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Jade Mountain:


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Like the depiction of human beings in Western art, the mountainous landscape in Chinese art serves as a metaphor and vehicle for all human emotions and concerns. Landscape and mountain imagery appear in all forms of Chinese literature and art, including poetry, painting, and jade carving. Chinese artistic landscape depends very little on a sense of visual literalness of how the world looks, rather the artist strives to evoke a landscape of the mind, that of his or her poetic inner reality. Human beings are always part of this landscape, but they play a tiny role within the vastness of nature. Their inclusion despite their relative unimportance shows how they fit into the harmony of the world as a whole.

From the 6th century B.C. onward, Chinese people, whether Confucian or Taoist, sought to escape into nature, seeking spiritual tranquility and refuge. When one could not travel to see the real thing, an image of a mountain allowed one to escape and travel through the refreshing landscape in one's mind. From the 9th century on, depictions of human beings in Chinese art paled beside the mainstream depiction of the wondrous and ever-changing landscape.

CHINESE JADES: General Information
What is jade?
Jade was prized for its durability, subtle color, and fine polish. Linguistically, the Chinese have always referred to it as yu (making no distinction between nephrite (used in early China) or jadeite (used from the 18th century onward).

Both jadeite and nephrite come in many different colors, but jadeite is more commonly the rich dark green that is associated with jade in the West. Another difference between the two minerals is that jadeite has a glossy look, while nephrite looks waxy. Jade (of either sort) is one of the hardest minerals on earth, registering 6-7 on the Moh scale of hardness. (Diamond registers 10.)

Where did jade come from?
Nephrite was normally retrieved from rivers where the stones had washed down the mountains. The stones varied in size from small pebbles to immense boulders. The most fertile rivers for nephrite were found in Khotan until the 18th century, and later in Yarkand, both of which were located in modern-day Sinkiang (Xinjiang) Province. Jadeite was imported from Burma, which lies to the south of China. No source of jade has been found within China proper. The stones reached the Chinese artisans through extensive trade networks.

In the 12th century A.D. nephrite began to be quarried, enabling jade workers to produce very large art objects. Heat was often used to split the stone from where it was imbedded and to break it down into smaller pieces. Unfortunately, this caused fissures and internal damage in the stone, making river jade the preferred medium.

How is jade worked?
Nephrite and jadeite are incredibly hard stones. They are not really "carved" but rather are molded through abrasives, such as quartz powder. Artists used tools with the abrasives to split, saw, perforate, grind, incise, and polish jade. The earliest tools discovered thus far are hollow bamboo drills dating from the Shang Dynasty. By the 6th century B.C. (Eastern Chou Dynasty) rotary tools and iron saws were used, enabling the craftspeople to create ever more complex designs. A foot treadle machine was invented in the 17th century, which speeded up the process of the initial carving. Later better abrasives were also developed. During the T'ang Dynasty crushed garnets were used, while in the Northern Sung Dynasty a black sand (Corundum) was introduced. Present-day jade workers use silicon carbide and diamonds to wear away the stone.

How are Chinese jades dated?
Jade does not wear down easily, and thus cannot be dated by examination of the inherent material. Jade carvings were not signed prior to the reign of Ch'ing emperor Ch'ien Lung (1736Ð1795). Dating is done primarily by external factors such as the style of carving, the iconography, and most importantly, archaeological finds. The study of early Chinese jades (Neolithic through Eastern Chou) is in flux. Very recent archaeological discoveries have forced a radical re-dating of most pieces, making many previous studies obsolete. Many objects that were assigned to the Shang and Chou periods have been back dated thousands of years to the Neolithic period.

How was jade used?
Because jade is so hard to work and so difficult to obtain, it was mainly used for ritual and mortuary purposes. Even when carved in the shape of everyday tools, such as an ax, these pieces are not utilitarian. Jade is very brittle and would snap if used in this manner. Confucianists and Taoists endowed jade with all sorts of virtues and powers. Written records attest to its central importance within the ritual system of early Chinese government. When used for mortuary purposes, jade was thought to have preservative powers over the corpse. Jade plugs were used to fill orifices of the body. Other pieces of jade were placed near or on the body. There have even been jade burial suits discovered. The ritual shapes of jade remained unchanged for centuries.

