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Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Chinese Jade Carving

Jade Carving, the process by which the surface of jade stone (jadeite and nephrite) is embellished through abrasion. The earliest known carved jades were made in China during the New Stone Age, or Neolithic period (circa 4000-c. 2000 bc). Neolithic jades were usually fashioned as blades, although it is unclear whether they served a utilitarian or ceremonial function.

Excavations conducted at sites settled during the Shang dynasty (1570?-1045? bc) have yielded a number of carved jades in a variety of forms. Certain shapes predominate, such as the round disk (pi), the ax (kuei), and a cylindrical tube (tsung). These objects probably served a ritual function, either as symbols of rank or as grave furnishings.

The most beautiful examples of Shang Jade Carving, however, are small sculptures and plaques. The discovery of an undisturbed Shang royal burial in the Anyang area of northern Henan Province has yielded the richest group of Jade Carving to date. The 1976 archaeological excavation of the tomb, which dates from the 1100s BC, revealed plaques depicting dragons and various birds, along with near-miniature sculptures of human figures, mythical creatures, and recognizable animals, including an elephant.

The achievements of the Shang Jade Carving were adopted and ultimately surpassed by artists of the Zhou (Chou) dynasty (1045?-256 bc). Surface decoration became increasingly sophisticated, with openwork featuring birds and dragons, as well as tiny, individually carved curls. The development of the iron drill is probably responsible for the technical advancements seen in the carvings of this period.

Elaborate Jade Carving continued in popularity during the Han dynasty (206 bc-ad220); in addition, a most notable jade artifact was the so-called funerary suit. Various excavations have yielded corpses encased in a jade form made of thousands of rectangular pieces of jade, sewn together with gold thread, and fitted to the body. Other small jades, previously objects for burial, were now fashioned for the uses of the living. Toilet boxes, drinking vessels, and delightful adornments for the scholar's desk have been preserved from the Han period.

The dating of Jade Carving from after the Han dynasty through the Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty (1644-1911) has been highly problematic, as the archaeological evidence is often incomplete. Throughout this period, however, small decorative forms of jade, often depicting animals, flowers, or children, continued in popularity. Tang (T’ang) (618-907) and Song (Sung) (960-1279) carvers favored small figures. Drinking and desk vessels, and jade jewelry as well, were widely produced in the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) epochs.

During the Qing period, particularly in the 18th century, large Jade Carving attained great favor with the emperors and royal officials. Forms were often taken from ancient bronze vessels, reflecting the continuing interest in early art. Landscapes, often paralleling those found on carved bamboo or in paintings, were carefully transcribed onto the surface of enormous jade slabs. Much of this intricacy is still found in Chinese jade work today; traditional design motifs and carving styles also have been retained.

Anne Ahira
Editor The Best Affiliate Newsletter