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With two curved handles attached below the rim, gui is a bronze vessel for storing food during the Shang and Zhou dynasties. “Nine large guis” is a saying which often refers to nine sumptuous dishes. By the later Warring States period, gui had fallen out of fashion, while another type of eating utensil named “dui” was introduced. Dui is spherical in shape, with two identical sections. The top section is a lid usually with three handles, which could be used as a bowl if it was turned upside down. Yet, dui eventually fell out of use during the Han dynasty.


During the Qing dynasty, Hotan in Xinjiang was famous for its precious soft jade stones. These materials were not limited to small pieces, but also included large chunks of jade. Therefore, jade carvers were able to transform these large stones into three-dimensional landscapes, carving scenery such as mountains, forests, birds, flowers, and pavilions. However, only the royal and wealthy families were able to display them.


During the Song to Qing dynasties, the royal family had a great appreciation for art, and the literates valued the theme of ancient jade carvings. These preferences broadened the subjects for jade carvings, including scenes such as bird catching fish, deer in the forest, magpies on plum blossoms, monkeys riding horses, and ancient dragons. These themes depicted aspects of daily life, auspicious symbols, and a love for antiquity.


From the Han to Tang dynasties, three-dimensional jade carvings became the mainstream. These jade carvings were intricate, mostly depicting mythical creatures and animals. Rather than standing, they were depicted, either lying down or sitting, with bent limbs. Larger reclining animals made of wood or stone were often used as mat weight for stabilization. Therefore, the intricate jade animals should be the imitation of these mat weights. Besides serving as decorations, they also held the function of ensuring safety and peace.


Four or five thousand years ago, ancient people had already managed to fashion production tools, personal ornaments and religious artefacts out of jade. They believed the sky to be round and the earth to be square. The idea of “Round Sky, Square Earth” was then recognized as the symbol of Chinese culture. “Cong”, one of the jade ritual objects from the Neolithic period, has a square pillar shape, with circular bore, interior and base. It represents a perfect world, where the sky and earth are united, for people to live in.


From the Shang to the Warring States period, ancient people produced a large variety of bronze objects. An alloy of copper and zinc, bronze is known for its durability. Early bronze objects were mainly classified as cooking vessels, food containers, and wine vessels. As the most common cooking utensil, ding has three long legs, or sometimes four, which allow easy placement of fire underneath the vessel. The two upright handles positioned at the mouth allow the insertion of wooden rods to lift the hot ding. The flat base of the vessel facilitates the dispersion of heat. In later periods, the function of ding switched from practical to ritual. It often came with a lid and the handles were transformed into loop handles, attached below the mouth. The tripod legs were shortened and the base of the vessel took on a more bowl-like shape, completely altering the original form of the ding.


In the Ming dynasty, the art of jade carving evolved to dynamic design. For example, for figures, the boy holding a lotus started to raise one of his feet. Animals started to appear in running postures too, such as fish swimming in water, and birds flying in the sky. These all showed the liveliness and charm in the works. As for small screen-style decorative pieces, intricate openwork carving with clear and distinct lines that resembling window grilles were found and was recognised as the characteristic of the time.


Starting from the Song dynasty, Jade animals began to be depicted standing on all fours, showcasing the advancements in jade carving during the period. However, these jade animals still did not show any signs of movement. In addition to jade animals, another popular theme in jade carving during the Song dynasty was the depiction of boys holding lotus flowers. These jade boys were also commonly seen with the postures standing on both feet. According to the myths in Buddhism, lotus flowers could transform into boys, and having these jade boy carvings was believed to bring luck and blessings, particularly in matters related to children and their success.


Due to the lack of advanced jade carving techniques, the jade objects from the Shang to Han dynasties were mainly flat, depicting only the outlines of creatures like dragons, tigers, phoenixes, and human figures. For decorative purposes, the objects’ surfaces would be carved into lines of shallow relief. On the other hand, the circular jade bi discs, often used as pendants or ritual objects, were meticulously adorned with subtly raised uniform grain patterns.


Ancient people conceptually considered natural jades as the hardest mineral, which served as their talismans to enhance energy and ward off the evil.

Jades are mainly classified as “soft jade” and “hard jade”. The “soft jade” widely used by ancient people were mainly from Hotan, Xinjiang. Originated from Myanmar, the “hard jade” was introduced to China during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Hard jade, also known as jadeite, is more solid than soft jade, with only green and yellow hues. Soft jade, on the other hand, exists in various colours. While the Ming people favoured yellow jade, the Qing people preferred white jade.

The so-called “blood stains” often found in ancient jades are not the penetration of human blood. They are in fact traces of iron that have oxidized over time and turned into rust.

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