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GIA Museum Presents Ancient Chinese Jade Carvings from Smithsonian Institution

Nazha Slaying of the Dragon King: This scene from the battle of Nazha and the Dragon King is represented in the mineral nephrite. Transfer from the Department of Mineral Sciences, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.

A collection of intricate Chinese jade carvings will be showcased in the GIA Museum in Carlsbad, Calif., May 24 – Oct. 31. Magic, Myths, and Minerals: Chinese Jades from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery will be on loan from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES). It includes 37 ancient jade sculptures dating from the Shang dynasty (13th–11th century B.C.E.) through the Qing dynasty (17th–18th century).

The exhibition explores the art of jade carving, touching on the significance and use of jade in Chinese society. It also introduces the extraordinary skills required to shape and polish this beautiful but incredibly tough gemstone.

Smooth and lustrous, jade has fascinated the Chinese for more than 5,000 years. In ancient China, jade was recognized not only for its beauty and durability, but also for its reputed magical or supernatural qualities. It was believed that jade preserved the human body after death. Early Chinese jades were often fashioned for use in religious ceremonies and burial rites, and jade objects were frequently interred in the tombs of China’s ruling elite.

Most of the sculptures in this exhibition were not made for ceremonial purposes, but rather for private appreciation. The jade objects are divided into sections that explain the significance of what is represented, including animals, birds, dragons, horses, elephants, and signs of the Chinese, among others.

Ring ornament: A boy stands on a bank of clouds while a serpentine dragon arches to confront him. The rings held by the boy may represent the magic golden bracelets that Nazha used as weapons. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Arthur M. Sackler.

“The pieces in the exhibition vary as much in their appearance as they do in their significance,” noted GIA Museum Director Elise Misiorowski. One piece depicts a mandarin duck – an emblem of faithfulness and marriage – holding a lotus blossom in its beak. Another piece represents an elephant, which is regarded as a wise and patient animal in Chinese lore. Fashioned during the Song dynasty (10th–13th century), this piece displays the detail of a genuine elephant, taking into consideration its wrinkled skin, curved tusks, veined ears, and large toenails.

A segment of the exhibition illustrates how jade sculptures were carved in early times. “Ancient people had few tools available that were capable of carving jade,” said GIA Museum Curator Terri Ottaway. “Artisans applied a paste made from ground garnets, quartz sand, or other abrasive particles, and gradually wore away small areas of the jade to shape a sculpture.”

“Magic, Myths, and Minerals interprets the symbolism of these jade pieces and describes what they meant to their original owners,” said Misiorowski. Artisans recognized the power of these symbols and used them to enliven their works. “It is indeed a breathtaking display, and what a benefit to the San Diego community for such an impressive Smithsonian collection to be on display here at GIA.”

Ram from the Qing dynasty. Photo courtesy Smithsonian Institution. Gift of Arthur M. Sackler.

Magic, Myths, and Minerals: Chinese Jades from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is organized by SITES in cooperation with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. The exhibition is made possible in part by the Blakemore Foundation and the Smithsonian Special Exhibition Fund. GIA’s Museum galleries are open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m., and are free and available to the public through scheduled tours. Contact Yvette Wilson, Guest Services supervisor, to schedule a tour: call 800-421-7250, ext. 4116. Outside the U.S., call 760-603-4116.

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The Institute was chosen among some of the nation’s most renowned museums to display this coveted piece, according to Ottaway.
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