Although Muslim cultures settled expansively in the past, areas where Islamic jades have been recovered are relatively few and far between. The Kunlun mountains in eastern Central Asia are the most significant source of nephrite jade; not only providing Chinese artisans with raw materials, but also those in the Timurid Empire in Central Asia (1370-1506), the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) in Southern Asia, the Ottoman Empire (1300-1923) in Western Asia, and even Eastern Europe as well.
The Huang-ming Pao-shun, or "Imperial Ming Treasured Instructions," records that, in the fourth year of the Yung-lo reign (1406), a jade bowl was received from the the Muslim inhabitants of Central Asia, but that it was returned. The Ming History also records that in 1445, the Chinese emperor Ying-tsung sent the Timurid ruler, Ulugh Beg, gifts of gold and jade.
In the early 16th century, the Timurid Empire collapsed, and descendants of the imperial line moved south to India to establish a new empire. As the emperor was descended from the Mongols on his mother's side, the empire was given the name "Mughal." The Mughal Empire was powerful and prospered through the 17th century. Emperor Shah Jahan recruited artisans from Europe and Persia to serve at the Mughal court, successfully melding European, Chinese, Central Asian and Indian artistic styles. The combination of these influences resulted in the classical Mughal-style of jade carvings, defined by plant, fruit and flower ornamentation , using the hard and cold qualities of jade to give praise to the liveliness of the natural world. The regions not ruled by the Mughal Empire in India, moreover, might also have been sites for jade carving as well.
Turkic peoples in Central Asia expanded westward into Western Asia and Eastern Europe to eventually found the Ottoman Empire. Even though Ottoman jade arts were not as highly developed as those of India, they nevertheless featured unique characteristics defined by stiffer, more symmetrical and stylized floral motifs.
In the second half of the 18th century, the Ch'ien-lung Emperor conquered the eastern part of Central Asia and renamed it "Sinkiang." A Uighur noblewoman was even sent to the Ch'ing court to be his concubine. Islamic jade arts from Central, Southern and Western Asia and Eastern Europe eventually flooded into Sinkiang and were in turn imported into the Chinese capital of Peking. Due to the emperor's appreciation of this so-called "Islamic style," it became fashionable in the jade markets in the late 18th century. New market demand not only resulted in jade forgeries being sent to the court as tribute, but it also stimulated Chinese jade artisans to incorporate exotic styles into their own works.
Cup in the Shape of a Bottle Gourd, Mughal Empire. Length: 16.6 cm, width: 12.8 cm, height: 4.7 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
This blue green jade cup was carved in the shape of half a bottle gourd. The inside where the curving handle meets the body of the cup is carved in relief with a six-petal flower, the stamen of which is inlaid with gold thread and red precious stones. On the other side of the cup there is a lotus flower in bloom carved in relief, the stem and leaves of which extend down along the spine to the base of the handle. The flowers and leaves are carved in a natural, realistic way. This example probably dates to the mid 17th century, and entered the Ch'ing court in 1773. The Ch'ien-lung emperor composed a poem for it, which he had inscribed on the inside. He also had a silk tassel made for it.
Central Asian plains
Central Asia refers to the central region of Eurasia and is composed of vast deserts and grassy plains. Over thousands of years, many nomadic tribes have thrived in this area. Among them, the Mongolian and Turkic peoples continue to make up its population. In the 14th century, Timur, the son-in-law of Mongol clan leaders and of Turkic descent, established the Timurid Empire (1370-1506) with the city of Samarkand as his capital. The Khotan region, the primary source of jade, lay east of the Timurid Empire. From textual references, we know that the inhabitants of Central Asia were already able to carve jade in the early 15th century.
In the 18th century, the Ch'ien-lung Emperor of the Ch'ing dynasty established control over the Dzungar and Uighur peoples and renamed the territory "Sinkiang." Many jade bowls, plates and urns came into the Ch'ing court as tribute from this region. The first display case in the exhibition holds the "Bowl with Deep Foot" given to the Ch'ien-lung Emperor as a tribute from a Dzungar chieftain, and the "Jade Urn" from the Muslim regions.
Jade Urn, Central Asian. Diameter of mouth: 9.3 cm, diameter of base: 7.3 cm, height: 6.65 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
During the Ch'ien-lung and Chia-ch'ing reigns, tribute jades from the Muslim regions were continuously sent to the court. Some were carved with poems written by the emperor, serving as display pieces in important palaces. Most jade pieces, however, were placed in "Muslim cloth bags" and piled up in a small storage room in the eastern side of the Ch'ien-ching Palace. These vessels were usually plain with bottoms conspicuously differentiated from those in Chinese style. Many had thick walls, were not particularly lustrous, were coarsely produced and some even bore traces of long-time usage.
