The Jade Cup
The Jade Cup
The Jade Cup is an object made in the shape of a brush washer that was commonly used by Chinese bureaucrats and scholars to clean off ink from brushes using them. The handle is formed by a hornless dragon, a creature that was popular among the Chinese during the Neolithic times. The cup was made in the period between 1420 and 1449. Complete with a handle, the cup was highly polished and incised with the name Ulugh-Beg Kuragan and it is thought that it was made in Samarkland, Uzbekistan, Asia. Originally, the cup was carved from nephrite, but it was later repaired using silver. Its dimensions are height of 7.3 centimetres, depth of 12.4 centimetres, and a width of 19.5 centimetres. The inscription script is riqa whereas the position is on the right side of the cup just below the rim. The name is inscribed in Turkish language. Another inscription is found on the repaired part of the rim, also in Turkish reading Karam-I Hakka nihayet yokdur. This is translated to mean that “The generosity of God is infinite”. Notably, the exact provenance of the object is disputed with some thinking that it was made in a jade-carving workshop in Central Asia, mostly Samarkland (British Museum).
Jade being an extremely hard material, carving objects out of it involved a risk of having the metal tools blunted by it. As such, the secret of avoiding this problem was that the material was grinded using sand, which would occasionally be wetted. Tools that were commonly used included emery grindstones, saws, and drills (Guimet Museum).
From the jade cup’s inscription, it is believed that the cup was owned by Ulugh Beg who served as the ruler of the Timurid Empire in the period between 1447 and 1449. He was the grandson of Timur who was popularly known as “Timur the Lame” owing to a leg injury he had sustained during a battle. Timur initially ruled a small Turkish tribe before he conquered the entire Iran and Central Asia, which he put together under the Timurid Empire. His death in 1405 saw the empire begin disintegrating and by the time Ulugh took over power, it was a period of intense political instability. Notwithstanding, the two years of his rule constituted a golden age for Iranian art. The cup has a dragon on it signifying Ulugh Beg’s appreciation for Chinese decoration. Moreover, Ulugh Beg also built a pavilion on the outside of Samarkland named Chini Khana and whose walls had Chinese porcelains decorations (“A History of the World”).
It is thought that Ulugh Beg ruler intended to use the Jade Cup as a defence in case of an assassination attempt by his rivals. This is especially so because at the time of its making, it is thought that the Cup would have cracked on coming into contact with poison. Interestingly, it could not protect him from his son who had him beheaded and took over power in 1449. This idea is further affirmed by the fact that the cup’s craftsmanship is not as well-done as would be expected of it being a Chinese jade vessel. This in turn puts doubt to an alternative idea that the cup could have been a gift brought to Ulugh Beg by a Chinese ruler. Notably, by the time the Jade cup is thought to have been produced, the Chinese had an experience of working jade extending for a minimum of two thousand years. In this regard, it is highly unlikely that with this experience, a Chinese ruler would have had an object meant to be a gift made so simply (British Museum). A later use of the cup in its cultural context could have been in wine parties. In Ulugh Beg’s court, there were singers and musicians and wine parties were common. Subsequently, the cup later became a common feature in wine parties. Another idea of its use is that it helped against any kind of kidney problems. In fact, there are some languages in which it is called nephrite owing to its association with this kidney-related function. It is also actually thought that Ulugh Beg would also carry his Jade Cup in his belt so that it could protect him from kidney problems (British Museum).
The jade cup extended in popularity through different Chinese dynasties. Firstly, jade was and still is a highly preferred gemstone associated with luck and being full of virtue. In the subsequent carvings of the jade cup, two materials often referred to as jade were used namely jadeite and the nephrite that was used for the original jade cup. Whereas nephrite has a higher capacity to withstand fracture, it is also slightly softer than jadeite. For some reason, rulers have always chosen jade cups made from nephrite considering the material as a status symbol and associating with imperial stone.
Borrowing form one of its thought original uses during the Timurid dynasty, jade cups featured in subsequent dynasties as wine cups. One such dynasty is the Mughal dynasty whose period of ruling in the Indian subcontinent is thought to have extended from 1526 to 1757. The Jade Cup of Shah Jahan, as it is known, is among them most exquisite surviving objects obtained from the Mughal dynasty court and it is regarded as an excellent example of jade craftsmanship. This makes the difference between it and the original Ulugh Beg’s cup that was not as perfectly done. The jade cup was made in 1657 for Shah Jahan, the Emperor of the Mughal dynasty for use as a wine cup (Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum).
