Jade—And the Stories Behind It
By Awake! correspondent in Taiwan
“MY TIME is limited,” said our dear friend Jim, who was on his first visit to Taiwan, “and I want to see something of the culture of the Chinese. What would you recommend?”
I suggested a visit to the National Palace Museum.
“A museum?” reacted Jim.
“Well, you might not think so, Jim,” I explained, “but, actually, a visit to the National Palace Museum is probably the best way to achieve your goal in the time available to you. Its collection of Chinese artwork—nearly a quarter of a million items—is perhaps the largest in the world, and these works of art illustrate the character and attitude of the Chinese in ways not easily seen otherwise.”
The National Palace Museum is located just outside of Taipei. As we drive up to the museum, Jim’s eyes open wide.
“What a beautiful building!” he exclaims. “It’s a work of art in itself!”
The museum is a four-story structure built in the style of the former imperial palace of the Ching dynasty (1644-1912). We enter through the second-floor entrance and wonder what to see. Should we take a whirlwind tour and try to see everything, or should we concentrate on something of particular interest?
After a quick glance at the directory, Jim decides we should start with the jades.
There are two varieties of jade—nephrite and jadeite. On the Mohs’ scale, where diamond is given a hardness rating of 10, jades fall between 6 and 7. Nephrite, usually of a single color throughout the piece, comes in a variety of hues—green, pink, white, yellow, and so on. Jadeite, on the other hand, may be of a single color, or it may be green and white, green and black, even red or some other color. Emerald-green jadeite is the favorite for jewelry today.
As we look at the pieces on display, Jim notices a cicada-shaped brown-and-green jadeite from the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.).
“What was that used for? Decoration?”
“No,” I try to explain. “You know, I’m sure, that cicada larvae live underground for four years and then emerge to become adult cicadas. So the ancient Chinese used it as a symbol of rebirth. From long before the time of Christ, they followed the custom of putting a cicada-shaped piece of jade in the mouth of the deceased, which they thought would prevent the body from decaying. They did this because they believed in the reincarnation of the immortal soul. But apart from that, to know about the cicada’s life cycle, they must have been astute students of nature, don’t you think?”
Jim agrees. We come to a piece from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It is in the shape of a leaf carved from a piece of white nephrite.
“See how the artist utilized the flaws in the stone to enhance his masterpiece?” I ask.
Jim looks carefully and notices a cicada and some marks in the surface of the leaf-shaped jade. “Looks like he turned the little imperfection in the stone into a lively insect nibbling away at the leaf!” he exclaims. The explanatory note next to the exhibit shows this to be exactly what the artist did.
We next come to one of the better-known pieces in the museum—a Ching dynasty jadeite Chinese cabbage with white stems and green leaves, topped with two grasshoppers. Here again, the artist with an imaginative eye made use of the stone’s natural coloration to create his work of art.
We move on and look at a bowl made of grayish-white jade from Hindustan, shaped like a chrysanthemum blossom and engraved with a poem by the Ching emperor Ch’ien-lung (1735-96). The jade is so thin that it is almost transparent. Next to it is a magnificent screen composed of thin slices of elaborately carved green jade set in a wooden frame. Remembering the hardness of jade and the simple tools available, it staggers the imagination to think of the time and work involved in the production of just one such work of art.
“Apart from its obvious beauty, is there any other reason why jade has always been such a favorite with the Chinese?” Jim asks.
“Since ancient times,” I explain, “Confucian and Taoist thinking has idealized certain moral virtues, and jade has been looked upon as a fitting symbol of them. Confucius extolled its virtues this way: ‘It is soft, smooth and shining—like intelligence. Its edges seem sharp but do not cut—like justice. It hangs down to the ground—like humility. When struck, it gives a clear, ringing sound—like music. The strains in it are not hidden and add to its beauty—like truthfulness.’ What imagination!”
Because jade was believed to symbolize these virtues, it was much admired and used by anyone who aspired to be the ‘perfect gentleman.’ He would wear pendants of jade around his waist, and the tinkling tones produced when he walked would regulate his gait. If he should become agitated or unseemingly hasty—by all means to be avoided by a true gentleman—the discordant jangle would remind him of his lapse from proper demeanor. This perhaps casts a little light on the mistaken notion of the ‘inscrutable Oriental.’ In reality, Orientals just consider it ill mannered to display their emotions openly!
“I could spend all day here,” Jim remarks as we rush through the galleries on our way out, catching fleeting glimpses of the extensive displays of paintings, carvings, porcelain and lacquer ware, and so on. “Thank you for persuading me to come. I really appreciated seeing those beautiful jade pieces and hearing the fascinating stories behind them.”
[Pictures on page 24]
Archaic jade cicadas
White jade brush washer, cicada and leaf design
Photos: Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, Taiwan