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Jadeite Cabbage with Insects

Tags: jades | National Palace Museum


Ch'ing Dynasty (1644-1911)
Length: 18.7 cm, width: 9.1 cm, thickness: 5.07 cm 
This piece is almost completely identical to a piece of bokchoy cabbage. Carved from verdant jadeite, the familiar subject, purity of the white vegetable body, and brilliant green of the leaves all create for an endearing and approachable work of art. Let's also not forget the two insects that have alighted on the vegetable leaves! They are a locust and katydid, which are traditional metaphors for having numerous children. This work originally was placed in the Forbidden City's Yung-ho Palace, which was the residence of the Kuang-hsü Emperor's (r. 1875-1908) Consort Chin. For this reason, some have surmised that this piece was a dowry gift for Consort Chin 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. In the tradition of literati painting, it has also been borrowed as a subject in painting to express a similar sentiment, indirectly chastising fatuous officials. For example, in a poem written in 1775, the Ch'ien-lung Emperor associated the form of a flower holder in the shape of a vegetable with the tradition of metaphorical criticism found in the T'ang dynasty poetry of Tu Fu, in which an official was unable to recognize a fine vegetable in a garden. The emperor thereupon took this as a warning to be careful and alert. Regardless of whether it is a court craftsman or the maker of this jadeite bokchoy cabbage, all are merely giving play to their imagination and creativity, following the taste and directions of their patrons. Despite not having more historical records to probe these ideas, it nonetheless provides the viewer with greater room for imagination.

Text: Shih Ching-fei
Text and images are provided by National Palace Museum