Chinese Carvings

We Buy & Appraise Chinese Antiques

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No one material may better epitomize the Chinese arts than jade—a stone that comes in a wide variety of majestic colors, from yellows to greens to purples. Chinese jade mines are long depleted so today the stone is mined in Burma, Central America, Brazil, Canada, and India. Still, Chinese culture has mastered the art of jade carving in a way no other region can match.

According to Chinese mythology, jade is a magical stone, a link between the physical and spiritual realms, as it possesses qualities both yin and yang, day and night, good and evil. Carved jade ornaments of all shapes and sizes have been part of Chinese culture since at least the Neolithic Period, 9500-9000 BC.impjade

Through the millennia, jade has been shaped into tools, weapons, and belt loops, but it is primarily carved into figurines and jewelry. Common jade figures are symbols of good fortune such as bats and gourds, as well as peaches (longevity), magpies (happiness), lotus plants (harmony), and lotus seeds (fertility). Officials wore jade representations of roosters and cockscomb flowers to assert their power, while artists carved jade into realistic images of other flowers, trees, mountains, animals, stars, and even legendary figures.

For collectors, it’s important to beware of fakes, as it’s easy to make ordinary glass that looks like genuine jade. The market is flooded with these cheap imitations made from molds and having a rough edge you can feel. They lack the density of jade, as well as the high relief and rounded sculpture of true jade carvings. Also, any pieces with air bubbles are not true jade. Real antique jade is difficult to date, and appraisers rely on details like the shape of a dragon’s eyes, horns, feet, claws, scales, and tail.


WHEN Sir Walter Raleigh returned to England from Spanish America, he brought with him the magic “pietra di hijada,” the ‘ stone of the loins,’ which was reputed to possess unique curative medicinal powers. Thus was introduced to Britain a mineral believed to embody the quintessence of creation, accredited with having been forged from the rainbow into thunderbolts for the use of the storm god, and having been eaten as food by the Taoist genii ; for such would appear to be the romantic inheritance of Jade.

The Chinese classify this material under three headings :—

(1) Yii—its general name.

(2) Pi Yii—the dark green variety, similar in character to serpentine obtained mainly from Barkul, Manas in Sungaria, the country surrounding Lake Baikal and the mountain slopes of Western Yunnan.

(3) Fei-ts’ni—an emerald green variety first obtained from Lan-t’ien on the borders of the province of Shensi, and later imported from Burma.

This latter variety owes its Chinese name to its remarkable similarity in colour to the brilliant plumage of the kingfisher, and originally referred only to the pieces of emerald green ; to-day it embodies all varieties of Jadeite with the exception of the opaque dark green.

The colours most venerated by the Chinese are perhaps best described by a Manchu author, who, writing in a.d. 1777, says :—

“ There is a river in Yarkand in which are found Jade pebbles. The largest are as big as round fruit dishes, or square peck measures, the smallest are the size of a fist or chestnut, and some of the boulders weigh more than five hundred pounds. There are many different colours, among which snow white, kingfisher green, beeswax yellow, cinnabar red, and ink black, are all considered valuable ; but the most difficult to find are pieces of pure mutton fat texture with vermilion spots, and others of bright spinach green flecked with shining points of gold, so that these two varieties rank as the rarest and most precious of jades.”

Lavender Jadeite is another colour greatly prized and appreciated in China, and very few fine examples of this are at present in European hands. An exceptionally beautiful pair of Tea Bowls in this material, which are perhaps unequalled in any Collection in Europe, are those in the Collection of Her Majesty Queen Mary, here illustrated in Plate i.

This exquisitely coloured Lavender Jadeite chiefly comes from Burma, where it is found in small quantities in the headwaters of the Chindwin and Mogaung tributaries of the Irrawaddy river. The emeraldgreen variety also is derived from these waters and mined by wild Kachins in the surrounding hills.

Hua hsueh tai tsao (“ moss entangled in melting snow ”) is another variety of Jadeite which comes from Burma, and its appearance reminds one of melted snow, frozen, veined with clouds of shaded green.

In China jade is valued according to its colour, sonorousness and freedom from cracks. It should have a soft, “ greasy ” appearance when polished ; specimens which do not possess this oily feel when handled are described as “ dry ” and regarded as inferior.

The chief visual characteristics of Jadeite and Nephrite are as follows :

Jadeite is generally brighter and more vivid in colour than Nephrite. Its body is usually more translucent, and it is sometimes partially crystallised. Its basic colourings would seem to be lavender and bright apple green. White, streaked with emerald green, or brilliant emerald green, is the most valuable; this latter colouring is due to chromium, the element which gives its colour to the true emerald.

Nephrite is usually of some shade of green, deepening as the proportion of iron present increases. These may be sea green, grey green, celadon, lettuce green, grass green, and spinach green. Other colourings found in Nephrite are : Grey, blue grey, reddish grey, and greenish grey ; yellow ; black containing chromic iron ; cream ; and lastly the pure limpid white often compared to mutton fat. A typical example of the latter variety is shown in Plate lxiv.

Most of the Nephrite carved in China comes from the regions of Khotan and Yarkand in Eastern Turkestan, the Jade mountains in Belurtag on the upper waters of the Tisnab River about 80 miles from Yarkand being probably the most notable source of supply.

The Hsi Yii Wen Chien Lu tells us that the precipitous mountain sides are there entirely made of jade, and narrates how the Mohammedan natives on yaks penetrate beyond the snow limit, light fires to split the rock, and then roll the boulders over the precipice into the valley below.

The river boulders, as opposed to the mined rock, are chiefly found in the upper waters of the Yarkand Daria, and in the Yurungkash (white jade) and Karakash (black jade) Rivers of Khotan, where natives were, and still are, employed to “ fish ” for the precious jade.

The principal methods adopted by the Chinese in working jade, based upon observations made in the workshops at Peking have been well-described by Dr. Bushell as follows :—

“ The Chinese lapidary has all the tools of his art, an art which may be traced back to ancient Chaldaea and Susiana, from which it seems to have spread at some unknown period westwards to Europe, southwards to India, and eastwards to China. The modern lapidary has invented no new tools. The European craftsman only adds to the power of the old tools by the use of a continuous lathe and increasing its rapidity of revolution by means of steam and electricity ; the Chinese craftsman does the same by patient industry, as he sits alone for long days beside his table, working a reciprocal treadle with his feet so as to have his hands free for glyptic work.

“ The tools of the craft are many, but as the Chinese say, they all owe their efficiency to the biting power of the abrasives with which they are anointed. These abrasives are prepared by various preliminary processes of pounding, grinding, and sifting, and are made into pastes with water ready for use. Four kinds are used in Peking, increasing in power, being—(i) ‘ yellow sand,’ quartz crystals ; (2) ‘ red sand,’ garnets or almadin, used with the circular saws ; (3) ‘ black sand,’ a kind of emery, used with the lap wheels, etc. ; and (4) ‘ jewel dust,’ ruby crystals from Yunnan and Tibet, with which the leather wheel is smeared which gives the final polish to the jade.

“ The crude block of jade is first sawn round with a four-handed toothless iron saw worked by two men, to ‘ strip off the peel.’ It is next roughly shaped with one of the circular saws, a graduated series of round discs of iron with sharp cutting edge, fitted to be mounted on the wooden axle of the treadle and put by it into vertical revolution. The prominent angles left by the saw are ground down and the piece is further shaped by a set of small solid iron rings mounted in turn on the end of the same horizontal spindle, after which the striated marks of the grinding are removed by a set of little polishing wheels worked in similar fashion by the rocking pedals. The object is now shaped ready to be carved in artistic relief with the lap wheels, or to be pierced through and through with the diamond drill and subsequently cut in open fretwork designs with the wire saw, the wire being inserted into holes pierced by the drill for the purpose.

