The Art Institute of Chicago
Drafting New Biographies of Ancient Jades
Ancient Chinese jades, like many other antiquities, are silent repositories of information about their age, provenance, function, context, and at the deepest level, the mindset of their craftsmen and patrons. Reconstructing the lives of these jades-from their creation to collection-is an ongoing challenge of archaeologists, scientists, curators, and collectors alike. All are critically dependent on archaeological data and on archaeological interpretations of that data.
The jades seen here represent a small number of the almost 650 Neolithic and Bronze Age jades bequeathed to The Art Institute of Chicago in 1950. All had been collected by Edward Sonnenschein and his wife Louise between 1915 and Edward's death in late 1935. Those two decades bridged the transition from antiquarian studies-epitomized in Chicago by Berthold Laufer and in China by his mentor, Wu Dacheng- to archaeology, when speculations of date and burial context had yet to be corroborated by many well-documented finds outside Anyang. Today, we face the daunting need to gather, absorb, synthesize, and interpret a floodtide of evidence-intact assemblages as well as chance finds-whose provenance may or may not be known or reliably recorded. The Sonnenschein's frequently published demonic plaque exemplifies a type for which new discoveries associated with the Shijiahe culture continue to pose new questions as they clarify others. Jenny So has carefully illuminated issues surrounding this site, and I will not attempt to summarize them here. Instead, I sincerely thank the Lee Foundation for bringing her former student Eileen Lam to Chicago. Eileen has focused on other jades for which we have scattered clues but few in-depth stylistic and archaeological studies. Insights on the first two forms described here are hers.
Long before the profusion of archaeological reports, many of the most elegant jades in the Sonnenschein and other Western collections-particularly the perforated examples among them-had been identified as components of stunning pendant sets. Finds datable from the Western Zhou through Western Han dynasties increasingly reveal that the original visual impact of individual pendants such as a pair of arc- shaped pieces derived from their combination in larger assemblages. But the form, placement, and function of trapezoidal plaques perforated above and below had confounded scholars until about 1990, when discoveries in north and central China revealed similar forms that were found together with colorful beads of materials including agate, jade, and faience that had been strung together so as to splay out from both edges. Such pendant sets discovered in situ and on the very few remains identifiable by sex suggest that women may have worn them over or near their shoulders. A more curious example from Pingdingshan incorporates so-called "handle- shaped" jades of a type now recognized in very diverse forms that span roughly one thousand years, from the 18th through 8th centuries BCE. Some of the most intriguing of these so-called "handles" bear inscriptions in crimson red that suggest their ritual use; others have been found together with bits of turquoise and jade that appear to have been inlaid into a perishable and yet unknown material. Indicative of their analytical curiosity, the Sonnenscheins- who purported no scholarly expertise but are said to have perceived their jade room as a "laboratory"-collected thirty-two such handles for which intact finds may someday offer substantial insights. Meanwhile, we are always reminded that isolated reconstructions need be critically considered in any attempt to visualize a jade in its original burial context.
Turning from comparative research to close physical examination, recent Art Institute studies focused on types of surface alteration and on and our means to determine and describe them. One study focused on conspicuous remains of organic materials on several jades clearly analogous to Bronze Age finds in both the Sonnenschein collection and the Sackler collection in Washington DC. This study aimed to describe and develop a visual vocabulary for types of surface alteration that incorporate vestiges of textiles-that is, to distinguish and classify remnant images or "impressions" from textile "ghosts" or pseudomorphs-the latter a phenomenon in which minerals from the burial environment replace and duplicate biodeteriorated fibers. When possible, we also attempted to identify the nature of those fibers. The particular twist in the weave visible on the tip of one blade in the Art Institute, for example, identifies it as the ghost of a silk fabric that had been created by reeling rather than spinning. This study was a collaborative project between the Art Institute's conservation scientist Francesca Casadio, the Freer-Sackler's geologist Janet Douglas, curators in the Art Institute's Asian and Textile departments, and chemists at Northwestern University.
Another collaborative study including these three institutions, as well as Jing Zhijun, a geologist at the University of British Columbia, focused on a Sonnenschein piece that is neither Chinese nor jade, but has been incorporated in studies of both. Although it was then already owned by the Sonnenscheins, Osvald Siren initially published this kneeling figure in 1943 as belonging to private collection in Peking. As seen here in three views, the figure's hands are bound behind him with two rounds of thick rope. His hair is sharply parted down the middle, and a long double braid runs down his back. His face is defined by raised eyebrows, high cheekbones, an incised mouth, and large pierced ears. This sculpture had no known counterpart until 1984, when roughly similar but larger pieces datable to the late second millennium BCE were first unearthed in and near Chengdu, Sichuan-discoveries with which many here are undoubtedly familiar. At least twelve of these figures discovered since 2001 at the remarkable site of Jinsha in Chengdu are virtually identical in scale and style to the Sonnenscheins.' But whereas the Jinsha figures are carved of roughly textured stones-serpentinite and tremolite-some of which bear traces of pigment-the Sonnenschein piece is cholorite, and distinguished by a plain and unusually dark, glossy surface. The primary goal of this study was to shed light on the nature of that surface.
The figure's mineral composition and structure were determined by non-destructive technologies-most notably, x-ray diffraction, which to the uninformed like me looks like dental surgery. Following up on a proposal by Wen Guang of the Institute of Geology in Beijing that the figure may have been heated, samples of chlorite were then burned at incrementally high temperatures; that at 600 degrees centigrade producing a distinctively deep black. This explained the color but not the smooth, shiny texture. Further studies proved that this piece had been impregnated with Japan wax, a byproduct of lacquer that was first developed in the mid-19th century. Together, these features led us to speculate that a craftsmen likely made the Sonnenschein figure near or at Jinsha workshop but sourced his stone from a different site than that of the Jinsha figures revealed thus far, that the figure had been burned (possibly during a ritual ceremony), and that a later dealer or collector-perhaps attempting to disguise the surface damage or simply enhance the figure's texture-coated it with Japan wax. Burning, polishing and impregnation with waxes would have combined to darken and smooth the figure's surface. Here, close visual examination, scientific analysis, and archaeological research combined to enhance our understanding of a fascinating and hitherto enigmatic work of art.