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Kuei Tablet with Eagle Motif

Tags: Erh-li-t’ou Culture | jades | Lung-shan Culture | National Palace Museum


Late Lung-shan Culture to Erh-li-t’ou Culture, Neolithic age (ca. 4300-3800 BC)
Length: 30.5 cm, greatest width: 7.2 cm, greatest thickness: 1.05 cm, weight: 600.96 g 
This jade “kuei” tablet is ivory yellow on both sides, with the lower half of the reverse side having a red sienna tinge. The cutting edge of the blade is much darker, almost black, and exhibits many nicks. The other end, where the tablet was held, also shows signs of damage. This end has a hole bored through it, with smooth walls. The middle section of both sides of the tablet are carved with mysterious motifs in shallow relief, whilst the upper and lower sections have been carved with a poem written by the Ch’ien-lung Emperor (r. 1736-1795) of the Ch’ing dynasty and the emperor’s seal. The wooden stand was made in the Ch’ing dynasty imperial workshops. Implements fashioned from quality jade were mainly used as ritual objects symbolizing the power of the ruler, and were given the name “kuei” in the ancient Chinese system of etiquette and rites. The convention was to hold the tablet with the blade facing up. This piece originates from the Mt. Tai area of China from around 4300 to 3800 years ago. According to historical records, this area was occupied during this period by the Tung-i people, a name often translated as the Eastern Barbarians, and so the motifs carved onto the middle sections of the tablet likely represent the gods or ancestors of these people. These carvings are now very faint. On one side is a god or ancestor with a spiral eye and jewelled headgear decorated on either side with phoenix feathers. On the other side is an eagle, rendered in an abstract shape that mirrors the shape of the headgear worn by the figure on the other side, flying up to the heavens. On the thin end of the tablet, which measures around 1 cm in width, is also a carving of a longhaired woman wearing circular earrings, possibly representing the Tung-i empress named Ch’ang-o. The significance of these carvings was unknown to the Ch’ien-lung Emperor in the 18th century, and he had the tablet orientated such that the blade was facing down, ordering his craftsmen to carve his poem and seal into the surface.

Text: Teng Shu-p'ing

Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum