(Victoria & Albert Museum Far Eastern Series)
by Ming Wilson
Hardcover: 127 pp, 116 color & 8 b/w plates.
Victoria & Albert Museum Publications (August 1, 2004)
By Eric Hoffman
London’s Victoria and Albert Museum houses one of the world’s finest collections of Chinese jade. Most of the museum’s examples were acquired before 1910, long before the era of rampant fakery. Ming Wilson’s book provides an up-to-date introduction to jade, as well as a timely reassessment, both of which are worthy of this wonderful collection. Many V&A jades are world famous, but the book also includes many previously unpublished examples. All were beautifully re-photographed by the V&A’s Ian Thomas. The writing is engaging and helpful throughout, cutting to the essence and wasting no words.
Wilson’s introductory chapter on jade’s significance concisely summarizes 7000 years of jade history, taking into account the latest findings and scholarship. She clearly explains the six ritual jades and carefully unravels the puzzle of identifying the jades mentioned in the ancient book Zhouli (Rites of Zhou).
“Personal Ornaments,” the next chapter, traces the history of jade ornaments from the Neolithic to the Qing, speculating on which were male and which were female ornaments. “Food and Wine Vessels” get their own chapter, with examples again in chronological order, starting with a Western Han winged cup. Although the emperor Qianlong’s fascination with the “new vogue” of Hindustan jades is well described, no truly first-rate examples are shown, one small disappointment in an otherwise well-illustrated book.
“Decorative Objects” are covered next, including a number of Imperial pieces and some tour de force technical masterpieces. Wilson clearly explains what the term “Imperial taste” meant for the Qianlong emperor. In “Animal & Human Figures,” Wilson discusses some of the most common motifs seen in small jade figures, such as the Boy with Lotus Branch. The V&A’s famous two-piece Han torso of a horse, which decorates the cover, is also discussed.
In “The Study of Jade in China,” Wilson explores the Chinese literature on jade, from the ancient texts up through Wu Dacheng’s groundbreaking book Guyu Tukao (1889). The notoriously fraudulent “Song” catalog of Imperial jades Guyu Tupu is thoroughly discussed.
An unusual chapter, “Collecting Chinese Jades in Britain,” provides a fascinating history of the early collectors and donors to the V&A. They included Arthur Wells (d. 1882), one of the first westerners “to appreciate the beauty of jade.” A few American collectors are mentioned as well.
The chapter “Other Hardstones” explains how chalcedonies, in particular, expanded the range of colors available to the lapidary artist. The quartz family also provided rock crystal (“water essence stone”), whose colorless transparency was treasured as a symbol of purity.
Considering the number of fake and intentionally misdated jades on the market today, it is appropriate that this book end with a chapter on “Re-Use, Imitations and Fakes.” Wilson explains how it all started innocently enough, under the Chinese philosophy of fanggu, or respectful imitation of the ancient. But by the 19th century “the art of forgery had degenerated into servile copying solely for financial gains.” Dating jades is a difficult problem. One can rely on art historical considerations, such as anachronisms in the “drawing” of the jade. Three fakes are shown, copied from woodcuts in Guyu Tukao. Ironically, one of the pieces that was copied was itself a fake. As Wilson notes, “Examination of workmanship details is one tool often used by modern scholars, and it may be some years before a more reliable method can be found.” I concur that close study of tooling methods provides one of the most objective means of dating older jades. A number of the illustrations are enlarged enough to permit close scrutiny of the tooling techniques, which can be helpful in this study. This chapter also includes a brief discussion of treated jade and of glass imitating jade.
The book concludes with a 72-entry bibliography. Although it omits some of my favorite jade references, it covers the subject well.
A couple of small errors crept in to this beautifully produced book. The mention of jade as “the chosen material” for ancient ritual vessels (p. 6) may confuse readers at first, until (on p. 36) it is explained that bronze was really the material used. The statement that jade was too “brittle” for tools or weapons (p. 19) is incorrect. In fact, nephrite is the toughest (hardest to break) of all stones, and its utilitarian use may have preceded (or even led to) its ritual and decorative uses. And Qianlong’s jade mountains did not weigh “hundreds of tonnes” (p. 66). The largest, “Da Yu Taming the Flood,” weighs a “mere” 6 tons.
I can recommend Wilson’s book without reservation to all admirers of the Chinese arts. The text is engaging and accessible to those beginning the long journey in jade appreciation, and advanced collectors and scholars will value the beautiful photographs and historical detail.
© Eric J. Hoffman
(Originally published in Adornment, the Newsletter of Jewelry & Related Arts, Vol. 5, No. 1, Dec 2004)