Jades are greatly prized in China, which has a long history in their mining and use. Jadeite, known as feicui in Chinese, originated in modern-day Burma and appeared in China somewhat late in history. A reliable document of jadeite in China is the Travelogues of the Ming-dynasty (1368-1644) figure Xu Xiake, who mentions coming across jadeite three times.1 When the tomb of Li Laoruren in Tengchong, Yunnan, dated to the 17th year of the Chongzhen reign (1644), was excavated in the early 1900’s, it yielded a jadeite bracelet, which is probably the oldest extant jadeite artifact found in China.2 This demonstrates that the Chinese already appreciated Burmese jadeite during the late Ming dynasty.

Photo of gem-set and jadeite hairpins, Qing Dynasty.                              

1. Jadeites in the imperial court

No documentation or material evidence of jadeite in the Ming imperial court has been discovered, but jadeite was certainly present in the imperial court during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In 1733, Governor of Yunnan Zhang Yunsui sent as tributes to the court four jadeite basins and forty boxes of jadeite spheres. The Yongzheng Emperor saw them and instructed Changbao to accept them. This was the first recorded instance of jadeite in the Qing imperial court.3 Many other Qing court documents mention jadeite, referring to it variously as Yunyu, Dianyu (both “Yunnan jade”), and lüyu (“green jade”). For example, “On the sixteenth day of the fifth month of the twenty-ninth year of the Qianlong reign (1764), the eunuch Hu Shijie submitted a round bracelet made from Yunnan jade. Imperial decree conveyed: make another one based on it. So it was decreed. On this day a piece of Yunnan jade was selected and the designs for three bracelets were drawn. These were given to the eunuch Ruyi to present to the emperor for inspection. Imperial decree received: making [of the bracelets] permitted. So it was decreed.”The term feicui first appeared in 1771 in the court document Zaludang (Miscellaneous Records), in an entry dating to the twentieth day of the third month. According to this entry, after the Qianlong Emperor inspected birthday gifts sent by local officials to Yuanmingyuan [the Old Summer Palace], he turned them over to the high official Yinglian to be accepted into the court. Among the gifts was a feicui vase submitted by Zhao Wenbi.5 Gongdang (Records of Tributes) records the submission in 1779 of two feicui gu-shaped flower vases by the Administrator of the Changlu Salt Fields and the Governor of Jiangsu; and the submission in 1780 by the E’er Dengbu, Customs Inspector of Jiujiang, of 26 feicui thumb rings with incised decoration.6

Photo of a jadeite snuff bottle, Qing Dynasty.

2. The various names for jadeite in the Qing court

Qing documents and local officials referred to jadeite by different names, but these disparities have been resolved by crossreferences between physical and documentary evidence. Yunnan governors and officials called different grades of Burmese jadeite Yunyu (“Yunnan jade”) and Yunshi (“Yunnan stone”), thereby turning these foreign imports into “local tribute goods” to the imperial court. The court itself referred to jadeite as lüyu (“green jade”), shuilüyu (“water-green jade”), and Dianyu (“Yunnan jade”), as well as feicui. Early researchers of the Palace Museum called jadeite of average quality cuigen, cuiyugen, and cuiyu.

3. Quantities and varieties of Qing court jadeites

The Palace Museum holds about 400 jadeites, 93% of which came from the Qing imperial collection. The remaining 7% entered the Museum after 1949, including some given by the Ministry of Culture and others donated by private collectors such as Sun Yingzhou and Yang Lingfu. The 400 jadeites can be roughly divided into six categories as follows:

    - Decorative objects: gong vessels, vases, screens, gu-shaped flower vases, flower vases, and jadeite sculptures of a recumbent buffalo, a recumbent hornless dragon, a lioness and her cub, a mallard and her young, a parrot, a rhinoceros, an auspicious elephant omen (taiping youxiang), a miniature mountain, ruyi fungus, a qing chime stone, a bi disc, court ladies, celestial beings, the God of Longevity, Liu Hai playing with his pet toad, etc.

    - Vessels: bowls, covered bowls, spoons, cups, saucers, small cups, braziers, boxes, covered jars, incense burners, incense pouches, short flower pots, tobacco plates, tobacco pipe mouthpieces, tobacco jars, etc.

    - Personal accessories: court necklaces, rosary beads, tubes for holding feathers on court hats, bianfang headgears, thumb rings, rings, hairpins, court hat ornaments, bracelets, pendants, etc.

    - Official stationary: seals (including the Daoguang Emperor’s imperial seal) and document covers.

    - Objects of the studio: brush holders, brush pots, ink stones, screens for ink stones, water pots, paper weights, sealpaste boxes, holding rings, spheres, large rings, xiao pipes, etc.

    - Utilitarian objects: latches, massage rollers, hat-rests, belt hooks, ear-picks, back scratchers, etc.

Vessels and personal accessories account for a large portion of the examples.

