Jade, mined since antiquity, has acquired special meaning in Chinese culture. It is said that jade contains the essence (jingying) of the mountains. Jing here refers to jade as a mysterious substance imbued with spiritual and magical properties (jingling). It has been an object of veneration with sacrifices made to it. Through worshipping the spirit of jade, humans received blessings and staved off calamities.
In the course of making tools from jade, early humans discovered that its fine texture and beautiful colors made it suitable for decorative ornaments. The three basic elements of jade culture in prehistoric times were beauty, spirituality, and auspiciousness. Beginning in historic times, as society advanced, the symbolic meaning of jade was extended to include “virtue.” The idea of “virtue” in the Western Zhou dynasty (ca. 1100–771 BCE) encompassed prescribed behavioral practice.
The development of Chinese jade ware moved through six periods and ages: formative, growth, evolution, development, maturity, and then finally, the golden age. Chinese jade work originated in the early Neolithic period about 10,000 years ago. It underwent a formative period of more than 6,000 years, during which early people came to view jade as a “spiritual object.” In addition to imitating the shapes of various tools, a large number of jade pieces were cut and polished into objects which were used to consolidate theocratic and secular rule. This formed the first peak of jade artistry. Of all the arts and crafts, jade work matured earlier than any other.
The growth period of jade, the Xia (ca. 2100–ca. 1600 BCE), Shang (ca. 1600–ca. 1100 BCE), and Zhou (ca. 1100–256 BCE) dynasties, was dominated by a great sense of symbolism. Flat pieces, with simple, symmetrical, and dignified designs are known as Shang “imperial court jade” and a fair amount has been discovered. Jade pendants were very popular in the Western Zhou dynasty, and society would compare a man’s virtue to jade saying that “a gentleman always wears his jades unless there is a compelling reason not to.” These jade pendants were mostly in a semicircular shape (huang), and were made of small jade pieces.
Starting in the Spring and Autumn (770–476 BCE), and the Warring States (475–221 BCE) periods, jade work entered a period of evolution; the designs, mostly on small pieces of jade, began to change. The designs were fine, detailed and carried symbolic meaning. Realism began to emerge during the Warring States period. If one divides Chinese ancient jade into two stages—arts and crafts, and plastic arts—the starting point is the Spring and Autumn, and the Warring States periods, and its watershed is the Qin and Han dynasties.
The period of development occurred during the Qin (221–206 BCE), Han (206 BCE–220 CE), and the Six Dynasties (420–589). It was an era of overall development for ornamental and burial jades. Han emperors believed that being buried with jade made the body incorruptible. The manufacture of these “burial jades” reached unprecedented heights during this time. The quality of the burial objects such as the cicadas and pigs was superb, and the carving and craftsmanship were extremely fine. A few simple cuts show the outline of the cicada and pig, which appear almost lifelike. Collectors call this type of carving the “eight cuts of the Han.”
The florescent period refers to the Sui (581–618), Tang (618–907), Song (907–1279), Liao (916–1125), and Jin (1115–1234) dynasties. Buddhist images predominated during this time. Shortly after it arrived in China during the Eastern Han (25–220), Buddhism was integrated into Chinese culture and society. Buddhist jade carvings can be divided into two categories: images of Buddhist beings, and ritual implements. The flying Apsara, a beloved and popular image in Buddhist art, belongs to the former category.
The golden age came in the Yuan (1271–1368), Ming (1368–1644), and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties. Jade objects of the Yuan dynasty are less constrained and bolder in design than earlier pieces. After the middle of the Ming dynasty, craftsmen discontinued the Yuan style, and jade objects were crudely produced for commercial purposes. Craftsmen in the Qing dynasty continued the archaizing style of the mid and late Ming, and the jade objects were gracefully and delicately produced. Both artistic value and productivity had reached new historical heights. However, as the Qing court began to decline so too did jade art. By 1911, when the last Qing emperor abdicated, Qing dynasty jade art was gone forever.
Nephrite and jadeite are the stones most often referred to as jade. Nephrite, a very rare mineral, is found in large deposits in Xinjiang. Jadeite deposits, on the other hand, are found in the northwestern regions of Burma. Jadeite emerged in China beginning in the Han dynasty, and became popular in the late Qianlong period (r. 1736–1795) of the Qing dynasty. The quality of jade is graded based on its texture, color, and size.