Jade has been adored and revered by Chinese people since time ancient. From the dawn of civilization, in spite of the formidable tribulations that have fallen upon the Chinese, both sentiment toward jade and the tradition of jade artistry have endured the passage of time and remained undiminished in strength.
Archaeological data indicate that the ancients from seven to eight thousand years ago were acquainted with wondrous and durable nephrite and employed it in fashioning ornaments and grinding weaponry. In addition, they worked with beautiful stones, using them as jade simulants.
During the late Neolithic period, which predates modern society by approximately four to seven thousand years, rulers possessing the important powers in matters of religion and the military created the worship object from jade to worship the deities and ancestors. To honor the Spirit of the Heaven and Earth the round pi disk (璧) and square ts'ung (琮) tube were designed to accommodate the belief that the heaven was round and the earth square. They believed that the lives of their forefathers originated with God and were mediated through supernatural beings. They accordingly depicted on these jade objects their visualizations of these divine images, and went so far as to incise meaningful markings as a form of worship. Relying upon jade's unique qualities of material, form, ornamentation, and markings, they sought to command mystical forces in the hope of communicating with the spiritual realm and partaking of divine wisdom.
The status of an individual in ancient society was determined by his perceived degree of association with the supernatural. The ritual (禮 li ) for worship established channels of communication between the profane and spiritual worlds and promoted harmonious relations in society. The authority object stood as an emblem of the ruler's power and status. Originating in the late Neolithic, the Hsia(夏), Shang(商), and Chou (周) dynasties. this authority object and system of worship adapted and evolved according to the various political systems and social organizations of the respective time period. Whether in the worship ceremony held in the ancestral shrine or at the meeting convened by the ruler with his(her) vassals, they assumed metaphysical significance and formed an integral part of the worship ceremony. As a consequence, they are referred to as ritual objects(禮器).
During the Eastern Chou (東周) Dynasty, humanism made its appearance. Recasting the ancient shamanistic practices into a system of moral beliefs with application to daily living, the Confucian scholars directly compared the virtuous man to jade. Pendants achieved great popularity and were exquisitely executed, attaining a degree of perfection unmatched in future ages.
The Han (漢) Dynasty imperial family held jade in great esteem. Living members wore pendants and ingested jade powder. The deceased were bound and stuffed with jade. Even the painted banner and tomb tiles were imprinted with the image of the pi disk. The belief in the round pi disk assisting the spirit in reaching the heavens received its greatest support at this time.
From the Six Dynasties (六朝) to T'ang (唐) Dynasty, jade artistry within the heartland of China suffered a decline. Despite the glory of the T'ang Dynasty which saw the resumption of the large-scale feng-shan (封禪) ceremony and other ancient traditions, the sets of tablets used in this ceremony were now fashioned only using beautiful stones (as jade simulants). Among the relics passed down the generations, only the jade belt plaque, comb top, hairpin ornament, pendant, etc. can still be found. More likely than not, a portion hail from the lapidaries of the barbaric tribes in China's West (西域).
From the Sung (宋) and Ming (明) Dynasties onward, jade artistry recovered its former grandeur. Due in part to the emperor's use of jade in officiating ceremonies, but even in greater part to the examination by scholars into the rituals of the Shang and Chou dynasties, popular movements both to research and forge ancient jades arose.
The newly formed intellectual class of the Sung Dynasty cultivated their tastes in living. The displayed jade objects from the studio possessed ultilitarian functions in addition to providing visual delight. The most frequently seen motifs were those of flowers, birds, man, and landscapes, a fact which demonstrates the refined taste of the literati. Lately, as the materials from which jades of this time were fashioned originated as river pebbles, jade craftsmen accommodated their carving techniques to the shapes they encountered. The resulting shapes and patterns were all imparted with deep, and usually auspicious meanings.
The jades from the Ch'ing (清) imperial court at its height are characterized by their impressive size, neatness, and symmetry. They most frequently bear the dragon design, emblem of the emperor, various auspicious symbols, imperial inscriptions and marks. When finally outfitted with pedestals of sandalwood and placed in specially designed cases and boxes, they attain the majesty of the imperial palace itself. During this same period, Hindustan jade from Moslem territories made its appearance. Whether carved with floral decor in shallow relief, worked to a thinness rivaling that of paper, or even inlaid with colored glass or gold and silver thread, splendid Hindustan jade conveys the exotic appeal of a distant land.
Jadeite from Yunnan (雲南) Province and northern Burma was imported in large quantities into China in the nineteenth century and quickly attracted its admirers, who continue to treasure its beauty. In summary, Chinese jade artistry boasts a long tradition, and derives much of its diversity from the differing styles and significance assumed by jades of differing periods. It is hoped that the present display will allow the viewer to experience the sheer magnificence and profundity of the ancient Chinese civilization.