Jade, a material inextricably connected to the artistic culture of China, has fascinated Chinese artisans and connoisseurship for a very long time. Often perceived as a stone of spiritual power, jade became associated with rituals and immortality. Since Neolithic time, artisans used such magical stone and created ceremonial objects to preserve the dead and protect the living. With many rich colours and shades, jade carvers have further enhanced the beauty of the stone with their superb craftsmanship. Together with the natural qualities of the stone, such as glitter and translucency, jades were restricted to royalty and the elite in the sumptuary laws.
Jades are generally differentiated into nephrite and jadeite by their characteristic appearance and hardness, despite the Chinese commonly used the word yu to describe both minerals. Nephrite, ranges from creamy white through green, yellow, brown, even to black, was the most used mineral in Chinese jade objects until the era of the Qing Dynasty. The supply of nephrite increased drastically under the ruling of the Manchurians of the Qing Dynasty after the Qianlong Emperor (1736 – 1795) conquered of Xinjiang, where Hotan, a major county with rich nephrite deposits was located. Jadeite, a harder mineral known as feicui with vivid green colour, quickly received attention from the Manchu court when Merchants began importing them from Burma around 1800. Wealthy Merchants and local artists had gradually chosen animals and human figurines as the main subject matters to respond to the growing market for decorative styles. With steady inflow of raw materials, imperial patronage, combined with the deeply rooted auspicious symbols in ancient Chinese iconography, the jade industry enjoyed unprecedented growth.
Today, both nephrite and jadeite remain a major category among collectors of Chinese Works of Arts. Jade artisans utilised the precious stone as a painting surface and incorporated superb hand-carving techniques to create highly appreciated works of art. Connoisseurs not only admired the sharp smooth edges, carving, rich colours and transparency of jades, but also the moral beauty, meaning and virtues famously commented by the great Confucius.
Jade Monkey Group, Qing Dynasty, Courtesy of the V&A Museum
儘管中國常用玉一字，其實它只是一類礦石的泛稱，通常以其特有的特質而分為軟玉和硬玉。軟玉是中國傳統的玉料，按顔色黃玉，青玉，碧玉與白玉等。自乾隆皇帝（1736 – 1795年）征服新疆後，在清代滿洲人的統治下，軟玉的供應急劇增加，正是因爲在那裡有一個具有豐富軟玉礦床的主要縣 – 和田。然而硬玉在中國廣泛稱爲翡翠。其特點為翠綠色豐富，光澤強與折射率高。當商人大約從1800年開始從緬甸進口此玉料時，翡翠迅速受到清官庭的注意。另外，由於高品質的翡翠僅產於緬甸特定的礦脈，產地的惟一性也增加了它的高貴品質。隨著各種原材料的穩步流入，富有的商人和地方藝術家也逐漸地選擇動物和人的雕像作為主題來響應裝飾風格與市場需求。加上帝國的庇護以及中國古代圖像中根深蒂固的吉祥符號，玉石工業在18世紀的清朝享有前所未有的增長。