Works of Art

The handling of jades causes them to change colour over time – the alteration can be even more pronounced with burial. Examples often transform beyond recognition from their original appearance.

This year’s exhibition features several of these objects, from a Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) pig (no. 13) and a Neolithic period (2500-2000 BCE) bi-disc streaked by yellow (no. 2) that have completely calcified, to a glorious Han dynasty bi-disc (no. 17) from the collection of the eminent Taiwan collector C. F. Wu, which displays an array of colours that are an outcome of contact with other materials during burial. Some objects can be translucent, while others are completely opaque but with shades of colour that seem utterly unnatural, such as the deep red high-collared disc (no. 6) partially covered in a buff tone and the highly polished mottled low-collared disc (no. 7) (sometimes referred to as T-section rings, arm or wrist ornaments) both from the Western Zhou period (1046-771 BCE). The two sides of this disc display different colours as a result of exposure to different minerals and organic elements. The earliest collared discs appeared in Henan province at around 1500 BCE and later in Hunan province and at Sanxingdui and Jinsha in Sichuan province.

Jade animal carvings from the Han period are rare, and Jessica Rawson points out in Chinese Jade Animals that, ‘…it would appear likely that three-dimensional jade animals belonged exclusively to members of these Imperial families and the high aristocracy.’ (p. 23) While animals in other materials such as pottery and bronze were placed in tombs as protection in the afterlife, jade carvings were rarely included. One such tomb with jade animals was that of Emperor Yuandi in Xianyang, Shaanxi province. Jessica Rawson and John Ayres note in Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages, the reason for this scarcity of jades in tombs may well be ‘because the material has been so highly valued that such small animals in jade may have been seldom buried or were among the first to be looted, for they appear but rarely in excavations’ (p. 14). Above ground, particularly in southern China, monumental stone creatures were produced to guard tomb mounds from the 3rd to the 6th century; extant examples are found near present-day Nanjing.

I am particularly pleased to include two jade bixie of the highest quality. These mythical, lion-like animals were believed to possess supernatural powers that can ward off evil and attract good fortune. The first is a highly translucent Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–8 CE) white-and russet-flecked jade bixie (no. 20) from a well-regarded Hong Kong collector. Powerfully carved in a prowling position, its fierce expression and movement together with the strongly polished white stone are typical features of the period.

The second jade carving is a yellow colour and has the movement, detail and polish expected of a work from the late Eastern Han to early Six Dynasties (25-589 CE). Very close in style and detail to an example from the Arthur Sackler Collection illustrated in Rawson and Ayres (ibid.), this example has exceptional pedigree, having been in the collection of the best-selling author Lady Mary Stewart (1916–2014), who purchased the jade from Hugh Moss at Sydney L. Moss Ltd. in the late 1960s.

Two other Eastern Han to Six Dynasties (25-581 CE) carvings of bixie are from the same collection as catalogue no. 20; one is in rock crystal (no. 22) and the other in bronze (no. 23). They are identical in size and style, but the hardstone animal exhibits the highest calibre of carving, with a palpable movement and power. There is increasing appreciation for rock crystals as well as other hardstones after they were overlooked for many years. In Sparkling Splendours, Roger Chow remarks:

… down to the Warring States period when extravagant living was most sought after, there was an enormous demand for jade or jade-like materials and beautiful carvings. Aesthetic appeal was the primary objective. With such a favourable backdrop, rock crystal and agate from Eastern Zhou onward gradually established their role and significance in the Chinese society and the world of Chinese art (p. 30).

Rock crystal and agate are harder than jade and therefore more difficult to carve.

The higher skills demanded for sawing, shaping, grinding, drilling and polishing rock crystals and agates will then [be] applied to jades, thus greatly improved the techniques and productivity of jade carving. The impact of rock crystal and agate on ancient Chinese jade carving industry is certainly a significant one (ibid.).

Along with the theme of early jade carvings are presented unusual materials such as a bone handle (no. 3) from the Liangzhu Culture (circa 2500 BCE), reminiscent of jade carvings of that period, and a Northern and Southern Dynasties (386-589 CE) jade hairpin surmounted by a bone carving of a kneeling foreigner wearing a tall hat (no. 26). Late in this period and just before the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), there was an influx of immigrants from Central Asia. The Tang dynasty, often referred to as China’s golden age, brought unprecedented trade along the Silk Road and thus one often comes across curious objects from this period, such as the tiny coloured glass beads shaped in the form of Buddha heads (nos. 27, 28, 29 & 30). Distinctive in style and heavily influenced by Indian Buddhist art or Gandharan sculpture, they are similar to figures in the paintings of the Dunhuang caves, indicating they were also probably produced in Western China or Xinjiang.

Finally, we highlight two jade animals from the Song to early Ming period (13th-early 15th century). The first is a model of a qilin (no. 34), finely carved and of the most unusual style, comparable only to bronzes of similar form. The animal has some russet coloration due to its burial at some earlier point in time. The second is a dark russet-flecked jade model of a seated mythical beast (no. 35) from the Edward T. Chow Collection. The size, immaculate detail and quality of stone chosen, along with the subject, point to a Song dynasty date. It is carved with a sensitivity and precision that only a top craftsman would have possessed during that period.

Nader Rasti
August 2015