Jade carving on a massive scale required large teams of artisans. Several jade workshops were set up in Beijing in order to create art objects for imperial use. The emperor inscribed the best jade mountains and kept them for his own collection. To carve such an intricate design in jade, the artisans went through a number of steps:
  1. the jade piece was selected
  2. the design was created: first drawn, then a wax model was made from it
  3. the rough shape was sawed out
  4. then holes were drilled and areas hollowed out, where appropriate
  5. the full rough shape was carved out, leaving areas blank for inscriptions. At this point the mountain was inspected
  6. the final shape was then carved with details, and again it was inspected
  7. the jade was polished
  8. the inscription was added

Jade was so expensive that mistakes made by workers were punished. If the entire piece was ruined, the artist had to pay a fine in recompense for the piece.

The MIA's jade mountain originally belonged to a set of four commissioned by the Ch'ing emperor Ch'ien Lung (1736Ð95). The remaining three are still on view in Beijing. Carved in 1784, the MIA's was the smallest of the group, but is the largest carved jade in the West, weighing 640 pounds. In contrast, the largest of the set tips the scales at 7 tons! This jade mountain depicted the story of the legendary emperor Yu, who stemmed the floods. It took ten years to complete the carving.

The four formed an iconographic group which depicted the most revered Chinese legends.

Jade mountains became popular during the Ming and Ch'ing dynasties influenced by changing tastes and the new availability of large blocks of jade mined from mountain quarries of Chinese Turkestan. Prior to this period, there was no tradition of carving miniature mountains, so the artisans took painting as their inspiration. It was a challenge to make what was long a two dimensional motif of a vast mountain and turn it into dramatic three dimensions. This translation of the sublime landscape into a solid image echoes the Chinese interest at this time in the miniature, controlled landscape of private gardens filled with artfully corroded rocks, pools, and bonsai trees. (Till and Swart 42)

Although a long tradition existed of Chinese emperors collecting, Ch'ien Lung (1736Ð95) surpassed them all. He avidly collected all kinds of Chinese art, offering royal favor to those that presented him with gifts and the highest prices to those who sold art to him. When the owner of an object he desired refused his wishes, the emperor would often just confiscate their entire private collection. Between 1751 and 1784, Ch'ien Lung journeyed six times to the Jiangnan region in southern China. Each time he returned not only loaded down with gifts, but also determined to recreate the southern refined, scholarly atmosphere there in the Old Summer Palace, his favorite retreat in the suburbs of Beijing. (Lawton 52) Aside from his personal passion, Ch'ien Lung's collecting and commissioning artwork had a significant political function. As a Manchu ruler, he and the other emperors of the Ch'ing dynasty were considered foreign usurpers. Since Confucian values had long been tied to the idea of political legitimacy, one way to consolidate their power in China was to conspicuously present themselves as Confucian scholars and connoisseurs, thus worthy of inheriting the Chinese throne.

The jade carving on this mountain is relatively simple: there is no undercutting, but it still displays great craftsmanship. There is a sense of balance and depth created by overhanging cliffs and deliberately set pathways--one can really walk through the mountainside. Scholars (dressed in their traditional long sleeve costume) walk leisurely through the landscape, pausing to converse with their fellows or to admire a particularly beautiful scene. Look closely and you will see the specific faces and gestures of the figures, as they look towards each other, point, and glance over their shoulders. Their hair and beard styles are differentiated too; note the fellow with the long beard who pauses to look out over a rustic bridge. Some heads have been knocked off, perhaps during transport. On one side two scholars are seated, speaking while their female servants (whose hair is bound up in two top knots) bring them food. On this same side, a man with a servant boy turns and reaches up to the mountain side. Perhaps he is preparing to write an inscription upon it, a pun commenting on the inscription on the jade mountain itself.

Following painting's lead, the designer and artisans of the jade mountain show off their skill in delineating different tree types: pine, bamboo, oak, and willow. Pavilions are tucked into the mountainside, perfect places for stopping and reflecting on the grandeur of nature. The mountain forms are stylized, as if rendered by a brush rather than by a rotary drill. The style of depicting rocks in rough layers was an ancient Chinese painting tradition, used here to recall the antiquity of the time of the poet Wang Hsi-chih, the period being evoked in the representation on the mountain.

The most specific reference to Wang Hsi-chih's story (as told below) is the floating of cups of wine down the broad stream on the side where the poem is inscribed. Otherwise, the scene is one of scholars enjoying a lush, warm afternoon wandering through a stunning and lofty landscape.

