For thousands of years, jade has been valued by the Chinese for its spiritual properties. The Emperor even wrote poems about it. Carol Michaelson tells the story
One of the most dramatic finds made in the 20th century was that of the unrobbed tomb of a consort of a Shang king who flourished around 1200 BC. Fu Hao was buried with 750 jades. Many of these were pendants, with holes for suspension, some in human or animal forms – though we have no idea if they were worn during her lifetime or made specifically for her to take to the afterlife. She was also buried with some Neolithic jades that by her era were already 2,000 years old. It shows the extent to which jade was clearly already prized.
The jades of the late Zhou dynasty (475-221 BC) are still today considered some of the most exquisitely fashioned jades ever made in China. At this time, particularly beautiful jades were often valued and used as trophies to be exchanged between rulers. It seems that it was also during this dynasty that the incorruptibility of jade as a material – because of its hardness – began to be linked to the idea that if it was used to cover the body in death, it would stop the body's disintegration and leave it whole for the afterlife.
Many bodies have been discovered where the faces were covered with small jades shaped like the facial features, sewn onto textiles placed over the face. Then the body, from the neck to the knees, was covered in long and elaborate pendant sets, and with halberds and awls. Such an association of jade and the incorruptibility of the human body culminated in the use of the jade burial suit during the Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Other notable jades of this period include sword fittings, some vessels, and three-dimensional animal figures.
From the end of the Han to the Tang dynasties (AD 220-618), very few jades have been discovered archaeologically, and we know relatively little about the jade production of this period. It seems that objects were passed down from generation to generation and were worn or used, rather than buried for the afterlife. This was also a period when China did not control the Central Asian lands where the jade was now sourced – in Xinjiang – and this was obviously one reason for the relative dearth of jades.
During the Tang dynasty (AD 618-906), China again extended its empire's borders into the jade-producing areas, and this was a period when many jades were made for the élite of society. Many hoards, buried at times of unrest, were created during this dynasty – and fortunately for us many were not recovered until the last century.
These include jade belt sets, which were a marker of the highest rank according to the prevailing sumptuary laws. There were also hair and dress ornaments for women. Vessels modelled on the popular metal shapes of the period were also produced at this time.
It was during the last two imperial dynasties, those of the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911), that jade was worked most extensively. The majority of the jades we prize today are from these two periods, and are well represented in both the Stack Collection jades being offered in Hong Kong and the anonymous family collection for sale in New Bond Street. Mined jade was more easily available because of the Chinese invention of gunpowder, and jade mined at source in the mountains and in large sizes now supplemented the river jade pebbles used from the earlier periods. This meant that larger jades could be worked; and improved tools, including the use of diamonds, made jade-working easier.
During these last two dynasties, many items for the scholar's desk were made, including table screens – an especially fine one from the Stack Collection is to be offered in Hong Kong, alongside brush pots from the same collection. The decoration, particularly on brush pots (overleaf) testifies to the skill of the jade workers in realising in three dimensions designs that had originated in two-dimensional drawings.
Many of the Chinese emperors were aficionados of jade, but the ruler probably the best-known for his love of the material was the Qianlong Emperor – who reigned for 60 years from 1736-1795. He was not Chinese by birth, but descended from a line of Manchu warriors who formed the Qing dynasty.
The Qianlong Emperor had a particular love of jade, and at his death was said to have 30,000 jades in his collection. Supposedly, all new finds of jade were reported to him, so that he could choose whether the piece should be carved under imperial auspices and enter the imperial collection. He established jade workshops in the imperial palace grounds, as well as specialist centres in Suzhou and Yangzhou. He wrote innumerable poems about his jades, many of which were inscribed by the imperial craftsmen onto the jades themselves.
The Qianlong Emperor's military campaigns included the conquest of the jade-producing area of Khotan. He also received tribute from the Mughal jade workers, whose works he admired and had copied at his court. During his reign many 'auspicious' jades were made, incorporating the punning rebuses that are a feature of the Chinese language.
The Qianlong Emperor also promoted a renewed interest in archaistic jades. Many decorative pieces survive from this period, including men's belt accessories and ladies' hair ornaments and jewellery. Large – even huge – jade boulders were commissioned, depicting the stories and legends of Chinese history. Jadeite from Burma also began to be used for jewellery and exquisite carvings, incorporating jades
of brilliant hues.
