The jade stone used since ancient times in China is nephrite, a crystalline calcium magnesium silicate, which in its pure state is white but may be green, cream, yellow, brown, gray, black, or mottled because of the presence of impurities, chiefly iron compounds. The Chinese used the generic term yu to cover a variety of related jadelike stones, including nephrite, bowenite (a type of serpentine), and jadeite. In the Neolithic Period, by the mid-4th millennium BCE, jade from Lake Tai (in Jiangsu province) began to be used by southeastern culture groups, while deposits along the Liao River in the northeast (called “Xiuyan jade,” probably bowenite) were utilized by the Hongshan culture. In historical times China’s chief source of nephrite has been the riverbeds of Yarkand and Hotan in present-day Xinjiang autonomous region in northwestern China, where jade is found in the form of boulders. Since the 18th century, China has received from northern Myanmar (Upper Burma) a brilliant greenjadeite (also called feicui, or “kingfisher feathers”) that is a granular sodium-aluminum silicate harder than but not quite so tough as nephrite. Having a hardness like that of steel or feldspar, jade cannot be carved or cut with metal tools but has to be laboriously drilled, ground, or sawed with an abrasive paste and rotational or repetitive-motion machinery, usually after being reduced to the form of blocks or thin slabs.
Types of Jade Carvings
Initially, jade carvings were limited to Neolithic and Bronze Age tools, including axes, arrowheads, chisels, and the like.
The ancient Chinese considered the sky to be round and the earth to be square, so they made round and square shaped objects out of jade, in order to offer sacrifices to heaven and earth. Popular animal shapes included the dragon and phoenix - both divine animals revered in ancient China. Jade was also used for tomb objects carved to honour ancestors, exorcise evil, and protect against disasters, while personal jade items were worn in order to purify one's soul.
Later, Jade became a favourite material of the Chinese scholar class, especially for personal objects, like holders for calligraphy brushes, and even mouthpieces for opium pipes, due to the popular notion that they would bestow longevity on the smoker.
Other categories of jade objects included: (1) Ritualistic objects, such as the bi, the cong, the huang, the hu, the gui and the zhang. (2) Ceremonial weaponry - jade daggers and swords - and associated fittings. (3) Personal items of jewellery or adornment, including rings, pendants, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, hairpins, clasps, buckles, belt decorations, and so on. (4) Domestic items for decorating houses. (5) Small figurative carvings of animals, and people.
The term 'jade' is actually a catch-all term that encompasses two separate minerals: nephrite, which is more opaque and traditionally used for sculptural objects and ornaments; and jadeite, which is more translucent and can be polished to a high lustre, making it more suitable for jewellery.
Junkunc: Chinese Jade Carvings
More than 60 jades from the renowned collection of Stephen Junkunc, III (d. 1978) reflect the development of jade carving in China from the Neolithic period to the Qing dynasty. Highlights include a finely carved Ming dynasty celadon and russet jade ‘boy and buffalo’ group, an exceedingly rare and large Qianlong period yellow and russet jade ‘mythical beast’ and an important white jade seal from the Daoguang period.
Jade, also known as nephrite, is an extraordinarily hard material requiring specialized tools and techniques in order to be carved. This physical quality has yielded two important cultural consequences for jade’s market and use, starting in the Neolithic period: first, that it has historically been crafted exclusively for an elite audience who could command the labor required to work the stone; and second, that it is extremely durable, possessing the power to withstand time and degradation, and therefore has a strong association with permanence. For these reasons, since antiquity jade articles have been included in elite tombs to accompany the deceased on their eternal passage, and in later periods jade was crafted into the image of deities and related symbols of immortality. The present selection of jades from the Junkunc Collection includes examples of jades crafted with the idea of immortality in mind.
Animals have been a favorite subject for Chinese craftsmen, including jade carvers, from antiquity to the present. Some species were esteemed for the important roles they played in Chinese civilization, such as buffaloes for agriculture and horses for warfare. Yet, others were chosen for their auspicious associations, such as benevolent mythical beasts, or quotidian creatures like butterflies (fudie) and goats (yang) whose names bear a phonetic relationship to the words for ‘fortune and longevity’ and ‘positive energy’, respectively. The present selection of jades from the Junkunc Collection offers a survey of the types of animals that were depicted by Chinese carvers over the millennia and manner in which they were represented in each period.