Jade Carving, China: Characteristics, Types, History (2022)

Chinese Meaning of "Yu"

The Chinese character "yu" is always translated into English as "jade". However, this translation masks an important difference between Chinese and Western culture, since in Chinese or Korean art the meaning of jade is considerably wider than the Western meaning. A more correct translation of "yu" might be "hard ornamental stone", since Chinese craftsmen usually employ the term "yu" to cover several related jadelike stones, including bowenite (a form of serpentine), as well as jadeite and nephrite. Although jade is popularly thought of in the West as a greenish material, in China, it has always been white jade that has traditionally been more highly prized than green.


Since the era of ancient art, traditional Chinese jade carvings were made from nephrite, a crystalline calcium magnesium silicate, which in its pure natural state is creamy white, although the presence of iron impurities may turn it green, yellow, brown, grey, or even black. Measuring between 6.0 and 6.5 Mohs in hardness, Nephrite is slightly softer than jadeite, with a greasy lustre, and was sourced chiefly from Yarkand and Hotan in the Xinjiang autonomous region of northwestern China.


Since about 1800, Chinese jade carvers have also used jadeite, another (harder) type of jade, imported from northern Myanmar (Burma). A granular sodium-aluminum silicate, measuring between 6.0 and 7.0 Mohs in hardness, jadeite (also known as "feicui") is a translucent stone, typically brilliant green in colour, that often has a glassy appearance. Rarer colours include pink, lavender, orange or brown.

Other Chinese Jade Stones

China was, and is, one of the world's top sources of jade stones. The most popular varities include: Hetian jade, Dushan jade, Xiuyan jade and turquoise. Lesser stones include agate, malachite, aventurine, and mixian county jade.

Hetian Jade
Arguably the finest jade in China, Hetian is mined in Hetian County, Xinjiang. Semi-transparent, and consisting almost entirely of tremolite, Hetian jade comes in creamy-white, lamb-fat white, and grey-white jade, as well as turquoise, black, yellow and other colours.

Dushan Jade
Also called Nanyang jade because it is mainly processed in Nayang City, Henan Province. Composed mostly of anorthite and zoisite, Dushan jade is used mostly for decoration and has a greasy, vitreous shine. The main colours include white jade, green, green-white, purple, yellow and black, and lotus red. Dushan Jade objects were discovered in the imperial tombs of the Shangs.

Xiuyan Jade
A semi-transparent green jade, composed of both tremolite and actinolite in varying degrees, it comes from Xiuyan city in Liaoning Province, in northeastern China. Xiuyan jade comes in blue-green, yellow-green, and light white colours, and has a softer texture than other types of jade, with a waxy lustre after polishing. It is used for large-scale jade carvings and items of furniture.

Mined since the Shangs, when it was used to overlay bronze - but also imported from Ancient Persia - turquoise is one of the oldest jade stones, and comes in blue and green colours of various hues. Turquoise was used mostly for statues and other forms of sculpture, such as figures of Buddha. Today, turquoise - especially the brilliant blue varieties - is found mainly in Zhushan of the Shiyan Prefecture, in Hubei province.

Another example of traditional Chinese craftwork is "zhezhi" - better known in the West as Origami paper folding, the name given to its sister version from Japan - was invented (reportedly) around 1,000 CE.

Types of Jade Carvings

Initially, jade carvings were limited to Neolithic and Bronze Age tools, including axes, arrowheads, chisels, and the like.

The ancient Chinese considered the sky to be round and the earth to be square, so they made round and square shaped objects out of jade, in order to offer sacrifices to heaven and earth. Popular animal shapes included the dragon and phoenix - both divine animals revered in ancient China. Jade was also used for tomb objects carved to honour ancestors, exorcise evil, and protect against disasters, while personal jade items were worn in order to purify one's soul.

Later, Jade became a favourite material of the Chinese scholar class, especially for personal objects, like holders for calligraphy brushes, and even mouthpieces for opium pipes, due to the popular notion that they would bestow longevity on the smoker.

Other categories of jade objects included: (1) Ritualistic objects, such as the bi, the cong, the huang, the hu, the gui and the zhang. (2) Ceremonial weaponry - jade daggers and swords - and associated fittings. (3) Personal items of jewellery or adornment, including rings, pendants, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, hairpins, clasps, buckles, belt decorations, and so on. (4) Domestic items for decorating houses. (5) Small figurative carvings of animals, and people.

See also: Ivory Carving, and wood carving.