Towards the end of the Qing dynasty, with growing political unrest in China, jade working suffered a serious decline. Today, jade continues to be worked, and a high level of artistry can still be seen occasionally, but many jades are mass-produced. Jade is still seen today as containing properties that promote good health, luck and protection, and many older Chinese will have some piece of jade about their person.
What is jade?
Jade is a generic term for two distinct minerals, nephrite and jadeite. Both referred to as yu in Chinese, although they have different physical characteristics. However, until relatively recently, the jade used in China was almost entirely nephrite. This was originally available in the north and eastern parts of China, though these sources were nearly exhausted by the end of the Neolithic period. After this time, nephrite was mined in what is now Xinxiang province in western china, and access to the material depended largely on the control the Chinese had over this territory. Jadeite, from Burma, only came to be used extensively from the
Working jade is not easy. The material is harder than metals such as bronze and iron, so that it cannot be shaped with metal tools alone. It is also extraordinarily tough and difficult to break. Although we refer to the 'carving' of jade, it actually has to be worked by time-consuming abrasive methods. Traditionally, fine sands or ground natural minerals such as quartz, garnet and corundum abrasives – all harder than jade – were used. The abrasive was then mixed with water and applied with iron or steel tools.
Two pieces retrieved from Beijing's Summer Palace
Two rare Imperial jade carvings, retrieved in October 1860 from the Summer Palace outside Beijing, are included in Bonhams New Bond Street's Fine Chinese Art Sale in November. These items come directly from the descendants of the man who found them, Captain Arthur Forbes-Robertson, an officer in the 67th Regiment of Foot. One of these – a five-inch high Imperial white jade archaistic pendant from 1811, still with its original box, is flanked by two pairs of phoenix, mythical creatures often associated with the Empress. Captain Forbes-Robertson sent it home to his mother around 1863. According to a surviving note, this pendant and the jade vase were removed by him from the Summer Palace in October 1860.
The second item from the Summer Palace is an Imperial pale green jade archaistic hanging vase and cover, 18th century, estimated to sell for £40,000 to £80,000. Of archaic form and design, it is flanked by a pair of loop handles attached to the loops at either end of the swinging overhead arched handle, each side finely carved with a taotie mask with vertical notched flanges in the centre, and on the sides beneath a band of mythical beasts. The cover is surmounted by an oval finial, similarly decorated with flanges and stylised scrolls. The jade is of greenish white tone.
In 1858, 24-year-old Forbes-Robertson followed his regiment, the 67th, to China. After fighting in actions such as the capture of Beijing, he joined the Guard of Honour at the formal signing of the peace treaty which ended hostilities in 1860. Before the regiment left Beijing, "some British officers and men (of the 67th) had made their way to the Summer Palace in hopes of securing some
of the spoil before the French took everything", and it is clear from family records that Arthur Forbes-Robertson was one of their number.
The 67th stayed on in China to keep the peace, suffering harsh winters, and in 1863 Forbes-Robertson died in a cholera epidemic
at the barracks in Shanghai.
So what was the 67th Regiment doing in China? The first Anglo-Chinese War (the first Opium War) ended in 1842 with Hong Kong Island ceded to Britain in perpetuity and China compelled to pay $21m – which the Chinese bitterly resented. In 1856, after 14 years of uneasy peace, British forces made an unsuccessful attack on Canton, before capturing it in January 1858. A treaty was signed at Tianjin, but the Chinese viewed it merely as a breathing space to rearm their forts and, the following year, reinforcements were summoned.
The 67th Foot landed at Canton on 23 October 1859. After wintering in barracks, the regiment, with the 99th, took Chusan island as a precursor to Lieutenant-General Sir James Hope Grant's intended advance on Beijing. Hope Grant's force reached the outskirts on 5 October, and the 67th was assigned the task of taking the great northeast gate. But just before the expiry of the allied ultimatum at noon on 13 October, the Chinese unexpectedly capitulated, and the 67th took possession of the gate without a shot being fired. The visit of curious British officers and men to the Summer Palace soon afterwards was quickly regulated by Hope Grant, who ordered that "all plunder be pooled and distributed officially on a definite scale according to rank". This order was rigidly applied to coin and bullion, but not to objects and furnishings – which is why two such exquisite pieces from the Summer Palace found their way to a corner in southern England.
Carol Michaelson is an independent researcher. She curated Gilded Dragons: Buried Treasures from China's Golden Ages at London's British Museum.