Wang Hsi-chih (303Ð379) is considered to be one of the greatest calligraphers in Chinese history. Living in the East Chin dynasty, during the tumultuous Six Dynasties period, he gathered with 41 of his friends and family in 353 A.D. at the Orchid Pavilion, near Shao Hsing in Chekiang (Zhejiang), to clean their ancestor's grave. Relaxing along the banks of the meandering stream, where orchids grew in abundance, the group drank wine from cups floated downstream. Drinking the cooled wine, they contemplated nature and composed poems for the occasion. At the time, Wang composed a long poem which served as a prelude to the collection of his friends' poems. It was 324 characters placed in 28 lines. The text is a rather sophisticated philosophical discourse on the meaning and enjoyment of life, death, the past and present. Not only did the words echo with meaning, but Wang afterwards believed that he was never able to recapture the spontaneity and power of his calligraphy that he brushed that day. This Orchid Pavilion Preface or the Lang T'ing-hsu became one of the most copied passages of Chinese calligraphy. Legends grew up around where the original disappeared to. Hundreds still exist today, all claiming to be the original.
From the bronze age to the present, Chinese artists and collectors sought to enhance the meaning and value of their art objects by adding on or incorporating inscriptions. Inscriptions on artwork reverberate meaning between the image and the poem, one enhancing the other. Thus, while inscribing jade is an incredibly difficult task, it was felt necessary to complete the art object. Ch'ien Lung regularly added his poems and comments to the paintings and jades in his collection. While not treasured today for their literary quality, his inscriptions do reveal his profound love and admiration of Chinese culture.

The emperor's poem carved in archaic characters is as follows:
The mountain of jade of Huo T'ien was large
It was carved to represent a literary gathering
Elders and youth alike comprised the meeting.
The calligraphy was originally fashioned late in
the Yung Ho reign;
And the writing has been authenticated on numerous occasions since then.
It pleases me that this colophon is genuine.
One should ask in this picture,
Who should be considered to be the man of jade?
By imperial decree, the Chia Ch'en cycle of the
Ch'ien Lung reign.

The emperor's poem comments on two works of art in his collection. The first is what he believed to be the original Lan T'ing-hsu calligraphy dating from the 4th century (late in the Yung Ho reign). He brags about how the calligraphy he owns has been authenticated by numerous connoisseurs and that he is pleased that it is genuine. Indeed, the calligraphic style of Wang Hsi-chih's poem inscribed on the side of the mountain comes from a copy the emperor made himself. (A comment to his ability to copy and understand the spirit of the ancients!) Note the elegant style of calligraphy of Wang Hsi-chih's passage versus the more square and solid archaic characters of the emperor's poem.

The second work of art referred to in the emperor's poem is the actual jade mountain itself. He mentions the mountain in Turkestan where the jade boulder was quarried. Then he points out its purpose in depicting the famed literary gathering. Finally he makes an allusion to the media (that of pure jade) and the purity of spirit of Wang Hsi-chih.

"Prelude to the Orchid Pavilion," Wang Hsi-Chih

In the late spring of the ninth year of the Yung Ho reign (A.D. 353) a gathering was held at Lan T'ing, the Orchid Pavilion, north of K'uai Chi mountain. The meeting was held to clean and repair the honored graves and all the luminaries came. Young and old alike were gathered together. At this site were steep magnificent mountains of lush forests and elegant bamboo.

Here, too, was a clear, rapid running stream, traversing the slope which could be used to float the wine cups. We sat about the banks of this stream. Although lacking the joy of flute and string, a single cup and single poem were sufficient to draw out the deepest emotions. On that day the sky was bright, the air pure and the gentle wind a thing of tranquility. Gazing upward the vastness of the universe could be comprehended; downward one saw the varied abundance of things. All that the mind and eye conceived was best appreciated through the senses. It was a delightful experience! In this generation one is influenced by experiences within his own tiny environment, but one's emotion comes from outside his material existence. Although there are ten thousand moods of fondness and dislike, and a difference between action and non-action, when a man feels joy he is content to know that feeling may be confined to him alone.

With this acceptance one will never notice the approach of old age. When one is fatigued through thought the feeling is joy, and that emotion will suddenly become a thing of the past. Still, these are the things which excite one's emotions and all achievements and failures are thus transformed and finally come to an end. The ancients stated that birth and death are great events. Such pain! In tracing the course of the emotion involved in building a grave I always feel grieved although I know that birth and death are illusions and that the (legendary) birth of Chi and the demise of Pong are untrue. Our concept of posterity is presently formulated and can be likened to our present view of the past. A sad situation! Therefore, I record and collate all the writings of my contemporaries. Although the occasion may change from this one and although the next generation may be different from this one, what touches one's heart remains the same. Posterity will be inspired by these verses.

Early in the late spring month of the Chia Ch'en cycle (1784, copied by the emperor). (Placed above the copy of Wang Hsi-Chi's poem is the seal of Ch'ien Lung.)

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Source: Docent Manual entry for Chinese, <i>Jade Mountain</i> (18th century), The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009