Nicole Chiang (The Museum of East Asian Art) on a Qing Dynasty Jade Bowl

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Close Looking
from the 02/2019 Issue

Filed under: sculpture
The Museum of East Asian Art (MEAA) in Bath is a treasure trove of Chinese art set within a Georgian townhouse. With an impressive collection of objects across time periods and materials, the museum has dedicated itself towards the research and study of Chinese art. In this article, we speak with Dr Nicole Chiang, a curator at the museum, who tells us more about an object in their collection: an exquisite Qing Dynasty jade bowl.
Dr Nicole Chiang is the Curator at the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath.  Before joining the MEAA, she worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the National Palace Museum in Taipei.  Her research interests include the art and material culture of China’s Qing dynasty, cross-cultural studies, collecting histories and theories and museum studies.

¹ Greenish-white Jade Bowl
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period (1735-1795)


Dr Nicole Chiang (NC): This bowl is not an everyday object, and was used in a special ceremony. The National Palace Museum in Taipei has a similar bowl in their collection, and that bowl bears an inscription telling us that this bowl was used in a celebratory ceremony. The emperor would provide tea to his officials during this ceremony, and this type of jade bowl was used for the occasion. This bowl and the National Palace Museum’s bowl were both made during the Qianlong reign.

In order to make a jade bowl like this, you’d first need to find a boulder large enough for the carving process. The craftsman would then use minerals harder than jade. These hard materials would be applied onto their tools in the form of sand, and the tools would then be used to grind the jade down. It would have been a very lengthy and difficult process.

Depending on who commissioned the bowl, how instructions for making the bowl were disseminated would have differed. If the bowl was made for the state, the commission would have come from the Board of Rights. The board would have outlined the number of objects requested, and the sort of forms and styles that were preferred. The work would then be carried out by the Board of Works. It would then have been paid for by the Board of Revenue. If it was made for the imperial household, then the imperial household department would have carried out this commission.


NC: During the Qianlong reign, the emperor conquered the region that corresponds to what is today Xinjiang. This made a lot of jade and raw material available, and opened up more exchanges between the Qing imperial court and the Islamic world. We can date the arrival of Islamic jade to the Qing imperial court to the first presentation of Islamic jade in 1756. The Qianlong Emperor really loved Islamic jade, and he even penned a couple of poems dedicated to Islamic jade. In these poems, he talks about how thin these jades are, and how when he held these objects up, he could see his hand through them. These jades felt weightless, and were almost as light as a feather.

This jade bowl is placed within the Dynamic World Gallery. In this gallery, we try to illustrate the relationship between China and different parts of the world. The case in which the jade bowl is housed speaks of the relationship China has with, in particular, the Islamic world. During the Qing Dynasty, especially the Qianlong period, the emperor wasn’t really aware of the different Islamic regions. He referred to all Islamic jades as Hindustan jades, with Hindustan referring to the geographical area of modern day Northern India, Pakistan and Kashmir. The Islamic jade that made its way to the Qing court came from the Mughal Empire, the Ottomon Empire, and Central Asia.

Our jade bowl was made in China in imitation of Islamic jade, and the original prototype for this was probably jade from the Central Asian region. In comparison to Mughal jade, which is usually more ornate and floral in design, Central Asian jade is quite plain.


NC: The founder of the Museum, Brian McElney, started collecting blue and white ceramics, much like other British collectors in the 1950s and 1960s. His interest really grew from there, so he began collecting everything under the sun. He wanted to create a comprehensive collection of Chinese art, and that’s why we have an example of everything. We have objects dating from the Neolithic period up to the modern period. We have objects made from every material, including jade, metalwork, ceramics and lacquerware. We even have objects made from organic materials such as rhino’s horn and bamboo.

After the museum was established in 1993, we received donations that included Southeast Asian artworks. The museum accessioned those objects in order to illustrate China’s relationship with other parts of the world. The focus of the museum remains on Chinese art, but it’s good to have objects from other regions such as Japan and Korea in our collection to demonstrate the fact that China had relations with these other regions, and wasn’t as isolated as many often assume. In our collection, we also have some European copies of Chinese objects. These were either purchased or received as donations in order to further illustrate that point. The museum also features objects that have been loaned from other public and private collections. Currently exhibited on our staircase landing is a selection of jades from a private collector’s own collection.

We currently have a temporary exhibition on display, The Art of China: A Brief History, which serves as a very good introduction to the museum. It’s on the ground floor, so when people come in, they can have a quick overview of the collection’s strengths. We’re also in the midst of celebrating our 25th anniversary. As such we’ve tied our interest in educating the general public about and promoting Chinese art, with our being in the city of Bath, which is associated with notions of healing and wellbeing. We’re celebrating human creativity and the power of art in conjunction with the identity of the city. We began celebrations last year, beginning with an exhibition last year titled A Quest for Wellness — Contemporary Art by Zhang Yanzi. The artist focused on themes of wellbeing and healing by incorporating capsules and medical texts into her works. The second part of this celebration focuses on our own collection. Time and time again, we’ve had visitors comment on how tranquil the museum space is. That reflects on the characteristics of East Asian art, especially in terms of its simplicity and elegance.
The Art of China: A Brief History is now open at The Museum of East Asian Art.
The exhibition will run until 12 May 2019.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.

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