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Title

: Carved Jades of Shang and Chou

Author

Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Date

1942

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The large group of jades of the Shang and Chou periods which has been assembled from the collection of Alfred F. Pillsbury into a new exhibition, will bring with it a renewed appreciation of these exquisite and beautifully carved objects which have for so long exercised a slightly baffling appeal to visitors. One of the most subtle of all arts in form, color, and intention, they make unusual demands of him who would know them. But the aesthetic pleasure that comes with understanding is worth any amount of preliminary effort, and provides the sympathetic observer with a source of pleasure that can never be taken from him. They are like certain great passages in music, to be cherished for their elusive beauty and the haunting quality of their message. What, exactly, they meant to the ancient Chinese, and how they were used by them, are matters still largely of conjecture. Fortunately, precise knowledge is not here a requisite for enjoyment. Appreciation of form and design alone will put the observer a long way forward on the path of understanding an art that combines with its other charms that of mystery.In the current exhibition these archaic jades have been arranged sparingly, in chronological order so that the sequence of style can be followed without confusion. They include numerous recent additions to Mr. Pillsbury's distinguished collection, and it will be noted that from Shang to late Chou times the pieces reveal the same general development in style and feeling that is so strongly marked in the Chinese bronze art. Indeed, it is from the bronzes that much of the knowledge concerning the stylistic evolution of early jades has been derived.There is no doubt that jade existed in very early times in China. Its presence at An Yang has been substantiated by the same excavations that gave such precise information concerning the early bronzes. That it held a unique place in the sentiments of the Chinese has been universally recognized. Associated with all the virtues, it represented qualities that Chinese revered deeply. Perhaps it is for this reason that jade served as the medium for symbolic objects, gifts to the dead, and all things most precious to the Chinese. Since the archaic jades now extant were all recovered from tombs, it is presumed that they were funeral gifts. This presumption would be in accordance with early Chinese religious and burial customs. Sacrifice to and propitiation of the ancestral spirits were of paramount importance in the Chinese way of life, and it follows that the living would bury with their dead as many and as rich gifts as they could. These must have included emblems of rank and personal adornments as well as amulets and certain symbolic objects used in sacrifices.As stated above, the actual use of many of these jades has not been satisfactorily determined. Certain passages in the Chou texts, however, clarify some of them. We learn that of the symbolic objects placed around the body, the two most important were the pi disc, the so-called emblem of heaven, of blue or green jade, and the ts'ung tube identified as the emblem of earth. The familiar pi form shows the earliest and simplest rendering of this symbol.The earliest, and so far as is known the only, excavated Shang jades as yet published are weapons. These include dagger axes, sceptres, and knives. Since they could not possibly have served a practical purpose they have been tentatively identified as ritual objects or emblems of rank. Examples of all may be seen in Mr. Pillsbury's collection, and it will be noted that they are decorated only with simple, incised lines. Among the jades on exhibition particular attention should be paid to a group of dagger axes, which includes a rare example in mottled blue jade, and a flawless piece of ivory jade.On the handle appears one of the fantastic animals that are so familiar on Shang bronzes. It belongs to the dragon family, and like it was probably associated with water and thus with the life-giving rain that was so essential to abundant crops in north China. It is stated in the ancient texts that handles were used to prop open the jaws of the dead, but the plain haft of this object, with its bore hole, indicates that it may have served as the handle of a weapon or some other such object.Among the most frequent jade pieces found in tombs are objects that may have served either as appliques or pendants. Many of these are to be found in the Pillsbury collection.A Shang pendant, in the form of a crested bird, is illustrated on this page. The bird has been identified as a fecundity symbol by Karlgren, but Creel associates it with the wind, one of the most powerful of natural elements, and one particularly to be propitiated in North China. In either case, it would have formed a suitable subject for an amulet. A splendid example of the so-called “common” bird