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Red Jade

May 2005

…..With the red tablet Zhang, he renders homage to the South.
(The ceremonial items of the Great Superior of the Rites as reported in the Zhou-Li,)

Nephrite with red color can be roughly divided into three categories, river pebbles surface stained (russet or rusty red), jade carvings cinnabar powder coated (bright mercury sulphide red) and Neolithic natural in-depth (honey or brick red) altered implements.

Russet or rusty red naturally stained white Jade pebbles from Xinjiang and from Siberia

Cinnabar coated yellowish Nephrite Jade plate with Taotie mask
(Shang Dynasty – from Rawson Chinese Jade, p.221)

Neolithic axe blade in reddish honey colored Nephrite Jade
(Dawenkou/Longshan Culture – from Rawson Chinese Jade, p.176)

One of the most striking examples of a Red Jade Implement is the beautiful Neolithic Bi from the Liangzhu Culture adorning the cover of Jessica Rawson’s book Chinese Jades and described in detail on p.132 of this book.
During my last visit to my favored Liangzhu Jade Implements “reproducer” Mr. Wu, I brought him a copy of this book and we quickly started to discuss the “red jade” topic. Mr. Wu is specializing in making copies of Neolithic Liangzhu Jade artifacts. He initiates a particular reproduction project once he has found a Liaoning Nephrite Jade matching in color and structure already very closely the original Liangzhu artifacts and thus requiring little additional “treatments”.

Liaoning rough Jade pieces used by Mr. Wu for his Liangzhu reproductions

I showed him the picture of the “red” Liangzhu Bi and his first gut reaction was “that’s a very good copy”! He then quickly went into his back office and brought out a spherical bead of about 4cm diameter, the result of one of his recent “red Liangzhu Jade” experiments.

Rounded modern red Nephrite bead next to the Rawson “red Liangzhu Bi” picture

We placed the sphere next to the picture and Mr. Wu started to closely compare the colors and their repartition within the Jade body. We agreed that the color of the “red” matched very closely the tinge of the original Bi as far as the reproduction in the book rendered the true color tinge. Mr. Wu then observed the transition from the red to the white parts and pointed out that in his reproduction the “red” areas are well delimitated whereas in the original Bi no net boundary between the two areas exits and a more diffuse color distribution is noticeable.
The red color is given by iron (Fe+++) compounds infiltrating the Tremolite or Actinolite needle/felt structure of the Nephrite.

Mr. Wu “red Jade” bead showing the net boundary between the red and white areas

Based on this analysis Mr. Wu recalled his initial analysis “it’s a copy” and Jessica’s honor was saved. But be on alert, the next copies from Mr. Wu will certainly also take in account this fact!

Modern Nephrite Jade Huang next to an ancient Liangzhu Jade one (picture)

In order to get a feeling how the starting material of Liaoning Nephrite Jade looks like to get such “red” colored Jades, we went to his workshop nearby, where he showed me a rough form which several Huang’s (bracelet sized rings) and other implements will be made.

The original Liaoning material has plenty of reddish crusts and also in depth coloring all derived from in-situ weathering as eroded and river transported pebbles and boulders.

A wetted Liaoning Jade rough, cut and drilled ready to be shaped into Huang’s.

Backside of the pre-shaped ring, revealing a pinkish, cream colored interior and also Manganese dendrites infiltrating along defects fractures.

The original rough and the Huang ring in reddish pink Liaoning Nephrite waiting for final polishing

Some conclusions

Ancient Neolithic Liangzhu Jades have quite often attractive red color patches where this color is more than skin deep as generally noticeable in the Xinjiang River Jade Pebbles.

The Liangzhu colors can be matched quite well, by local Jade carvers, by using Nephrite Jade from Liaoning. This Northern China River Jade comes in multiple colors and hues and one of the key tasks of any carver is to find and then select the proper section in the Jade roughs so to make excellent Neolithic Jade copies. In this endeavor the modern carver, here Mr. Wu, is probably not much different then his 4000 BC predecessor when he started to select ”beautiful stones” so to prepare the original and exquisite Liangzhu Jade implements.

As for the source of the Liangzhu Jade, a transport over 1000Km from Liaoning is probably unlikely but rock weathering conditions within the Lianghzu culture area probably were quite similar and further investigation of the recently discovered Jade working site near Dingshadi town, in Baohuaxing, Jurongashi in nearby Jiangsu Province could reveal some interesting connections. (See also Prehistoric Jade Working based on Remains at the Site of Dingshadi p.31 in Enduring Art of Jade Age China Volume II published by Throckmorton Fine Art, NYC 2002)

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