Although jade artifacts of both the Warring States period and the Han Dynasty were similarly engaged in the pursuit of dynamic aesthetics, the impression given by works from these two eras is radically different. For example, for the same dragon-beast motif, works from the Warring States period convey a soaring sense of fluid motion through flat designs, while Han era works are rich in tension due to their three-dimensional nature. What are the reasons underlying these differences? Could these differences be associated with the peculiarities of human vision?
Have you ever considered why a motionless round sword pommel or oval jade cup can convey varying perceptions of strength and directional movement? Or how two jade bi discs, identical in size but different in color, can induce a completely dissimilar sense of balance simply after switching places? Or how at first glance, a long, curved section of jade material can be mistaken for a serpent?
This section presents various examples and evidence to awaken an understanding of our own visual senses, so that we may develop a new awareness of the shapes we see and the perceptions thus generated, for this is the key to our comprehension of this world, and the ultimate basis for the understanding and appreciation of art.
Jade Sword Pommel
Middle Warring States Period to Early Western Han Dynasty
Diameter 3.8 cm, T 0.5 cm
Double-Eared Jade Cup
Western Han Dynasty
L 10.5 cm, W 6.9 cm, Total H 2.6 cm
Jade Dragon Pendant
Early Warring States Period
L 9.6 cm, W 5.1 cm
Form and Visual Strength
Interesting peculiarities abound in visual perception, of which an example is presented here. According to gestalt psychology, when the eyes view images of different shapes, the resulting visual tension can vary. For instance, the image of a circle will induce an even tension that spreads outward in an annular fashion towards the perimeter, while the tension generated by an oval image will extend in both directions along the major axis, and a square image will project tension towards its four corners. When viewing these different rectangular forms, do you experience changes in visual tension?
The Dynamic Visual Effects Induced by Near-Equilibrium
Unbalanced images will create directional tension that draws vision toward a state closer to equilibrium. For example, the most stable and balanced point in an oval is where the major and minor axes intersect, while the ends of the major and minor axes form a second set of balance points. A circle depicted within the oval will therefore generate tension in the direction of the primary or secondary balance points.
The Powerful Visual Stimulation of the Beast Leg
When identifying different animals, the brain appears to have minimum discernable thresholds for each; for example, a sinuous body shape is sufficient to generate perception of a serpent body, but the addition of beast legs to the same sinuous serpent form is sufficient to transform it into a beast form. This suggests that the visual stimulation induced by a beast leg exceeds that of a serpent form. Isn’t that interesting?
Archaeological findings indicate that jade pig grips were funerary objects exclusive to the highest ranks of Han era nobility. Known as "pig grips" due to the fact that they were typically gripped one in each hand by the tomb occupant, their use as funerary objects meant that these jade pigs were usually fashioned from material of a lesser quality and darker color, while the workmanship was quite simple and unsophisticated, often merely consisting of the carving and polishing of a general outline. However, the rudimentary workmanship belies the mature technical skills required to craft such objects, and these jade pigs should therefore be viewed as minimalist works fashioned by highly skilled jade craftsman according to the established standards for funerary objects at the time.
Jade Sword Ornaments
A complete set of jade sword ornaments consisted of four items used in the decoration of the sword handle and scabbard. The jade sword pommel adorned the end of the sword handle; the jade sword guard was placed between the sword handle and the blade; the jade scabbard slide was affixed to the scabbard, thereby allowing the scabbard to be worn at the waist by means of a belt passed through the central slit of the scabbard slide and tied at the waist; and the jade scabbard chape was fitted at the tip of the scabbard. Bronze or iron swords decorated with jade sword ornaments were ceremonial in nature, used to highlight the power and status of Han era nobility.
Jade Heng Pendant
Note the drill holes located on the central axis of the jade heng pendants, signifying that these artifacts were threaded together at the center from top to bottom to form a vertical column. Archaeological findings indicate that jade heng pendants were commonly included in jade pendant sets, the most complex of which could have tens of components, including jade heng pendants, jade bi discs, jade xi pointed pendants, and a variety of animal-shaped jade ornaments. Some of the more precious and elaborate pendant sets even consisted of two vertical sets of pendants affixed side by side in parallel. Doubtlessly, such opulent sets of jade ornaments were important insignia reserved only for high-ranking nobles. Image source: Art in Quest of Heaven and Truth – Chinese Jade Through the Ages
Quirks of Vision
Of the three long and straight scabbard slides before our eyes, the one on the right is upright and stable, while the one on the left is tilted and appears about to topple toward the left. So in which direction will the one in the center topple toward? Most people feel that the central scabbard slide will fall to the left, but in reality, as the extension of its center of gravity remains within its base, the scabbard slide will rebalance toward the right, and return to an upright position similar to the scabbard slide on the right. Isn't this an interesting quirk of our vision? This is exactly the reason why the Leaning Tower of Pisa appears to be toppling, but actually remains upright.
Have you ever heard of the saying, "as conceited as the King of Yelang"? This saying refers to the King of the small country of Yelang, who, ignorant of the size and vastness of the Western Han Empire, arrogantly asked an emissary of the Western Han as to which of the two countries was bigger. The earrings here are jade ornaments traditionally worn by the people of Yelang, and their lightness and beautiful proportions attest to the advanced and elegant aesthetic tastes of Yelang.
A closer look at this rectangular area reveals that the bottom half is covered in small white circles, while the top half is covered in small black squares with curved sides. However, upon even closer inspection, it can be seen that the entire area is actually covered in white circles, but the distance between each circle gradually decreases from the bottom to the top, until the edges eventually fuse together. When the outlines of the circles are clear, as in the bottom section, we see white circles; but in the top section, the edges of the squares are clearly delineated, and so we see black squares instead. Isn't this an interesting quirk of our vision?
The Symbolism of Yuhan Jade Cicadas
Cicada nymphs live underground for many years, emerging from the ground one day to molt for the last time and become full-grown adult cicadas. In ancient times, it was believed that the life cycle of the cicada symbolized the process of transfiguration into an immortal being. As Han culture was deeply influenced by the cult of immortality, jade cicadas termed "yuhan" were placed into the mouths of high-ranking Han nobles during burial, perhaps in the hope that they would be transfigured and achieve immortality.
Jade Divine Beast
Jade divine beasts carved in the round gradually became popular during the late Western Han Dynasty. In addition to common characteristics such as dynamic body forms and taut muscular limbs, these divine beasts often had wings upon their backs, and the resulting forceful imagery of "a tiger with wings" projected a sense of awesome and unstoppable power. Although these winged divine beasts were produced by Han Dynasty craftsmen, many academics believe that the original archetype was derived from Central or Western Asia, and may have spread to China through cultural exchanges.
The Difference Between Ornamental Jade and Funerary Jade
These two jade dragons are of similar design, but differ greatly in the intricacy of their workmanship. This is because these two jade artifacts were made with different purposes in mind. The larger jade dragon is of a dark green color, and the workmanship is rudimentary, as it was made for funerary purposes. The smaller jade dragon is fashioned from immaculate white jade material, with delicate carving and polishing, as it was made to be worn on the body as a ceremonial accessory. When we view jade artifacts in future, it may be possible for us to discern their intended use from the color and texture of their material, as well as the intricacy of their workmanship.