is seen on the comb. Here the confronted birds, with their tails and crests executed in striated lines, are presented with great style. The size of this comb—it is only about two inches high—indicated that it was a funeral gift, and not intended for practical purposes.A pair of objects that may have been used as pendants or possibly as tallies is shown. If the latter, and it is not unlikely as they form an identical pair, they were used to authenticate military messages. The one sent by the officer in command must match exactly with the one held by the officer in the field, so that there could be no doubt of the genuineness of the order. In these objects again the decorative elements so characteristic of Shang bronzes are present. The hilt of the object is formed of a bovine head, and the lower section carries the blade pattern which Karlgren identifies with the cicada. Shown with these tallies is a knot-opener of the early Chou period. It is carved in the full round, the head ending in a simplified animal form of the ox family. The artist here appears to have reduced the animal to its simplest terms, and this partial simplification of form is one of the faint differences to be observed between Shang and early Chou jades.Actually, there is little change between the arts of the two periods, for the political conquest of the Shangs by the Chous was not immediately followed by the overthrow of the Shang culture. Probably, still being uncertain of their culture p's and q's, the Chous had not the courage to launch their own art immediately. About 950 B.C., however, there is notable a change that comes suddenly. The early forms, and most of the Shang design, were discarded.Unfortunately, this period of jade art is meagerly represented in the Pillsbury collection, so that the transition from the art of the early Chou, fundamentally Shang in feeling, is an abrupt one. When the Chou capital was moved to Loyang in the east, about 770 B.C., new forces become apparent. There arose an interest in geometric pattern; in decoration for its own sake, and in the use of jade for practical purposes. Some Shang elements were revived, and many new ones were introduced. Among the latter are many that appear on bronzes of the same period: the rope and plait patterns; large, loosely formed spirals; dot filling; and interlaced forms spreading sinuously over the surface. The technique changes, revealing a new interest in modelling and a tendency to sharply incised decoration.These new elements gave to the jades of the late Chou a rhythmic, restless grace that is a far remove from the powerful but restrained expression of the Shang jades. This flowing quality is marked in the pendant of a crested tiger. The incised decoration, in a pattern suggestive of plant forms, is typical of the late Chou canon.The sword guard is one of the practical objects which began to appear in the late Chou jade art. It is a lovely piece, soft ivory in tone, with a restrained pattern of spirals. Exquisite in tone and pattern, too, are the buckles shown with it. The buckle was another practical form that enjoyed a great vogue in late Chou times, and presages the increasing use of jade for personal adornment. The upper of these two examples is adorned with the dot filling that appears on late Chou bronzes, and the lower with a pattern of loosely formed spirals and bud forms like those on the tiger pendant.All of these pieces, and the many other beautiful examples in the Pillsbury collection, are characteristic in form and feeling of the late Chou jade art; an art that seems to sum up, in its refinement, its nervous, sinuous rhythm, and its dazzling technique, the final flowering of a great art. These flowing bird forms, these elegant tigers, and these prancing, sophisticated dragons, are taking a bow for a great performance in jade. That performance, as represented in the Pillsbury collection, is one well worth viewing. Together with the Pillsbury bronzes, it gives a picture of early Chinese civilization that would be hard to equal.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Miniature comb of gray-white jade with confronted birds. A funeral offering of the Shang period, 1766-1122 B. C. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
  2. Handle of ivory jade with animal of dragon family and bore hole. Shang dynasty, 1766-1122 B. C. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
  3. Pi disc, so called emblem of heaven, of green jade. Chinese, Shang. Lent by Alfred F. Pillsbury.
  4. Crested bird pendant of white jade. Shang dynasty.
  5. Pair of Shang tallies of partly decomposed white jade, and ivory jade know-opener of the early Chou period.
  6. Crested tiger pendant of white and brown jade. Late Chou.
  7. Buckles and sword guard with decoration of spiral forms and dots. Late Chou period.
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Source: "Carved Jades of Shang and Chou," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 31, no. 33 (December, 1942): 114-119.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009