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The Jade Collection at the Freer|Sackler

Since the Stone Age, jade has been one of the most highly valued materials in China. Popularly linked with Chinese culture itself, the material possesses inherent worth due to its rarity in nature. Its physical properties—hardness, attractive coloration, and ability to take a high surface polish—have ensured its status as an elite medium throughout history, and the skill and time required to work the stone into desired shapes have compounded its significance.

Preparation for the reinstallation of the Freer galleries of ancient Chinese art encouraged fresh research into the art and archaeology of objects slated for display. This ultimately led to the idea of creating a combined catalogue of the Freer and Sackler’s jade collections. The two collections consist of works of exceptional artistic quality as well pieces of great cultural, historical, and sociological importance. Given the broad chronological range of the museums’ holdings, this project focuses on examples dating from the late Neolithic to the early Imperial period (circa 4000 BCE–200 CE).

The first “volume” of the online catalogue features the earliest works, those dating to the Neolithic period. Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) bought many of them before modern archaeology and scientific research began in China and at a time when most of his peers were attracted by later imperial jades. Freer, however, turned his attention to archaic pieces from the late Neolithic Liangzhu culture (circa 3300–2250 BCE) that was centered in the lower Yangzi River Valley west of modern Shanghai. He bought scores of Liangzhu jades primarily for their aesthetic appeal—decades before their origins and true age were known.

objects from the singer collection
An extraordinary research resource, the Paul Singer Collection of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery contains over 5,000 Chinese artworks, including these two late Neolithic jade pendants in the form of a turtle (S2012.9.16) and a bird (S2012.9.12). The late Dr. Singer was a close friend of Arthur Sackler. Research on his large bequest to the Sackler Gallery is ongoing, as described at http://www.asia.si.edu/research/curatorial/currentResearch.asp .

Creating a Digital Catalogue

Jenny So, a former curator of ancient Chinese art, first proposed the idea of publishing a catalogue in 1996. With support from the Rhodes E. and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, she planned a traditional print catalogue that would span the Neolithic period to the end of the Han dynasty (approximately 200 CE). Under the direction of Keith Wilson, the current curator of ancient Chinese art, that initiative has been reshaped and relaunched as an expanded digital publication. The collection is to be catalogued and released serially, starting with the Neolithic works; each “volume” will also include modern forgeries that were inspired by ancient models.

The digital format well suits the evolving field of jade research. It provides users with accessibility to additional resources, such as a searchable database with detailed images, introductory material on the formation of the collections and the ancient Chinese cultures represented in them, timelines and maps, and links to relevant external research resources. Users can explore connections between objects and cultures by creating and archiving guided or independent searches.

The first “volume,” launching in early 2016, includes:

  • Introductory essays
  • Topical search portals
  • Detailed entries on 250 jades
  • Illustrated glossaries chronicling key Neolithic cultures
  • Illustrated glossaries describing types of Neolithic jade objects
  • Biographies of dealers and collectors associated with the Freer and Sackler collections
  • A topical bibliography
  • A library of PDFs of relevant past Freer|Sackler publications on the jade collections

In coming years, similarly detailed entries, essays, and reference materials will be added for other groups of ancient Chinese jades until all 1,500 pieces are published. Each “volume” includes objects from the Freer and Sackler collections as well as the recently acquired collection of Dr. Paul Singer and other objects purchased by the Galleries over the years.

decorated jade plaques

Discovered only in the richest of Liangzhu tombs, such decorated jade plaques (F1916.511) were probably attached to headdresses. The pairs of holes on the back allowed them to be sewn to cloth turbans worn by the deceased. The plaque may have played a ritual function as other pieces bearing mask motifs were likely created for ceremonies.

A Vibrant and Evolving Field

Even with the advent of bronze in China around 1800 BCE, jade continued to be used for personal ornament and ceremonial functions. It was worn as jewelry by both men and women. In addition, dozens of ceremonial jade blades from the Neolithic period and Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600 BCE–256 BCE) demonstrate the inspiration of functional objects and the various ways they were interpreted in a prestige material.

The role as well as the forms and decoration of jades changed significantly over time. In the early Bronze Age, for example, some shapes associated with the Neolithic era eventually ceased to be made. At the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Imperial period, new mortuary forms—full body shrouds made of thin jade tiles and plugs designed for human orifices—began to augment the inventory of ritual objects. The use of jade for personal ornaments increased vastly. The modern town of Jincun (Village of Gold), outside Luoyang in Henan Province, is the location of the royal cemetery where the last kings of the Zhou dynasty were buried. Copious amounts of jade were discovered in their tombs, along with items fashioned from gold, silver, and glass. Subsequently, jade objects, especially jewelry, were likely viewed as valuable keepsakes passed from one generation to the next and thus were less frequently buried in tombs.

Ritual tubes (cong) and discs (bi) most likely held a ritual significance since thousands of them have been found at Liangzhu burial sites and elsewhere. Cong tubes and other jades were sometimes arranged in a circle around the body, while numerous bi were sometimes placed near the deceased’s body and stacked below the feet. Later Neolithic and Bronze Age examples of the cong form are typically smaller and undecorated, suggesting their diminished importance in burial rituals.

Moving Forward

The ancient jades online catalogue is designed for use by scholars, collectors, and the general public alike, and it is intended to initiate a broader dialogue with Chinese archaeologists. Many of the jades held by the Freer and Sackler Galleries were discovered before scientific archaeology developed in China. As a result, little information about where objects were originally found, their burial contexts, and other archaeological data is known. Although lacking details on provenance, researchers have added to scholarly understanding of these objects through art historical and scientific studies that form the core of the catalogue’s content. By making some of this information available for the first time in Chinese, archaeologists working in China will likely find the collections easier to access, study, and use in their own research. Likewise, the digital publication of the collections can benefit from timely updates of new findings in Chinese archaeology. Fostering and enhancing scholarly communication and cooperation at an international level is one of the project’s long-term goals.

This jade and gold assemblage (F1930.27a-k) from Jincun is part of a magnificent group of objects believed to belong to the last rulers of the Zhou lineage (509–314 BCE). Scientific research at the museum has determined that the individual jades and gold chain are genuine, but their current combination was fabricated in the early twentieth century before the piece was sold to the Freer.

Learn more about Chinese jade

Childs-Johnson, Elizabeth, and Fang, Gu. The Jade Age: Early Chinese Jades in American Museums. Beijing: Science Press, 2009.
Rawson, Jessica. Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing. London: British Museum Press, 1995.
Yang, Xiaoneng. New Perspectives on China’s Past: Chinese Archaeology in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

As renovation work continues in the Freer Gallery, the Sackler Gallery also will close on July 10, 2017. This museum-wide closure will allow us to completely reinstall our exhibitions and revitalize features to improve your visit. Both spaces will reopen on October 14, 2017, when we will welcome the public back to the Freer|Sackler: two galleries, one destination. For your safety, all visitors will have their bags checked. See the complete list of restricted items and bag sizes.