Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Chinese Hardstone Carvings

By traditional Chinese definition, hardstones are divided into two categories: jade, which is the mineral nephrite, and all other precious and semi-precious stones. Jade is considered the most esteemed gem of all and associated with many desirable qualities in humans. While numerous studies are devoted to jade carving, little attention has been given to other hardstones. This essay focuses exclusively on hardstones other than jade, in the hope that it will provoke future scholarly research.

Hardstone carving is one of the oldest arts in China. The earliest known evidence recovered through archaeology is agate earrings of the prehistoric Majiabang culture that date to the fifth millennium B.C. The art of hardstones continued to develop alongside jade carving throughout the following ages. Significant examples include chalcedony neck pendants from the Songze culture (4000–3000 B.C.); turquoise inlays on bronze plaques from the Erlitou culture (ca. 2000–1500 B.C.); carnelian beads and a malachite sculpture of a tiger from the tomb of a king’s consort of the late Shang dynasty (ca. 1600–1050 B.C.); agate and crystal rings and pendants from an Eastern Zhou (771–256 B.C.) cemetery in Linzi, Shandong Province; seals of agate, crystal, and turquoise from the tomb of the second king of Nanyue state (r. 137–122 B.C.); coral, turquoise, and lapis lazuli inlays on a gilt bronze inkstone box from an Eastern Han (25–220 A.D.) tomb in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province; and, most notably, an agate rhyton in the shape of a bull’s head from a Tang-dynasty (618–907) hoard at Hejiacun, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. Compared to jade, the use of hardstones appears to have been rather limited. It was not until the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) that the combination of an abundant supply of raw material, extraordinary craftsmanship, and keen imperial patronage spurred an efflorescence.

The first century and half of the Qing dynasty was probably the last golden age of imperial China, when steady economic growth led to widespread prosperity, and successful military campaigns not only brought political stability but also secured the trade routes in the northwest and southwest of the country. In addition to local sources, large quantities of gemstones were brought to China over the Silk Road or by maritime routes from as far as Europe. The inventory records of the Qing imperial jade workshops alone document monthly acquisitions of numerous semi-precious stones. Meanwhile, the lapidary craft, which for more than a millennia had suffered frequent interruptions due to regime changes and devastating wars, was revived. Workshops in the cities of Suzhou and Yangzhou, where hardstone carving had its earliest beginnings, now flourished and brought their skills to an unprecedented height. The imperial patronage of the Qing court contributed significantly to the carving art. During the reigns of emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong, workshops were established in the palace that employed large numbers of master carvers. According to the records of the imperial jade workshops, the emperors not only set exacting standards of quality but also gave detailed instructions on subject matter and style.

At the Qing court, hardstones were carved in the jade workshops, as the physical properties of jade and other hardstones were largely comparable and their methods of working practically the same. While carving tools improved over the ages, the techniques first developed in Neolithic times remained little changed. The fundamental working principle was the gradual wearing away of the unwanted parts of the stone, whether it was to separate the gem from the stony crust, to cut it into a rough shape, to work it into the final form, or to polish it to a lustrous finish. The craftsmen achieved their ends by laboriously grinding the surface of the stone with abrasives, usually powdered quartz or corundum, of various grades of fineness, and the tools were merely carriers of abrasives, be it made of metal, wood, leather, felt, or other materials. The essential tool—whether for cutting large pieces or for engraving the finest lines—was a rotating steel disk (tuozi), made in various sizes and powered by a foot treadle.

Favorite subjects for hardstone carvings were fruits and vegetables, often functioning as rebuses that convey wishes for prosperity, longevity, good fortune, perpetuation of a family’s line, or even academic success. The Buddha’s hand (02.18.885), a citron with an exotic shape resembling slender fingers, is a good example, because its Chinese name, foshou, sounds like “fortune” (fu) and longevity (shou). Pomegranates (02.18.887), with their many seeds (zi), imply multiple sons (zi) that are expected to carry on a family’s name. The double gourd (65.86.64a–c) is favored for the same reason, as it produces scores of baby gourds on a single long vine, symbolizing the numerous offspring of a family line.

Another common subject is figures of animals and humans. These, too, are pictorial puns for words with auspicious meanings. A jadeite sculpture of two playful boys riding on a gigantic elephant (21.175.113), for example, associates the phrase “riding the elephant” (qixiang) with “blessing” or “good fortune” (jixiang). A young woman standing by a small boy and holding a daylily in her hand (50.145.156) not only portrays a loving mother and her son but also implies the wish for more children, as the daylily is popularly believed to be effective in helping women bear sons.

A distinctive character of hardstone carving is the artist’s “smart” use of this particolored material. While nephrite jade is generally uniform in color with little variation, many hardstones, such as agate, chalcedony, rock crystal, and lapis lazuli, are variegated. They almost always have irregularly disposed spots, blotches, layers, or veins of varying colors and greater or lesser opacity, which would pose a challenge to novice carvers. In contrast, a master craftsman can see infinite possibilities in variegated hardstones. With exceptional artistic sensibility and intimate knowledge of the material, he is able to visualize the completed product in an unworked rock. He is also able to modify or even make radical changes in his design to achieve the optimum effect, as, in the course of his work, he gradually encounters variations of colors invisible at the start. The master craftsman can turn a potential flaw into a desirable highlight.

A particularly charming example is a small carving of candied jujube dates and peanuts made from brown chalcedony (02.18.895). The craftsman has cleverly adapted the design of the sculpture to the original shape and colors of the stone. He has suggested the glazed surface of the fruit by carving away the stone’s opaque crust to reveal its translucent brown color and artfully exploited the stone’s yellowish crust to convey the rough shell of the peanuts. Even more remarkable is the small agate figure of a Manchurian crane holding a branch of peaches in its beak (02.18.876a,b). Here, the artist has made use of the iron-red streaks in the white agate to evoke the crane’s crown and the rosy blush of the peaches. He turned the bird’s neck toward its shoulder to ensure that the red part of the stone was in the precise location of its red crown. A third piece carved in the same manner is a chalcedony vase (02.18.904), where the craftsman transformed the irregularly shaped green veins in the stone into bamboo and pine trees gently swaying against a translucent background.

Occasionally a craftsman carves a particolored stone with little reference to its color dispositions. When he does so, however, he has in mind a plan for an unusual effect. A typical example is a vase made from amethyst that has large masses of clear crystal embedded in the purple rock (21.175.137). The craftsman portrayed a garden scene of three birds strolling amid blooming peonies and lush bamboo. He carved two small birds in the clear portion of the stone and a large one in the purple area, but he placed the plants across the clear and colored areas. The flowers, leaves, and branches thus constantly shift in hue from deep purple to pale violet and clear stone, as the branches twist and wind around the curve of the rock, creating the mesmerizing spectacle of a fairyland.

A small agate snuff bottle with a simple, elegant profile (14.40.486) may represent the utmost aesthetic ideal of hardstone carving. On its smooth, lustrous surface is an abstract image formed by dark brown inclusions in the translucent light gray stone. The craftsman purposefully left the surface smooth and unadorned so as to emphasize the colors, texture, and luster of the stone. It is indeed a delight to the eye as well as to the touch. More importantly, it illustrates the extraordinary talent and skill necessary to accomplish the carving master’s ultimate goal—to highlight the natural beauty of the stone while keeping his effort almost invisible.