Jade Teapot, Central Asian. Height: 19.3 cm, width: 9.6 cm, depth: 7.45 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Islamic expansion into Southern Asia
In 1506, the Uzbeks overtook the declining Timurid Empire. Twenty years later in 1526, Baber, the sixth-generation descendant of Timur, invaded India and founded the Mughal Empire. Baber was descended from Genghis Khan of the Mongols on his mother's side, so his dynasty was entitled "Mughal," a name derived from the Indian rendition for the Mongol people.
By the 17th century, the empire was flourishing with boundaries that covered modern day India and Pakistan as well as eastern Afghanistan. The fourth Mughal emperor Jahangir (1605-1627) and his son, the fifth emperor Shah Jahan (1627-1658), were exceptional patrons of jade craftsmanship. Mughal jade art successfully integrated Chinese, Central Asian, Indian and European techniques to produce works exquisitely elegant and proud. Shah Jahan, besides promoting the arts, commissioned large palaces and mausoleums. The world famous Taj Mahal in Agra was a mausoleum Shah Jahan built for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, who died at age 39 in childbirth.
The Mughal Empire was much weakened in the 18th and 19th centuries, but rising political powers continued to value the art of jade. Under these emerging forces, "non-classic Mughal-style Indian jades" developed.
Classic Mughal-style jades
Shah Jahan recruited artisans from many areas to serve at the Mughal court during his reign (1627-1658). They merged different traditions to create a new pinnacle in art. A jade cup inscribed with Shah Jahan's name in Persian script from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London is the most famous one. Its gourd shape originates from China, the acanthus motif comes from Europe, the lotus foot derives from India itself, and the ram-head handle design could well have been taken from the traditions of the Central Asian steppes.
The shape and decorative themes of "classic Mughal-style jades" are drawn mainly from the natural world, using elements such as flowers and leaves, melons, and ram heads. Its most attractive aspect is its ability to capture the softness of flowers, the abundance of melons, and the sprightliness of the ram with the hard, sharp and cold features of jade.
Most Mughal jades are food and drink vessels, such as bowls, cups, plates, ladles, teapots, vases, urns, and boxes. There is also a wide range of miscellaneous objects, including ink containers, dagger handles, bow grips, gunpowder kegs, mirror backs, Koran stands, supports, small pendants, and rings. Except for the last two, the National Palace Museum holds samples of all of these in its collection.
Flower Shaped Bowl and Two Leaf Shaped Handles, Mughal Empire. Length: 15.8 cm, width: 8.7 cm, height: 3.6 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Teapot with Handle, Mughal Empire.Length: 19.7 cm, width: 13.7 cm, diameter of pot: 11.9 cm, height: 11.2 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Non-Classic Mughal-style Indian Jades
There are two kinds of non-classic Mughal-style Indian jades:
- Jades produced in workshops in regions governed by political powers beyond the core of the Mughal Empire, such as in the Deccan. Features such as reduced dimensions, detailed and finished decorations, single handles replacing two handles, less proportioned bodies, plain styles, and a pronounced Hindu artistic flavor are found on these jade pieces.
- Jade pieces produced during the 18th and early 19th centuries with heavy Turkish and Chinese stylistic influence.
Jade Plate with Two Handles, Indian. Length: 22.3 cm, diameter at mouth: 18.4 cm, diameter at base: 10 cm, height: 1.6 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Jade Bowl with Two Handles and Lid, Indian. Width: 16.1 cm, diameter of mouth: 12.9 cm, diameter of base: 6.7 cm, height: 9.7cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
A comparison between Mughal and Ottoman jades
The ruling clans of the Mughal Empire in Southern Asia and the Ottoman Empire in Western Asia both came from Central Asia. This is reflected in the resemblances found in the forms and decorative themes of the jade arts produced in their realms. However, they also developed unique styles that can be compared and contrasted.
If double handles are carved in the shape of a flower, those of Mughal jades are often rendered as hanging flower buds, whereas Ottoman handles spiral in a "S"-shape facing outward. Furthermore, Mughal artisans were skilled in using layers of low-relief carving to present lively flowers and leaves. In contrast, Ottoman jade workers created either round or oval indentations to depict relatively more stylized petals and leaves. In summary, both Mughal and Ottoman jades use floral themes, but the former are depicted as elegantly naturalistic, whereas Ottoman jades are described as linear and defined.
