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Jade Is the Object of a Bowers Exhibit of Ch'ing Dynasty Treasures From Taiwan


SANTA ANA — Two for the ears, two for the eyes, two for the nose and so on: Believing that jade assured immortality, ancient Chinese plugged jade bits into the orifices of the dead.

"They thought it would hold the essence or the spirit of the deceased in the body," art historian Janet Baker explained, "not allowing it to escape or dissipate into the ether."

The Chinese tradition of endowing the "stone of heaven" with powers and virtues has endured for centuries, a point the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art hopes to make in an exhibit opening there Sunday.

"The Chinese have always looked at material substances and physical objects in the world around them and imbued them with abstract qualities," said Baker, who helped organize the traveling "Jade: Ch'ing Dynasty Treasures From the National Museum of History, Taiwan."

Revered as the culture's most precious substance, jade was fashioned centuries ago by carvers mostly into religious and ceremonial objects. Chinese jade carving reached its technical and artistic peak during the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1912). Imperial hold over jade-rich western China meant an unprecedented supply, and craftsmen in palace workshops churned out elaborately intricate, purely decorative items.

Such ornaments, as well as the 300-piece show's utilitarian objects, were culled from a dozen private Taiwanese collections and Taiwan's National Museum of History. That institution's curator, Pauline Kao, co-curated the exhibit with Peter C. Keller, a gemologist and the Bowers' executive director.

From emerald to lavender in hue, the show's teapots, bracelets, vases, wine cups and scepters are sculpted from one of two distinct types of jade. Nephrite, the more common variety, has a waxy or oily finish. Jadeite, discovered in late 17th century Burma, gleams lustrously.

An 8-inch-tall table screen, which may have been an official gift from one government to another or graced a family ancestral altar, pictures five elderly men reading a scroll beneath pine trees, which symbolize strength and longevity, said Baker, the Bowers' Asian art curator, in a recent interview at the museum.

The lyrical figurine of a woman features her bamboo basket filled with chrysanthemums, which signify autumn, or the ease of one's later years, Baker said, and a pair of Mandarin ducks, which mate for life, represent lifelong marriage and fidelity.

"Chinese also see jade as having healing qualities [ensuring] good mental or spiritual health," she said, noting the ubiquity of jade jewelry in Asia. "So they wear jade for its sheer beauty and to feel it against their skin, that they might literally be absorbing some of those intrinsic qualities. Chinese girls would be fitted as children with jade bracelets which they would literally grow into and never remove."

Ch'ing Dynasty jade works immortalized Taoist and Buddhist gods too, and the green gem could symbolize the five Confucian virtues: benevolence, wisdom, righteousness, propriety and trustworthiness. Paperweights and pots cradling writing implements gilded Confucian officials' desks.

Some of the exhibit's most dazzling examples carry a lingering mystery. The dynasty's expanded geographic reach resulted in the import of exquisitely thin-walled works, studded with precious stones and inlaid with gold, from the Mogul empire of Hindustani in northern India.

Bewitched by these sparklers, Chinese Emperor Ch'ien-lung instructed carvers to craft exact replicas, leaving questions today about where such works were made.

"China of the 1920s, '30s and '40s was marked by political and social chaos," Baker said, "and many of these works were sold from the Imperial palace with little or no documentation."

National politics in Taiwan barred the Bowers from hosting a jade show it had booked for its season opener. Also curated by Taiwan's National Museum, that display contained examples from prominent Taiwanese jade collector Yeh Bor-wen, who penned a statement in the show's bilingual catalog about the volatile issue of Taiwan's independence from China.

"Taiwan is Taiwan and China is China," Bor-wen wrote. "I am glad to speak out that I am not Chinese. I am Taiwanese."

Loath to appear as a vehicle for politicking, the Bowers contacted the Taiwan museum; its officials called for the statement's deletion. At that, Bor-wen nixed the exhibit--three months before its targeted debut--which triggered eleventh-hour scrambling on both sides of the globe.

Still, Keller and Baker maintain that the replacement show is superior, bearing such marks of virtuosity as thinness of material, weblike open work and the harmonious melding of a carver's design with a stone's natural shape and color.

"It is perhaps one of the most glamorous, glitzy, dramatic exhibits we've done in a long time; I wouldn't deny that," Baker said. "But it also has a great deal of educational value in terms of [exploring] how the Chinese used jade in various aspects of daily life, whether they were government officials, scholars, emperors or ordinary people."


"Jade: Ch'ing Dynasty Treasures From the National Museum of History, Taiwan" runs Sunday through March 1 at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, 2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana. 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday; till 9 p.m. Thursday. $2-$6. (714) 567-3600.

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