“ The lap wheels, which are little iron discs like small flat-headed nails, and are consequently called ‘ nails ’ by the Chinese lapidary, are hammered into the hollow end of a light iron spindle which is kept in motion by a leather strap worked by the treadles. The diamond drill is worked by hand and is kept in revolution by the usual string-bow wielded by the right hand of the operator, while he holds the jade in his left; the cup-shaped head-piece of the drill is fixed above to a horizontal bar, on which a heavy stone weight is hung as a counterpoise to give the necessary pressure. Another phase of the diamond drill is exhibited in the boring of smaller objects, which are floated upon boatshaped supports in a bamboo tub of water while they are being bored ; the cup-shaped headpiece of the drill now rests in the left palm of the craftsman, who keeps it pressed down as he works the string bow with his right hand.

“ Another instrument used by the jade worker for hollowing out the interior of small vases and the like is the tubular drill, a very ancient instrument in all parts of the world. In China it consists of a short iron tube, grooved in two or three places to hold emery paste, which is mounted on the same light iron spindle as the lap wheels. As it works it leaves behind a core, which has to be dug out by little gouges, and anumber of other instruments of varied shape are provided to be worked on the same lathe, for a further scooping out of the interior of a vase that has been previously bored by the tubular drill.

“ The fabric of the piece of jade has now been fashioned and carved with relief designs and openwork decoration, but it still requires a prolonged polishing of the surface to bring out the intrinsic merit of the material. The harder the jade the more it will repay the patient handiwork of the craftsman, who must carefully rub down all scratches and angles left by wheel or saw, as he follows every curve and intricacy of a complicated carving. He must go over the ground again and again to attain in hard stone the fluent lines and delusive softness of the perfect piece, which should seem to have been modelled by the most delicate touch in some soft and plastic substance. The Chinese connoisseur likens a finished work in white jade to liquescent mutton fat, or to congealed lard, shaped as it were by the fire. The polishing tools are made of fine-grained wood, dried gourd skin, and ox leather, and are charged with the ruby-dust paste, the hardest of all. For polishing the surface there is a graduated series of revolving wooden wheels, from fifteen inches in diameter downwards, which are mounted upon a wooden spindle and worked upon the reciprocal treadle lathe. For searching out the deeper interstices of the carved work there is a selection of wooden plugs and cylinders of varied size and shape fitted to hold the abrasive, down to the smallest points, which are cut out of the rind of the bottle gourd. The revolving wheels which give the final polish are bound round with ox leather stitched together with hempen thread.”

An interesting illustration of a jade carver’s workshop is shown in Plate ii.

The carvings developed from the early spear heads and weapons to ritual tokens, and thence to the imperial emblems and the fixed Ritual of the Chou dynasty, and passing on through the succeeding centuries jade became the principal medium through which a vast and mighty people expressed their pietistic beliefs.

Some idea of the extensive use and importance of jade can be gathered from the following list of the contents of the Ku-yu t’ou p’u,

“ Illustrated Description of Ancient Jade,” in ioo books, of the collection belonging to the second Emperor of the Southern Sung dynasty, , printed in the year a.d. i 176 :

Further confirmation of the importance attached to jade by the Chinese is afforded by the inscription on the stone slab of the Han dynasty found in the Tombs of the Wu Family, in the neighbourhood of the City of Chia-hsiang-hsien in the Province of Shantung, which details the “ Felicitous omens that herald the rule of a virtuous sovereign,” as follows :—

The Well of Pure Water that appears mysteriously without boring.

The Tripod capable of cooking food without heat.

The Spotted Unicorn called Ch’i-lin.

The Dragon of the Yellow River.

The Marvellous Plant capable of indicating the day of the month.

The Six-legged Monster.

The White Tiger of Jade.

The Jade Horse.

The Jade Rock growing in marvellous manner from the ground.

The Red Bear.

The Twin Tree with two trunks united above.

The Gem (pi-lui-li) disc shaped with round hole in the middle.

The deep green Tablet of Jade (hsiian kuei) an ancient badge of rank.