4. The sources and manufacture of Qing court jadeites

Jadeites in the Qing imperial court mostly came from local governors and officials, but the Zaobanchu (the Palace workshops) also made some jadeites. The tribute jadeites mostly came from highly developed areas, such as Yunnan, Yangzhou, Suzhou, Tianjin, and Jiujiang, Jiangxi. The Qianlong-Jiaqing reigns (1736-1820) and the Cixi regency (1861-1908) were the two most important periods of jadeite production. There are two jadeites in the Palace Museum dating from the Qianlong period (1736-1795). The first is an archaizing flower vase, somewhat white in color, 19 cm. in height, in the shape of ancient bronze vessels of the gu type, and inscribed with the reign mark Qianlong nianzhi inside the base. The second is a jadeite small cup and saucer, 5.1 cm. in total height, the cup being 7 cm. in diameter, the saucer 18.5 cm. in diameter, and its base 3.1 cm. in diameter. The undersides of both cup and saucer are inscribed Qianlong nianzhi in seal script. These two jadeites, both dated and bearing reign marks, were very likely produced in the Zaobanchu. On the 29th day of the 7th month in the third year of the Jiaqing reign, Jiang Lan, Governor of Yunnan, sent the following tribute goods made from Yunshi jadeite: 20 fruit platters, 20 milk bowls, and 100 thumb rings. Yunshi was the period term for jadeite considered inferior to Yunyu, with less appealing texture and translucency. Indeed, the 19 jadeite bowls bearing Jiaqing reign marks in the Palace Museum are of average quality in color and texture. All inscribed with the reign mark of Jiaqing nianzhi in seal script, the bowls are in two sizes: 5.7 cm. in height, 13.4 cm. in diameter around the mouth, and 7.7 cm. in diameter around the base, or 4.8 cm. in height, 11.2 cm. in diameter around the mouth, and 9.2 cm. in diameter around the base. Consistent in shape with the zhaguzhayamu bowls in the Palace Museum, they were meant to hold tea or milk. These bowls may be the very same Yunshi “milk bowls” sent by Jiang Nan. Also in the Palace Museum collection is a representative piece from the Jiaqing period: a finely finished jadeite sculpture of a recumbent buffalo with round, open eyes and a closed mouth, which is 6.6 cm. in height, 15 cm. in length, and 7.7 cm. in width. According to Gongdang,7 this jadeite buffalo was submitted in the 23rd year of the Jiaqing reign (1818) by Akezhang’a of Yangzhou, and it was created using the same sculpting methods as Hetian jades. Jadeites from the Cixi period are predominantly decorative accessories such as hairpins, pendants, rosary beads, and bracelets.

Photo of a jadeite belt buckle, Qing Dynasty.

5. Emperors and jadeite

Paintings in the Palace Museum afford us a glimpse into the Qing emperors’ and imperial family’s love and use of jadeite. The Amusements of Minning shows the future Daoguang Emperor in informal clothes toying with a jadeite snuff bottle while watching his concubines and children enjoying themselves—a vivid scene of family harmony. In another portrait in informal clothes, Minning is wearing a jadeite thumb ring on his right hand. In a painting of the Xianfeng Emperor and Cixi playing chess, the emperor is wearing not only a jadeite thumb ring but also a belt inlaid with a jadeite plaque that has green tones over a white ground. In a portrait of Xianfeng’s son Daichun (the future Tongzhi Emperor) in informal clothes, the prince is enjoying snuff and holding a jadeite snuff bottle in his right hand. These paintings demonstrate that jadeite was beloved not only by empresses and imperial concubines of the Qing court but by emperors and princes as well. Grandfather, father, and son, the three late-Qing emperors Daoguang, Xianfeng, and Tongzhi shared a taste for jadeite.

Photo of a covered jadeite bowl, Qing Dynasty.

6. Empresses and jadeite

How did empresses and other aristocratic ladies regard jadeite? We can approach this question through a few court paintings. A portrait of Daoguang’s first empress Xiaoshen (1790-1833, maiden name Dongjia) shows her seated and viewing bamboos in a garden. Wearing a blue casual robe with white patterns and holding a fan made with mottled bamboo, the empress is adorned with jadeite bracelets on both her right and left wrists. A portrait of Daoguang’s second empress and Xiaofeng’s birth mother Xiaoquan (1808-1840, maiden name Niugulu) shows her standing behind a rectangular table in informal clothes. In front of her is a young boy at play, probably the future Xiaofeng Emperor. Empress Xiaoquan is wearing jadeite ear ornaments, and a jadeite snuff bottle stands on the table. These two portraits show the common presence of jadeites as both accessories and home furnishings at the Qing court.