History of Chinese Jade

The history of art in China reflects the huge significance attached to the jade stone, which is considerably greater than the West's love of diamonds and gold. Ever since the era of Xia culture (1700-1600 BCE), the most precious objects crafted for the Emperor and his court were made of jade.

For important dates in the evolution of jade sculpture in China, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present).

Neolithic Jades

The earliest examples of jade discovered in the area of the middle and lower Yangtze River have been dated to the era of Neolithic art, in particular the Majiabang culture (c.4000-2000 BCE) as well as the later Songze and Qingliangang cultures of northeastern China. (See: Chinese Neolithic Art.) Particularly sophisticated jade items have been found in Liangzhu culture settlements (c.2500 BCE) in southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang provinces (c.3400–2200 BCE). Believed to be largely ceremonial objects, they include the earliest known examples of the "cong" - cylindrical tubes encased in rectangular blocks, symbolizing yin [square, earth, female] and yang [circular, heaven, male] and associated with Neolithic shamanism - as well as the "bi", the flat, perforated disk which was later adopted as the symbol of heaven. Archeologists have also found numerous ceremonial gui and zhang blades, adze heads, axes and knives, plus a wide variety of ornamental circular and arc-shaped jade pendants, bracelets and necklaces, together with a number of masks.

Shang Dynasty (c.1600–1050 BCE)

During the era of Shang dynasty art, notably at Anyang, a new range of jade objects began to be carved, such as ceremonial weapons and their fittings, as well as ritual jades (the cong, the bi), personal jewellery, and dress ornaments. In addition, a range of small figurative sculpture appeared, such as birds and animals carved in the round, including the earliest examples of "mingqi" - jade figures representing individual servants which were buried in the tombs of wealthy aristocrats, in order to serve the deceased.

Zhou Dynasty (1050-221 BCE)

During the era of Zhou Dynasty art, production of jade cong, bi and other ritual forms was maintained, while a new series of sceptres was produced to denote the differing ranks of the nobility, and to act as ceremonial batons. Also, jade plugs and plaques were used to seal the seven orifices of the deceased's body before burial. To begin with, Zhou jade craftsmen imitated the designs of their Shang predecessors, but during the middle period of the dynasty, they started to introduce less-systematic designs, featuring zoomorphic motifs which later gave way to more abstract patterns. Other developments included the use of iron tools and harder abrasives, which gave carvers more sculptural options. More intricate jade relief sculpture appeared, including designs for ornamental scabbard and dress fittings and plaques, some of which were made from incredibly thin sheets of jade.

Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)

By the time of Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE) and its successor - Han Dynasty art - jade objects were becoming increasingly embellished with animal and other decorative designs, while Zhou carvers became highly skilled in the creation of detailed relief work on items like belt-hooks, clasps and plaques that were part of the typical aristocrat's wardrobe.

The most extraordinary jade artworks of the Han Dynasty were the "jade suits" made for deceased nobles to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife. These amazing ensembles, include those for Prince Liu Shen and his wife Princess Dou Wan, made from over 2,000 jade plaques sewn together with as much as almost threequarters of a kilo of gold thread. Another jade suit, fashioned from more than 4,000 plaques, was discovered in the royal tomb of Zhao Mo.

Other jade carvers borrowed motifs from Chinese painting and from bronze sacrificial vessels, as a means of showcasing their technical flair. See: Tang Dynasty art (618-906).

For a long time thereafter, jade remained the exclusive preserve of the royal imperial families, and since the time of Song Dynasty art (960-1279), jade carving has been seen as a major art form, reaching its peak during the era of Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644), when another world renowned artform - blue and white Chinese porcelain - was also achieving its apogee.

Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)

Until the era of Qing Dynasty art, Chinese jade objects were made of nephrite (or bowenite), known as white jade, or Khotan. Then, around 1800, merchants began importing a vivid green variety of jadeite from Burma, known as Feicui, or Kingfisher Feathers Jade. This new stone quickly became the favourite of the Manchu court, although scholars and old-style aristocrats maintained a preference for the milky white jades made from nephrite. During the Qing period the production of jade utensils came to a peak, featuring items like jade cups, bowls, drinking vessels, and bottles, used mainly by royal and noble families.

Further Resources

For more about traditional arts and crafts in China, see the following:

- Chinese Pottery (from c.10,000 BCE)
- Terracotta Army Warriors (c.208 BCE)
- Chinese Painters (from c.220 CE).
- Arts of the Six Dynasties (220-618 CE)
- Sui Dynasty art (589-618)
- Yuan Dynasty art (1271-1368)
- Japanese Art

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