The Two-headed Quadruplets, birds and fishes.

The White Carp that appeared to Wu Wang, the founder of the Chou dynasty.

The White Deer used by foreign envoys when visiting the court of the Emperor Huang Ti.

The Silver Wine Jar (yin wertg).

And lastly the Jade symbol of victory (yii sheug) the form of which resembled that of a weaver’s spindle, or two discs united by a central bar.

The uses of the various creations in jade are ably described by a native writer, quoted by Dr. Bushell, who after referring to many ancient jade objects, historical seals, insignia of rank, girdle buckles and other details of a mandarin’s costume, continues his theme in a summary of 18th and 19th century carvings as follows :—

“ Among the large things carved in Jade, we have all kinds of ornamental vases and receptacles for flowers, large round dishes for fruit, wide mouthed bowls, and cisterns ; among smaller objects, pendants for the girdle, hairpins and rings. For the banquet table there are bowls, cups (see Plate iii), and ewers for wine ; as congratulatory gifts a variety of round medallions and oblong talismans with inscriptions. Beakers and vases are provided to be frequently replenished at wine parties, a wine pot with its prescribed set of three cups for bridal ceremonies. There is a statuette of Buddha of long life to pray to for length of days, a screen carved with the eight immortal genii for Taoist worship (see Plate cxxxv). Jn-i sceptres and fretwork mirror-stands are highly valued for betrothal gifts ; hairpins, earrings, studs for theforehead, and bracelets for personal adornment. For the scholar’s study the set of three (san shih), tripod, vase, and box, is at hand for burning incense, for more luxurious halls sculptured flowers of jade and jewels in jade pots are arranged in pairs, displaying flowers appropriate to the current season of the year. Combs of jade are used to dress the black tresses of beauty at dawn, pillows of jade for the divan to snatch a dream of elegance at noon. Rests for the writer’s wrist lie beside the ink pallet, weights are made for the tongue of the dead laid out for the funeral. Rouge pots and powder boxes provide the damsel with the bloom of the peach, brush pots and ink rests hold the weapons of the scholar in his window. The eight precious emblems of good fortune—the wheel of the law, conch-shell, umbrella, canopy, lotus-flower, jar, pair of fish, and endless knot—adorn the altar of the Buddhist shrine : pomegranates bursting open to display the seeds, sacred peaches, and Buddha’s hand citrons, appear as symbols of the three all-prayed-for abundances—of sons, of years, of happiness. Linked chains of jade are tokens of lasting friendship, jade seals attest the authenticity of important documents. There are beads for the rosary to number the invocations of Buddha, paper-weights for the writing table of the scholar, tassel ornaments for the fan screen hiding the face of the coquette, and keyless locks of jade for clasping round the necks of children. And lastly mortars and pestles for pounding drugs, thumb-rings for protecting the hand of the archer from the recoil of the bowstring ; jade mouthpieces for the pipes of tobacco smokers, and jade chopsticks for gourmands.”

A large jade bowl, or cistern, rivalling in size the one referred to in the Ku-yii t’ou p’u, stands in one of the courtyards of the imperial palace at Peking. It is noticed in the travels of the celebrated friar Oderic, who commenced his long journeys through Asia in April, 1318, as related in Yule’s Cathay and the Way Thither —

“ The palace in which the great Khan dwells at Cambaluk (Peking) is of great size and splendour. In the midst of the palace is a certain great jar, more than two paces in height, entirely formed of a certain precious stone called Merdacas, and so fine, that I was told its price exceeded the value of four great towns. It is all hooped round with gold, and in every corner thereof is a dragon, represented as in act to strike most fiercely, and this jar has also fringes of network of great pearls hanging therefrom, and these fringes are a span in breadth. Into this vessel drink is conveyed by certain conduits from the court of the palace ; and beside it are many golden goblets from which those drink who list.”

