This is both a book about jade and a catalogue of a private collection. More than 100 pages are devoted to the introduction, which seeks to explain the prestigious position jade has held in the hierarchy of materials in China by exploring the qualities which made it precious and the uses to which it has been put.
Confucius described human virtue in terms of the qualities of jade and Jessica Rawson suggests that "jade emerged as one of the principal metaphors to describe the qualities of those who had or should have had power"; jade objects were products of abstract notions of both earthly and spiritual power and their uses not only reinforced those notions but helped create new ideas.
Rawson thus uses an analogy with verbal metaphor in the most penetrating explanation to date of jade's much-vaunted mystery, and one based on an exhaustive survey of the excavated evidence.
The account of jade from the neolithic to the Han dynasty (206bc-ad220) demonstrates for the first time the geographical diversity of jade types and uses, and how those altered considerably throughout a period too often regarded as one in which a unified tradition developed.
The two principal jade-using neolithic cultures, Hongshan (c3500-2500bc) and Liangzhu (c3000-2000bc) were apparently unaware of each other's jades, and in the Shang (c1600-1050bc) and Zhou (c1050-221bc) periods, exotic objects from outside the dynastic domains contributed substantially to the style of jades as well as bronzes and other artefacts.
The Shang and Zhou recut and re-used jades for different or new purposes, and both the working of the material and attitudes to jade objects underwent several changes. Thus in the neolithic, jades were buried because they were important while in the Eastern Zhou (771-221bc), certain jades were buried precisely because they were not important.
In the Western Zhou (c.1050-771bc) period, designs invented in jade were to become important to bronze casters, while in the Eastern Zhou another metal, gold, influenced the forms and modelling techniques of jade. These contradictions are important because attitudes to jade over the past millennium have their basis in the Song (ad960-19) dynasty understanding of Confucian views of jade in a "canonical" pre-Han period.
Only a short section of the introduction deals with jade since the Han dynasty. One reason is that jade was rarely buried in tombs after the third century ad while copying was not unusual, and the stability of jade as a material makes dating extremely difficult.
Another reason is the composition of the collection catalogued, for more than two-thirds of the pieces date from the period up to the end of the Han dynasty. It is the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung, who sponsored the refurbishment of the British Museum's Oriental galleries in 1992, and it was displayed in a temporary exhibition accompanied by the present catalogue at the British Museum last summer.
The collection was formed in Hong Kong over the past 20 years, originating with a pair of fine white 18th-century bowls but proceeding shortly thereafter to much earlier pieces. The recent acquisitions illustrated in the introduction date from the Shang and Zhou dynasties and are of the exceptional quality that characterises the ornaments, fittings, figure carvings and ritual objects that make up the collection.
The catalogue is in 29 sections and the copious reference material throughout the book (there are 420 colour and 310 black-and-white illustrations) draws on a prodigious range of sources. British Museum photographers John Williams and David Gowers deserve praise for photographs that capture the colour, translucency and texture of a material prized for its tactile qualities.
This book should for a long time remain an essential reference work for those engaged in the study of Chinese art, and the technical appendix is in addition useful to geologists, but it is also a book which should be enjoyed by all who take an interest in fine objects.
Shelagh Vainker is curator of Chinese art, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Chinese Jade: From the Neolithic to the Qing
Author - Jessica Rawson
ISBN - 0 7141 1469 3
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £65.00
Pages - 463