A Spotlight on Early Chinese Jades

April 16, 2019
Rectangular axe-blade with serrated edges, Chinese, Shang dynasty, c. 1300–1200 BCE. Mottled light-green nephrite. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.94.

Even to the untrained eye, there is no ignoring the artistry of the ancient jades in the Harvard Art Museums collections. These magnificent objects, representing one of China’s longest lasting and most valued art forms, are well known for their brilliant hues of green, although jades can just as commonly be shades of yellow, brown, white, red, lavender, or blue.

Since ancient times, the tradition of jade working has produced such treasures as bracelets, amulets, statuettes, pendants, plaques, and cups. The process of jade working is not simple: composed of the minerals nephrite and jadeite, jade has a degree of hardness that rivals steel, so it must be cut and shaped with extremely hard abrasives. In the ancient world, jade was worked by hand over long periods of time, which added to both the value and desirability of these unique objects. It also made them likely to be well cared for and preserved; it is not uncommon for ancient jades to appear like new, thousands of years after artisans worked them into forms.

Jenny F. So, professor emerita in the Department of Fine Arts at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and former senior curator of ancient Chinese art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, delves into the history and significance of the medium in her recently published book, Early Chinese Jades in the Harvard Art MuseumsIn it, she examines just over 100 examples from the museums’ famed Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, which includes more than 700 archaic and archaizing jades from China.

“There are certainly masterpieces to be found in this collection,” So writes, “exemplifying rare heights of artistic creativity and workmanship in their periods.”

The book not only elucidates some of the latest scholarship on jades, but also offers gorgeous new photos of these spectacular objects. Below are a few highlights; click on each object link for relevant art historical details and additional images. Jade objects may be viewed in person in the museums’ gallery dedicated to early Chinese art (Gallery 1740, on Level 1), and by appointment in the Art Study Center. 

1943.51.6 Ge-halberd blade with turquoise-inlaid bronze tang, Chinese, Shang dynasty, 12th–11th century BCE. Light olive- and gray-green nephrite with white textile impressions. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.51.6.

Representing a new shape in Neolithic blades, the ge-halberd blade was modeled after a bronze weapon produced at the start of the Bronze Age. Jade copies were likely held as symbols of power, rather than actively used. The ge-halberd blade above is one of the more than 50 such examples in the Winthrop Collection. Versions with bronze mountings, often decorated in turquoise, as in the above example, were considered the most prestigious style of these blades, and have been found at royal burial sites. Textile impressions suggest that they were carefully wrapped before burial.

  • 1943.50.175 Tortoise, Chinese, Zhou dynasty, c. 1300–1100 BCE. Translucent even gray-green nephrite with altered patches. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.175.

  • 1943.50.307 Seated bear, Chinese, Zhou dynasty, c. 1400–1300 BCE. Semi-translucent yellowish-green, evenly altered nephrite with patches of red cinnabar. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.307.

  • 1943.50.305 Hare, Chinese, Zhou dynasty, c. 800–700 BCE. Translucent even gray-green nephrite. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.305.

These animal-shaped sculptures, which are thought to have been amulets, signal the emergence in the 2nd century BCE of a naturalistic style in the medium of jade. A degree of realism characterizes the tortoisebear, and hare shown above. As So observes, “The tortoise’s physical features are accurately depicted,” even down to a “slight sideways tilt of its head, as if something had caught its attention mid-stride.” The bear is carefully carved, with a lifelike fleshy portion on the back of its neck. The hare is rendered “with an almost trembling sensitivity to its short muzzle, the forcefully thick brow bulging above the eyes, long back-swept ears, and stubby tail,” So writes.

1943.50.612 Narrow ring with spiral fluting, Chinese, Zhou dynasty, 400–300 BCE. Translucent pale greenish-white nephrite. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.612.

Rings and disks were the most common ornamental shape made in jade, So writes, perhaps because they “were almost indispensable in an ornamental assemblage, regardless of complexity.” Used for adornment of the living or the dead, sets of jades in various shapes and sizes may have been strung like charms or pendants. The above ring bears a densely spiraling fluted decoration that might have been executed by a compound machine. 

Loose S-shaped plaque with dragon head and bird tail, Chinese, Zhou dynasty, 4th–3rd century BCE. Translucent honey-colored nephrite with inscription “middle 43.” Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.468.
1943.50.468

Loose S-shaped plaque with dragon head and bird tail, Chinese, Zhou dynasty, 4th–3rd century BCE. Translucent honey-colored nephrite with inscription “middle 43.” Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.468.

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This highly polished, translucent S-shaped plaque, shown in details above, depicts multiple creatures, with the head of a dragon and a large bird at its tail, clutching a curled worm or snake. Two holes were drilled on top for suspending the plaque, likely as the bottommost component of a pendant set.

1943.50.321 Standing figure in long robe and high headdress, Chinese, Shang dynasty, 12th–11th century BCE. Greenish nephrite altered gray-white. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.321.

In contrast to earlier, stocky figurines of humans, the above standing figure has a realistic appearance from both front and back. Its dress, facial expression, and stance are carved with finesse, So writes. The statuette is an example of jade figurines that “probably served as emblematic insignia for personalities with special spiritual powers in Shang and Western Zhou society.”

  • 1943.50.649 Large jade disk, Chinese, Zhou dynasty, 4th century BCE. Translucent pale whitish grayish-green nephrite with darker green and brown streaks. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.649.

  • 1943.50.649 Large jade disk, Chinese, Zhou dynasty, 4th century BCE. Translucent pale whitish grayish-green nephrite with darker green and brown streaks. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.649.

  • 1943.50.649 Large jade disk, Chinese, Zhou dynasty, 4th century BCE. Translucent pale whitish grayish-green nephrite with darker green and brown streaks. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop, 1943.50.649.

With a complex and detailed surface pattern on either side, the above disk, a ritual instrument, contains an inscribed 79-character poem around its edge. Dated 1766, the inscription praises archaic jades. As So writes, it is strong “evidence for the rich afterlives of jades over millennia.”