewels against a gold foil. They then used their new-found techniques to produce a Chinese form of richly embellished 'Indian style' items.
With such a long history and such a large variety of exquisite pieces available, it is no wonder that many Chinese kept jade in their homes or carried it on their persons in the form of a pendant or other jewellery. They believed, too, that frequent contemplation of carved (especially white ) jade, could cultivate virtue and expel evil thoughts from the mind.
In any collection of Chinese relics, ornaments made from jade have a special importance. Jade was regarded as the most desirable of stones by the Chinese, who thought that it was imbued with mystical properties.
In Chinese culture animals have a special significance. The belief that 'not only man but animals, flowers and grasses... are possessed of some degree of intelligence' means that animals are not inferior to humans. It is this belief that gives Chinese animal carvings a particular charm and humour of their own.
Those animals which feature time and again in jade carvings are birds, fish, dragons and lions. However, the style in which these animals are carved differs with each historical period. The Ming horse, for example, is naturalistic, sleek and simple, whereas the famous lions and dogs of the later dynasties can be imaginatively and meticulously detailed.
Often the animals are set in a human context and are carved with recognisable facial expressions. For example, there are birds gathered in groups as if they are talking together, or a man and his dog in obvious friendship. Other pieces, like winged mythological beasts, take on a symbolic weight. They signify flight to the
after-world and immortality which, according to Chinese belief, waits for animals as well as humans.
A common category of animal carvings is small 'handling' or pocket pieces. These were used in much the same way as some Arab cultures use 'worry beads', to be fingered distractedly as a form of adult pacifiers.
In addition to animals, a wide variety of objects has been made from jade. Vases, jugs and bowls are common, as are statues, boxes and jewellery.
While many of the early 16th and 17th century pieces were made from heavy-set white jade and often embellished with carved and mythological animals (symbols of emperors and
empresses), later pieces were lighter and more delicate with less symbolic patterning.
In the 18th century when jadeite was at its newest and most popular, many exquisite boxes and items of jewellery were carved. Objects of the period feature various forms of carved relief. Shallow reliefs of stylized designs can be found on elegant vases of the Qianlong period (1736-95), while other items such as brushpots and table screens may feature more narrative, heavily worked scenes and inscriptions. Another fascinating category is jade statuary. Pieces were often carved to depict different styles and ways of life in other cultures, including Westerners as seen Chinese eyes.
JADE COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Jade is not always what it appears. Copying has been rife since before the 15th century, so it is necessary to know a few facts before becoming a serious collector.
Jadeite, the jade with a greener tint, was not used in China before the 18th century so any given an earlier attribution is suspect. Some nephrite and jadeite can be dyed to 'improve' the colour and increase its value. Another ruse is dipping jade in tea, which stains it and makes it appear antique.
Similarly, if jade is burnt it turns a cloudy or opaque white or grey, sometimes acquiring a pink tinge. This type of jade is known as 'chicken-bone' jade and may then be passed off as old or antique. To test for this, hold the jade up to the light - it should have a translucent quality. If it is still rose-coloured, the piece may be made from another stone, such as rose quartz or rhodonite. Jadeite or nephrite is seldom pink.
Craftsmen of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) were some of the first to alter jade and imitate the darker work of the past by applying brown and black stains, or even paint. But an expert can usually tell a fake by looking at the carving with a magnifying glass. By this method, too, someone who really knows about jade should be able to determine its age.
'New' jade is a term which applies to everything that looks a little like jade but is not. 'Beijing' jade, for example, is likely to be pink rhodonite, and 'new' jade is probably serpentine - a semi-precious material which is easier to carve than real jade and less valuable.
Remember that jade is one of the hardest workable materials. Other stones, for example soapstone, may look similar, but the surface can be scratched with a fingernail. However, you should avoid the popular trick of trying to cut jade with a knife - it is not always reliable, as some other minerals are as hard, and the blade may cause damage.