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Chinese Jades

National Museum Cardiff

Jade cup decorated with birds in gilt, 1700-1900
Cup decorated with birds in gilt, 1700-1900
Mountain ornament, 1700-1800
Mountain ornament, 1700-1800

Chinese craftsmen have created sacred and ornamental objects from jade for over seven thousand years.

Carved jades were popular exports from China to Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In China, jade has been prized for its beautiful variations in colour and translucency for thousands of years. Historically, it symbolized power, spirituality and virtue. Jades often incorporated motifs designed to bring their owner good fortune.

Both the English word ‘jade’ and the Chinese equivalent ‘yu’ are imprecise terms applied to various hardstones, usually nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite has been used for making useful and ornamental objects since at least 5000 BC.

It is principally found in Turkestan, to the west of China. Nephrite varies in colour from white to green or brown and can be polished to a rich, glossy shine. Jadeite from Burma, bright green in colour, also began to be used by Chinese craftsmen during the eighteenth century.

Jade is relatively hard and remarkably tough. Making objects from it is a laborious and time-consuming process, involving highly-skilled grinding and carving techniques.

Jades were sought after by European collectors from the late nineteenth to early twentieth century. Many objects were made specially for export to satisfy this market.