Thirty-three years ago museum librarian Teng Shu-ping (鄧淑蘋) stumbled across cases of jade carvings with distinct Islamic motifs in the National Palace Museum's (NPM) massive repository. After years of study and research aided by colleagues in the UK, China, India, Turkey and the US, Teng - now head of the antiquity department and program curator - has shed new light on the artwork and revised the museum's original 1982 Islamic jade exhibition.
Showing more than 140 Islamic jades and some 20 counterfeits made by Chinese and Uighur craftsmen during the 18th century, the exhibition traces the history and development of jade-making. Some pieces date as far back as the 14th-century Ottoman Empire, others come from the Timurid Empire in Central Asia (1370-1506) and the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) in Southern Asia.
The primary material is nephrite jade from the Kunlun mountains and the Khotan region of Central Asia. The craftsmanship on the steppe was recorded in ancient documents dating back to the early 15th century. The jade vessels on display are plain with thick walls and an indentation on the bottom, which differs from the even-bottomed Chinese versions.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF NPM
When the Timurid Empire collapsed in the early 16th century, descendants of the imperial line invaded India to found the Mughal Empire and took with them the jade-carving tradition. The Islamic jade art peaked during the 17th century when Emperor Jahangir and his son, Shah Jahan (builder of the Taj Mahal) were enthusiasts for the art form and recruited artisans from Europe and Persia to serve at the court.
The melding of Central Asian tradition with designs and techniques from China, India and Europe gave birth to what has come to be known as the classical Mughal jades. Plants, fruits and floral ornaments from this period demonstrate remarkable artistry.
"Any art needs to take in innovations in order to inspire and the Mughal jade carvings serve as a good example of the constant process of revitalization," Teng said.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF NPM
Teng suggested that a distinction be made between classical Mughal jades and non-classical Mughal-style Indian jades. She further contributed to the field by identifying the latter as pieces produced in regions, such as the Deccan Plateau, beyond the control of the Mughal Empire. Such pieces are smaller, single handled and have a distinct Hindu flavor combined with Turkish and Chinese influences.
The Turkish people in Central Asia eventually migrated to Western Asia and Eastern Europe and established the Ottoman Empire. The jade-carving tradition there was less developed and fewer jade articles were used in the West than in the South. This is due, in part, to the regions' distance from jade mines. The items from this era illustrate the unique features of Ottoman jade, which is defined by symmetrical and stylized floral motifs, almost transparent thin walls and the shallow scooping technique that created rounded or oval indentations.
The eastward journey of the Islamic jades began when Emperor Qianlong (乾隆) of the Qing Dynasty (1736-1796) first laid eyes on the delicate treasures sent to him as tribute. Fascinated by the intricate art form, he imported many examples to Xinjiang from Turkey and India, then onto Beijing. In the meantime, workshops in Southern China started producing counterfeits to meet increasing demand.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF NPM
Unaware of the existence of Turkish jades and Chinese forgeries sent along with the genuine pieces from Xinjiang, Qianlong named his accumulation of Islamic treasures the Hindustan Jades, part of which has long been in the NPM's collection.
For those interested in knowing more about the Islamic jades, a bilingual book containing illustrations and detailed research will be available in the museum's gift shop by the end of this month.
What: Exquisite Beauty: Islamic Jades (國色天香: 伊斯蘭玉器)
Where: National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院), 221 Zhishan Rd Sec 2, Taipei (台北市至善路二段221號)
When: Monday to Sunday 9am to 5pm; Saturday to 8:30pm. Call (02) 2881-2021. Through Dec. 20
On the Net: www.npm.gov.tw
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