During the Guangxu reign, Ci’an and Cixi, respectively called the East and West Empresses Dowager, served together as regents to the young Zaitian, the Guangxu Emperor. Empress Dowager Ci’an (1837-1881), formerly Empress Xiaozhenxian, assumed regency with Cixi upon the Xiaofeng Emperor’s early death. A portrait shows her seated restfully in a garden, wearing a jadeite ring on her left hand and deep-green jadeite bracelets on both wrists. The West Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908), one of the few women in Chinese history to wield tremendous political power, expressed herself in very distinctive ways through her clothing, accessories, and deep concern for her own longevity. Cixi’s special fondness for jadeite is evident in various historical sources. As a portrait of her in informal clothes and wearing deep-green jadeite bracelets on both wrists suggests, she greatly enjoyed jadeite of saturated colors in everyday life. She even used her power to solicit quality jadeite from local officials. In a document submitted to the Zaobanchu in the fourth month of the thirteenth year of the Tongzhi reign, the Guangdong customs office noted that “lüyu originates in Buma, and baiyu [“white jade”] is not native to eastern Guangdong either. In recent years, the various provinces have opened their ports for trade, and merchants have been selling [jadeite] in many places. Not only are there few sellers nearby, inventories are low also. We can only try our best to source the precious stones, but we still fear not meeting the request by the deadline.” During the Guangxu reign, Wen Gui, Customs Inspector of Huai’an, received a commission from the Zaobanchu for three pairs of lüyu bamboo-shaped bracelets, one small and six regular lüyu hairpins, and two pairs of lüyu clamps decorated with the “Double Happiness” symbol, etc. In the records of Cixi’s 60th birthday celebrations, the gifts to the Empress Dowager from Fu Kun and others included five pairs of zhiyu (“mutton fat jade”) ruyi scepters, two longevity peaches made from lüyu and red agate, and six representations of immortal realms made of jades and other precious stones (one of which remains in the Palace Museum). All the above is evidence for Cixi’s infatuation with jadeite. It is said that she was even buried with jadeite sculptures of watermelons, sweet melons, and bok choy. In 1904, the American painter Katharine Carl portrayed Cixi in oil on a screen 163.5 cm. in height and 97 cm. in width. The 70-year-old Empress Dowager has a full face, fine and reddish skin, dense and long eyebrows slightly lifted at the ends, and mildly rouged lips. She is wearing a loose-sleeved robe of yellow brocade embroidered with wisteria and the shou (“longevity”) character, and her flower-vase platform shoes are partly concealed by a curtain of stringed pearls. Her impressive flaring headgear hosts an assortment of pearls, jadeites, rubies, tourmalines, large floral adornments, and strings of pearls, etc. Especially noteworthy here are her jadeite bracelets, whose deep green tonality Carl faithfully reproduces. The Palace Museum contains an unusually beautiful bracelet of this type, 7.6 cm. in outer diameter and 5.6 cm. in inner diameter. Flawless in material and craftsmanship, perfect in proportion and shape, rich and even in tonality, this jadeite bracelet may have been worn by Cixi herself.

Photo of a pair of luyu bamboo-shaped bracelets, Qing Dynasty.

While jadeites account for only one-thousandth of all the jades in the Palace Museum, the Palace Museum still has the largest collection of jadeites in the world. Some of these date from the Qianlong-Jiaqing periods, and others from the Cixi period. All are invaluable historical references. Court documents indicate that most of them were tributes from local officials and that some were made by the Zaobanchu or by the imperial manufactories in Suzhou, Yangzhou, and Yunnan. Despite its relatively late entry into the Qing court, jadeite as a raw material enjoyed a status comparable to that of Hetian jade. It injected new life into, and has become an indispensable part of, China’s longstanding and sophisticated jade culture. Beloved by emperors and members of the imperial family, especially the Empresses Dowager Cixi and Ci’an, accessories and decorative objects made from jadeite were highlights of late-Qing court life.

Zhang Rong, Researcher from Beijing’s Palace Museum

January 2014, London

1 X u Xiake, Xu Xiake youji (The Travelogues of Xu Xiake),vol. 2, “Zhenyou riji si” (Travels in Yunnan, Part Four), p.932-1018, Shanghai guji chuban she, 1982.

2 Quoted in Yang Boda, “Gugong jiucang feicuiqi jianshu”(Brief introduction to jadeites in the Qing imperial collection), Bulletin of the Palace Museum, 2000:6.

3 Quotd in Yang Boda, “Cong wenxian jizai kao feicui zai Zhongguo de liuxing” (A Study of the Circulation of Jadeites in China Based on Historical Documents) Bulletin of the Palace Museum, 2002:2.

4 Yangxindian zaobanchu gezuo chengzuo huoji qingdang 3229, Chinese First Historical Archives.

5 Zaludang, vol. 351, Chinese First Historical Archives.

6 Zaludang, vols. 328, 329, Chinese First Historical Archives.

7 Gongdang, vols. 174, Chinese First Historical Archives.

                                                        Magnificent Jewels and Jadeite

                                                               7 April 2014 | Hong Kong