Splendors of Imperial China:
Jades from the National Palace Museum
Review by Eric J. Hoffman (originally for Friends of Jade Newsletter)

Wade-Giles transliteration used

Aficionados of Chinese jade quickly come to know the famous examples in Taiwan's National Palace Museum. The NPM's numerous jade books, and others, have widely published these jades. Now there is a rare opportunity to see many of these famous jades in person, as 440 of NPM's finest Chinese works of art tour this country. "It's the greatest show of Chinese art in the West of all time," says Wen Fong, the Metropolitan Museum's Chinese art expert.

The exhibition schedule of "Splendors of Imperial China: Treasures from the National Palace Museum, Taipei" is:

I had the pleasure of visiting this exhibit in New York. About half the space is devoted to paintings and calligraphy, which after all are considered the two most important arts in China (we Friends of Jade members must remember that, in China, jade carving is officially a "minor" art). But there are plenty of jades, too—all world-class museum pieces that we have come to know and admire from countless books—selected from NPM's mind-boggling collection of 10,923 jades.

The chronologically organized exhibit begins with a huge (16" diameter) creamy white Neolithic pi and a 19" tall dark green ts'ung with 17 registers (both 3rd Millennium BC). How could the technology of 5000 years ago fashion such a ts'ung out of nephrite? Next is the famous 2nd Millennium BC white jade tablet with eagle motif, inscribed (upside down, the exhibit points out) with Ch'ien-lung's seals and commentary. A late Shang bird-form p'ei pendant, altered white, is one of the largest ever (4.5"). A Warring States beaker with handle displays a chrome green splash—very unusual for nephrite. The famous NPM Han Dynasty striding pi-hsieh (3.6") is next, as well as a pair of typical Warring States p'ei dragon pendants with C-scrolls.

The next group features a Northern Sung jade book of 16 slips with gold incised text describing a ritual performed by Emperor Chen-tsung, dated 1008. In the next room is a small (2.9") but exquisite Liao (916-1125) white, winged fish-dragon pendant and the widely published NPM black seated ram with rider, once dated Han, now "Yuan or later."

After a short stretch without jades, the visitor comes to an impressive exhibit of Ming, Ch'ing, and Hindustan jades. Included are a 20-piece set of white jade Ming belt plaques, a Ming peach-shaped brush dipper with phoenix and blossoms carved in openwork from the caramel skin (a personal favorite), a spinach green 6.4" tall brush holder with deep relief (Ch'ien-lung, his poem carved into the rim), one of Ch'ien-lung's double seals, and—the only jadeite exhibited—a brilliant green belthook.

Ch'ien-lung's connoisseurship is given special prominence, for "At the height of [his] collecting activities, there were probably more than 1,000,000 objects—antiquities and contemporary works—in the Imperial collections." Of special interest—and rarely seen in museums—is a group of three wood Imperial "Treasure Boxes," their secret compartments and swing-out and sliding shelves holding up to 30 miniature works of art. One had a tiny inventory book, another a microscopically carved walnut shell, but mostly these "boxes of many treasures" were filled with tiny jades. Something for the Emperor to play with on a rainy day!

The exhibit ends where it began, with a group of archaic jades, including the well known Neolithic pi (11" diam.) which Ch'ien-lung had carved with his seals and inscriptions. The sign notes, "Ch'ien-lung may have been the first to date this group of jades correctly."

This show is unusually well documented, with three catalogs, a videotape, and (ah, brave new world!) a $25 CD-ROM. The "popular" catalog is Splendors of Imperial China ($35), the "scholarly" catalog is Possessing the Past ($85, with a 31 pp chapter on jade by James Watt), and a specialized catalog is Beyond Representation: Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy. Of course, the NPM publishes many books devoted solely to jade; these may be the first choice for Friends of Jade members.

The gift shop sells special NPM scroll painting reproductions done very realistically in Japan on silk, for up to $1500. Also offered is a decidedly unrealistic 16" fiberglass reproduction of a green jade K'ang-hsi water buffalo ($210; it was not in the exhibit).

For jade lovers, this show is worth a trip. Considerable controversy surrounded the release of these pieces from Taiwan; once they return home they may not be seen again in the West for a long, long time.