Standing on a hilltop in the center of the capital city of Taipei, the National Palace Museum houses hundreds of thousands of exquisite art objects from China’s imperial courts, brought by General Chiang Kai-shek when he fled the communists in 1949. The most famous masterpiece in this contentious place, however, isn’t an elaborate scroll, a landscape painting or a heavy piece of jewelry. Rather, it’s a little bokchoy cabbage made of jadeite. This piece is almost completely identical to a piece of bokchoy cabbage, measuring only 18.7 by 9.1 centimetres (7.4 by 3.6 in) and is 5.07 centimetres (2.00 in) thick; it is hardly larger than a human hand. The figure was carved from a single piece of half-white, half-green jadeite, which contained numerous imperfections such as cracks and discolored blotches.
This simple cabbage is a masterpiece first because it stands apart from a long tradition of idealized perfection in jade carving. A jade masterwork is typically flawless, cut from a stone without cracks or variations in color. The piece of jadeite from which the cabbage is carved, however, is not only fraught with cracks but also possesses cloudy, opaque patches, which are visible in the white part of the cabbage’s stalk. It’s also a relatively young work: Jadeite was introduced to China only at the end of the 18th century, during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. Earlier jade was made from the nephrite variety, which is slightly less vividly colored than jadeite. Jade is among the hardest stones in the world. To work it, the cabbage’s creator had to painstakingly grind away using the sand of even harder rocks, like rubies or garnets. There’s none of the chiseling associated with carving marble, for example. That makes the two bugs, with their reaching antennae and their long spindly legs that stand unsupported, especially remarkable achievements. Rather than let the stone’s flaws be a deterrent, the artist worked them masterfully into his design, using cracks in the jade as leaf edges. The jade’s “cloudy” patches, where the white stone is less translucent, mimics the way that frost can change the texture of a vegetable after freezing, explains Chang Lituan, the curator of the collection. The sculptor also incorporated the natural variations in the color of the stone, which ranges from a translucent white to a rich green, into the design, achieving a remarkable realism. The two insects that have alighted on the vegetable leaves are a locust and a katydid, which are traditional metaphors for having numerous children. The sculptor of the Jadeite Cabbage is unknown.
This work originally was placed in the Forbidden City’s Yung-ho Palace, which was the residence of the Kuang-hsü Emperor’s (1875-1908) Consort Chin. For this reason, some have surmised that this piece was a dowry gift for Consort Chin in 1889 to symbolize her purity and offer blessings for bearing many children. Although it is said that the association between the material of jadeite and the form of bokchoy began to become popular in the middle and late Ch’ing dynasty, the theme relating bokchoy and insects actually can be traced back to the professional insect-and-plant paintings of the Yüan to early Ming dynasty (13th-15th c.), when they were quite common and a popular subject among the people for its auspiciousness.
Following the fall of the Qing Empire in the Chinese Revolution of 1911, the sculpture became part of the collection of the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City. The Kuomintang captured Beijing in 1928. When Japan invaded China in 1933 and as the Japanese Imperial Army’s soldiers neared Beijing, the museum curators packed the Forbidden City collection into about 13,000 crates. The Kuomintang army moved them first to Shanghai, then to Nanjing; later, the collection was split among various cities farther inland. After Japan was defeated, China descended into civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communist People’s Liberation Army. Beaten back into southern China, the Kuomintang selected about 3,000 crates of the most valuable imperial artifacts, and shipped them to Taiwan in 1949. Those artworks formed the core of Taiwan’s National Palace Museum, which was opened in 1964.
Credits: Leslie Hook, National Palace Museum, Wikipedia.