The vivid tianhuang stone has long been considered as the rival material to the finest and purest jade used for making items for imperial use. The Kangxi Emperor had more than 100 seals made with tianhuang. It is also known as an auspicious stone because the Chinese word for ‘yellow’ (huang) is a homophone for that of ‘emperor’. Tianhuang is one of the top varieties of precious shoushan stone quarried from Shoushan Mountain in the north of Fujian province and was admired for its mild texture, colour and translucence. Shoushan stones are divided into three main categories depending on the place they are found: in the mountains, on riversides or in fields, where tianhuang is found. Furthermore, the word shou from Shoushan means ‘longevity’ and the word fu of Fujian means ‘fortune’; hence tianhuang conveys the message of good fortune and longevity for the Emperor. The contrast between the transience of life and the eternity of stones propelled many ancient Chinese artists to carve on the stone to convey its ‘resilience’. It is also worth noting that tianhuang was traditionally valued according to its weight rather than its size, making it one of the most expensive materials for works of art.
The form of this pendant, known as she, derives from bronze archers rings of the Shang (16th century-c.1050 BC) and Warring States (475-221 BC) periods. By the Han dynasty (206 BC- AD 220), it lost its utilitarian function and transformed into a plaque, characterised by its oval form and pointed top, with surrounding scrolling carving, when it was also referred to as ‘chicken-heart shape’. Such pendants were frequently carved in jade, such as one excavated in 1968 at Lingshang, Mancheng County in Baoding, Hebei province, from the tomb of Prince Liu Sheng’s wife, in the Hebei Provincial Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation, published in The Complete Collection of Jades Unearthed in China, vol. 1, Beijing, 2005, pl. 192; and two from the collection of Simon Kwan, included in the exhibition Chinese Archaic Jades from the Kwan Collection, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1994, cat. nos 205 and 206.
With the rise of archaism with the establishment of the Qing dynasty in China, the founding emperors looked to ancient Han culture to establish their legitimacy to the throne. In this cultural renaissance, jade versions of these Han she pendants were created; see an elaborately carved white jade example depicting floating clouds, excavated in 1962 from a tomb dateable to the Kangxi period, illustrated in Chinese Jades Throughout the Ages. Connoisseurship of Chinese Jades, vol. 11, Hong Kong, 1996, pl. 200; and five attributed to the Qing dynasty, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in Gugong bowuyuan wenwu cangpin daxi. Yuqi juan/Compendium of Collections in the Palace Museum. Jade, vol. 9, Qing Dynasty, Beijing, 2011, pls 236-240.
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