At the fall of the Mongol dynasty, this jar, so lavishly mounted with gold and pearls, disappeared and was stripped of its ornaments. In the 18th century it was found again in the kitchen of a Buddhist temple in the vicinity, where the ignorant monks were using it as a receptacle for salted vegetables. The emperor Ch’ien Lung bought it of them for a few hundred ounces of silver, and composed, to be engraved inside the bowl, an ode in its honour, in which he narrates itshistory. It is a tall bowl, with flat bottom and upright sides, shaped like one of the large pottery fish-bowls, caMed yiikajig,1 which the Chinese use in their gardens for gold fish or lotus flowers, and is boldly carved upon the exterior with grotesque monsters and winged horses disporting in sea-waves.

The Mongol emperors of Hindustan were also lovers of jade, and it is well known that beautiful carvings in white and sage-green nephrites were produced under their patronage ; these were often incrusted with rubies, emeralds and other precious stones, for which the soft tints of the jade afford a most effective background. The varieties of jade, from which they were carved, were originally imported into India from Eastern Turkestan, and were derived probably from the same districts from which the Chinese obtained their supplies of crude jade. After the Chinese conquest of Eastern Turkestan, many of these Indian carvings were imported into Peking, and it is not uncommon to find in a European collection such a piece of characteristically delicate and graceful Indian work (see Plate iv), incised with a Chinese inscription in verse attesting its origin, and with the imperial seals of Ch’ien Lung attached. Much of the finest work in jade was executed in the palace at Peking during his reign, and we are told that the imperial workshops of the period included a special branch called Hsi Fan Tso, or “ Indian School,” which was devoted to the reproduction of Indian works. An exceptionally fine example of this type of work is the jewelled Buddha in the Collection of Her Majesty Queen Mary, reproduced as frontispiece to this volume.

The jewelled jades of China, which are occasionally met with, date for the most part from this period, and were perhaps mainly inspired from the same source. They are usually flat plates, intended to be mounted as small screen pictures, carved out of white jade, incrusted with figure scenes or other details, inlaid with rubies, amethysts, lapis lazuli and emerald-green jadeite, they are cut in thin slices or set en cabochon, and are etched with gilded lines to complete the designs. The soft looking jade ground makes an inimitable foil for the brilliant colouring and flashing sheen of the inlaid jewels.

The Chinese term for Jade, Yu, covers a large range of stones including the Agate, Quartz, and Fluor families, in contrast to the accepted mineralogical classification of the present day European scientist, who confines the term Jade to three varieties, Nephrite, Jadeite and Chloromelanite : it is of the carvings executed by the Chinese in these last-named stones only that this book will treat. Nephrite is composed mainly of Silica and Magnesia, and is dependant for its green colour upon the amount of iron present, whereas Jadeite is composed mainly of Silica and Alumina, also obtaining its fine green colour from the presence of iron. Although both of these minerals are known as Jade, their individuality can easily be proved by the simple specific gravity test—Nephrite (sp. g. about 3.0) floating in a liquid ofintermediate density, Jadeite (sp. g. about 3.33) sinking easily in the same liquid. Another test, unfortunately of a destructive character— though only a minute filing is necessary for its performance, is to note the behaviour of the minerals under heat. Nephrite becomes white and cloudy and fuses with difficulty to a grey slag ; Jadeite fuses easily even in an ordinary candle flame, colouring the flame a bright yellow, through the presence of sodium, which it contains in generous proportions.

A further and more definite test with a filing of the minerals may be made with the mineralogical microscope ; with this instrument the structural difference between Nephrite and Jadeite is quite apparent. For those interested in mineralogical research into the properties of Jade, reference to the works of Damour (1863) and of Dr. Max Bauer (1904) will supply useful information of fundamental importance. From these writings the following interesting analyses and data respecting the comparative hardness of the mineral are derived.
The various hardness of different minerals is based on the comparative hardness between themselves and the scale known as Moh’s Hardness Scale, which latter gives the following values for certain minerals :
Nephrite and Jadeite are relatively known as 5f and 6f, and it is therefore clear that many writers have erred in referring to jade as being very hard. This mistake has probably arisen owing to the toughness of jade, and the consequent difficulty of carving it. It is best described as being very finely fibrous to compact aggregates, and to this fine uniform texture its wonderful tenacity is mainly due.


