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Collectors’ Exhibition of Archaic Chinese Jades

(Teng Shu-p’ing, Ed.) Taipei: National Palace Museum, 1995. 247 + (2) pp + 4 pp foldout, 91 jades illus in multiple color plates, add’l color and b/w illus. English and Chinese text. Cloth, gilt and silvered, gold endpapers, color illus d.j. and slipcase. 12 x 8 3/4 inches. $125.

With the new prosperity of Asian economies and the growth of international auction activity, important jades are now gravitating toward collections in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, as part of its 70th anniversary celebration, staged an exhibit of the finest archaic jades from five private Taiwanese collections. This lavishly produced book catalogs four of the collections— jades not widely published before. More than half the pieces are from the Yang-te-t’ang collection, published previously in a more modest volume (Ancient Jades from the Yangde Tang Collection, $15). Jades from the Lantien Shanfang collection appear in a separate, even more luxurious catalog.

In three brisk pages, the Introduction reaches back 7500 years to the dawn of China’s recognition of nephrite as a special stone. Its use in weapons, ritual objects, ornaments, and funerary items is briefly recounted. There are some unusual statements, asserting for example that in the early days “Shamans, religious figures with exclusive rights to lead worship, were also the sole masters of jade-cutting techniques ... ” Indeed, the relationship between jade and shamans is stressed throughout the text.

Seven brief sections— each two pages or less— describe the artistic motifs and principal characteristics of the jades of each period covered, from Early Hongshan to Eastern Han. The sources of material, the mineralogy and colors, the carving techniques, and the alterations characteristic of each period are briefly touched upon. A milestone in jade carving came with the use of iron cutting tools during the Warring States, leading to the finely worked examples from that period. By then, native sources of nephrite had become depleted and raw material had to be brought from the distant K’un-lun mountains. This led to the concept of valuing true jade (chen-yu, nephrite) over simulants (min).

Ninety-one jades are then illustrated in color plates, mostly multiple-view. These museum quality pieces range from beads up to a full jade burial suit. The photography is superb, with some impressive close-up detail shots where one can almost feel the tool marks and alteration in the stone. A computer-enhanced picture of one piece brings out the subtle surface carving, the latest high-tech solution to the problem of photographing jade. The excellent photography is diminished, however, by the somewhat peculiar layout. Pieces are typically presented on opposing pages, photo on the right page and caption on the left (the minimal captions, unfortunately, offer little information about the pieces). Pictures are often much smaller than the page would allow, or turned to not take best advantage of the page dimensions (for example, plate 14). Sometimes a small closeup shot or rubbing shares the left page, but often that page is empty or has only a small, useless repeat of the main photo. The net result is a substantial amount of empty white space on both pages. The Chinese preference is to leave white space “for the bird to fly,” but in this case a more efficient layout could have made this book at least 60 pages shorter and therefore more affordable. The book concludes with a stylistic chart and chronology foldout comparing the forms and surface decoration of each period.

The text has a number of minor typos, repeats, and other editing errors surprising in such a lavish book. For the advanced collector or student of jade seeking previously unpublished pieces, this book is a worthwhile addition. However, those just beginning a jade library may want to consider some other books first.

Eric J. Hoffman
(Published in Friends of Jade Newsletter, August 1996)

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