The Jade Cup of Shah Jahan is extremely attractive right from it shape and texture. It is shiny white and is made in the shape of a gourd with the handle being in the shape of a ram head. Its base consists of acanthus leaves that radiate from a lotus flower and it is raised to form the cup’s pedestal. These features of the cup are a reflection of the variety of artistic and cultural influences that would be welcomed at the Mughal court (V&A Museum). Notably, the Mughals had a Persian cultural background, but had later adopted an Indian culture. They would also welcome new cultural ideas from the Western nations. Among the groups that would be welcomed at the court as futile ideas of converting into an empire were being entertained are the Jesuits who were endowed with learning. Merchants and ambassadors would also be received for their trade promises and exotic gifts whereas craftsmen-adventurers were hosted for their knowledge and skills in unfamiliar technologies (V&A Museum). On the one hand, Chinese inspiration is seen in the gourd form chosen for the cup’s body. On the other hand, the lotus petals and the sensitivity characteristic of animal portraiture are features of Hindu art. On their part, the ideas of using acanthus leaves and having a pedestal support originated from Europe and they could be seen in other architectural decorations during the reign of Shah Jahan. Notably, even with this combination of Chinese, European, Indian, and Iran art, the Mughals were still able to achieve a high level of brilliant unity in their art. The Jade Cup of Shah Jahan was an example of this unity. It entered the ruler’s treasury in his reign’s last year and now offers a strong visual support to the dynasty’s splendour legend (V&A Museum).
The Small Jade Cup is a circular cup whose base is small and low signifying the Ming sculpture of China. The cup is translucent white and veined giving sensuality to the decoration that comprises of Zhi dragons that face each other to form the handle. The snouts and paws of the dragon, in turn, grip the rim whereas the body arch outwards with the tails coiling back to the cup’s sides. The delicate engraved coils and the carving suggest the fur on the paws and back thereby indicating the pursuit of realism to a given extent. On the other hand, the precisely symmetrical curving and flowing of the two dragon-handles provide a vibrant effect (Guimet Museum).
The cup was intended for scholar’s chambers. Starting from the Song dynasty that lasted from 960 to 1279 BC, the elite tended to prefer antique objects. Their creation included the revival of jades alongside such antique-style repertoire as the zhi dragon that was common in the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE). The trend was continued into the Ming. However, it is important to note that clients often preferred to have the novel flowing forms of the cup as they provided a highlight of the luminous veins as they run through the gemstones (Guimet Museum). The mannerist treatment of the Small Jade Cup was later emulated by the Dehua potters, the producers of the celebrated Blanc de Chine that was popular among Westerners in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The cup is a testimony of the European embracement of jade as a prestigious material. This is because after originally being adopted by Mazarin (1692-1661), it was featured in Louis XIV’s collections (Guimet Museum).
Another form of the jade cup also produced during the Ming dynasty had two handles and its base composed of a short ring like foot. It was grey-celadon in a colour, but with occasional brown inclusions and markings. The handles extend to the body of the cup forming flower like protrusions. Apart from the two handles and the decorations, this cup is similar to the Small Jade Cup described above in terms of size. However, it is also different in that the handles protrude above the rim occupying a significant portion of the space that would ordinarily be used while drinking from it. As a result, the cup was mainly intended for decoration purposes especially in nobble families. They would occupy a central position inside the house where they could clearly be seen by visitors (“Jade Cup”). Closer to this is the Jade Cup with Stand, which was common in the 19th and 20th century. The cup had characteristic two handles that were shaped like chilong. It featured decorations comprising of taotie incisions that intersperse with the roundels. It is translucent green and white with white inclusion streaks and spinach green spots. The cup is much shorter than the above cup and the handles only slightly protrude above the rim. Also, the handles do not extend over the body of the cup whereas the base is shorter. The body also features various decorations, but that can only be seen after keen observation. Despite its lack of outstanding decorations, this simple jade cup was also popular among nobble families where it could be used for wine drinking. It could especially be used to serve wine to visitors as a symbol of status (“Jade Cup With Stand”).
The Pale Celadon Jade Wine Cup was a pale white jade cup produced in China in the nineteenth century. It was carved in the shape of a peach with the handle being created as a branch. It rested on a carved blossom in the form of a wood stand. The wood stand is carved in intertwined branches apart from the upper part on which the body of the cup rests. The cup was mainly offered for sale to imperial and aristocratic families that intended to have them as housewares (“Pale Celadon Jade Wine Cup”).
After years of jade carving, the craft declined as a result of chaos that resulted from frequent wars. However, the jade cup would later resurface in 1956 in Henan province of China in Luoyang city in the Wei Kingdom. Unlike most of the earlier jade cups, this jade cup was taller as it measured a height of 13cm, legs of 4cm and a calibre of 5cm. The carving was made on the valuable Hetian Jade and the cup is white and smooth. It is shaped like a column with the abdomen being fairly straight. Although it does not have any decorative patterns, this form of a jade cup appears elegant and full of dignity. It is presently preserved by the relic team of the Luoyang culture (China Daily). Although this cup was made many years after the Han dynasty, it reflected the transition that was experienced as jade wares shifted from being items of nobble families to being prevalent in ordinary homes. During this time, the shapes had a more realistic style even though some of the parts would bear a considerable extent of decorations. Following the transition, jade wares started being used as everyday items or for decorations unlike there before when they were used for drinking wine. The jade cup of the Wei Kingdom thus features all these elements and as such, it occupies a central position both in annals of Chinese crafts and arts, and in the history of material culture (China Daily).