(Sp. g. 3.4. Hardness 6^-7)

A black variety of Jadeite, obtained to-day in Burma, would appear to belong to the class to which Damour in 1865 gave the name “ Chloromelanite.” Recent research suggests that many black carvings dating from remote antiquity also come under this heading, and the reader is therefore referred to the analysis given here, from which it will be seen at once that there is a close relationship between this mineral and Jadeite ; Silica, Alumina and Soda being equally prominent in each. In fact it is a ferruginous and heavy variety of Jadeite. The discovery of an axehead in France first led to the introduction of this name, and interesting matter relative to this mineral will be found in standard books on Mineralogy. The exact situation of the mines or quarries from which the Chinese obtained this rock are unknown, but their use of the mineral is proved by several of the Black Jade carvings still extant.

In determining the stone used for a carved object, the mineralogist is severely-handicapped by the owner’s natural reluctance to permit the removal of any but the most minute filing or chip ; and even this must be taken from an inconspicuous part of the design.
In spite of this difficulty, however, the material can often be identified with certainty. In the first place, the density can be determined by weighing the object, first in air and then immersed in water ; this procedure is, however, rather tedious and the result not always decisive, for the densities of some hard stones are not very widely separated.
Of late years the density test has largely been superseded or supplemented by optical tests. Minute chips or filings are immersed in an oil of suitable refractive index and examined under the microscope. Like Mr. H. G. Wells’s “ Invisible Man,” the chips practically disappear when they are immersed in a liquid of their own average refractive index ; by trial with a series of prepared liquids the index can thus be very quickly ascertained, and its value is characteristic of many varieties of hard stone. Actually the optical tests are rendered more complicated and also more distinctive because the minerals usually vary in refractive index according to the direction in which the light is vibrating ; from this arise several ancillary tests which aid in characterising each variety.
The same filings often exhibit the characteristic texture or interweaving of the component crystals, to which the tenacity of jade is largely due. Nephrite is usually composed of long thin fibres minutely felted, while jadeite is splintery, showing the flat cleavage faces of the broken crystal grains. Ordinary jades are colourless in small fragments, but the darker varieties sometimes yield brilliant green chips. Other stones have their own distinctive characters, such as the granular texture of quartzite or the parallel felting of chalcedony.
Natural jade grades into other types of rock by the admixture of inferior minerals such as felspar. Most worked jades are, however, of fairly pure material ; and this is due, firstly to the destruction of the softer boulders by attrition in the river bed, and secondly to careful choice by merchants and craftsmen. Nevertheless certain objects, especially in early times, were made of less pure jade.
Even the general appearance, with a hardness test, will generally serve to distinguish jade from other stones, but in certain varieties the latter may simulate jade so closely that a test with the microscope becomes essential. Other stones which closely resemble jade in appearance include the following :
Smaragdite, a hard emerald-green stone, distinguished by its dense green colour, opacity, and the presence of white irregular clouds or veins.
Quartzite, which sometimes resembles the yellow and brown jades but is usually saccharoidal in texture.
Serpentine, which attains hardness 5 in the variety bowenite.
Steatite and Pyrophyllite, distinguished by their softness.
Chalcedony, nearly always showing some trace of agate or onyx banding or “ moss ” structure.
Chrysoprase, having a uniform light apple-green colour.
Jasper, of a darker green and colour more opaque in appearance than jade, and Indian Avanturine, distinguished by the “ flash ” of minute mica flakes.
Finally, it should be borne in mind that certain jade objects may exhibit patches of inferior hardness, whether due to natural alteration in the original rock or to the action of fire or, as some hold, to prolonged burial. They may also develop brown colouring and opacity ; very often a part of the stone has remained in the normal condition, and the characteristic felted or crystalline texture can be seen to persist throughout.