Mughal Empire. Flower-shaped bowl with two bud-shaped handles © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Ottoman Empire. Bowl with two "S"-shaped handles © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Mughal Empire. Tea caddy © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Ottoman Empire. Lidded urn with floral carving © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Western Asian and Eastern European Symetry
When the Mongols occupied the major basins in northeast Asia, Turkic peoples migrated west to settle in Western Asia, expanding into Eastern Europe to found the Ottoman Empire (1300-1923). At its peak, the Ottoman Empire spanned all three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa. As it declined gradually, it eventually became the Republic of Turkey of modern times.
The Ottoman and Mughal Empires share an ancestral lineage from Central Asia, making their people of blood relations. This historical background explains how Turkey and India, separated geographically, came to produce similar jade carving traditions.
Turkish jade carving, however, was far inferior to its Indian counterpart in variety and quantity, but it is nevertheless not without its own alluring style composed of stiffer, straighter, and more symmetrical floral themes. Turkish jade is also defined by its acanthus leaf decoration with broad leaves and flat edges contained within virtually indistinguishable outlines, floral decoration arranged in the continuous "open window style," handles that hang down vertically or protrude straight out, and pod-shaped bases. Moreover, floral decorations are made using a shallow scooping technique, which creates rounded or oval indentations unique to Turkish jades.
Turkish Ottoman Empire. Bowl with Two S-Shaped Handles. Width 17cm Diameter of mouth 13.1cm Diameter at base 4.7cm Height 6.9 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Turkish Ottoman Empire. Lidded Urn with Floral Carving. Total Height 12 cm Diameter of body 6.6 cm Diameter of base at widest point 9.6 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Fragrant Concubine Brings Islamic Jades to Eastern Asia
In the 18th century, the Ch'ien-lung Emperor was able to defeat the Dzungar and liberate the Uighur leaders who at that time were the Hodjas brothers held captive in Ili. In the twenty-first year of the Ch'ien-lung Emperor's reign (1756), the elder Hodja sent a jade bowl as a tribute to the Chinese emperor, who subsequently commissioned a poem to be inscribed on the bowl. According to the chapter on concubines in the Ch'ing History, a woman from the Uighur tribes was sent to the court in either the 21st or 22nd year of the Ch'ien-lung reign (around 1756-7). She was given the official title of Jung-fei, but has gone down in history known as "Hsiang Fei (Fragrant Concubine)." Due to the coincidence in timing here, one could suppose that this jade bowl had accompanied the Fragrant Concubine to the Ch'ing court as part of a major ceremony.
In 1768, the high official stationed in the Muslim regions by the Ch'ing court sent a pair of flower-shaped Mughal plates to the Ch'ien-lung Emperor in tribute. The Ch'ien-lung Emperor composed a poem as well as a composition for them, in which he determined that the providence of the jade plates was "Hindustan" in northern India. The emperor's appreciation of the Hindustan jades' delicate luster brought resulted in a large quantity of extravagant jade pieces imported from India and Turkey into Sinkiang and then on their way to Peking. The Ch'ien-lung Emperor was not aware of the existence of Turkish jades and considered all vessels with floral-themed decoration as "Hindustan jades".
Bowl with Deep Foot, Central Asian. Diameter of mouth: 13.6 cm, diameter of foot: 6.2 cm, height: 5.4 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Round Plate with Carved Floral Patterns, Mughal Empire. Length: 22.9 cm, width: 21.7 cm, height: 1.9 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Prosperity Comes with Hindustan jades
The Ch'ien-lung Emperor's fascination with "Hindustan jades" enhanced the value of Islamic jades from the Sinkiang region, which led to an influx of "Hindustan jades" into the court as tribute from Ch'ing officials in Sinkiang and in the capital. This demonstrated the extent to which the "Islamic style" was fashionable in the jade market during the late Ch'ien-lung reign. By 1778, according to records, there were already craftsmen from South China who established workshops and studios in the Yarkand region, taking commissions from Ch'ing officials in Sinkiang and selling freely on the Chinese market. Additionally, there were Uighur jade workers joining the ranks of forgers, who made thick works with a duller, matte sheen.
The "Half Gourd Cup" on display is an example of a copy of an Indian jade. Compared to its original, its body is less proportioned with a rather stiff delineation of the ram's neck that lacks subtlety. The "Aubergine Cup" and the "Round Jade Plate" are samples of Turkish jade replicas. The former has a pod-shaped ring foot, and the latter displays an attempt to replicate the characteristics of the shallow scooping technique but without gouging out the petals.
The Ch-ien-lung Emperor was completely unaware of the existence of forgeries that were sent along with genuine jade pieces from Sinkiang. Thus, forgers became increasingly daring; some jade cups were even made with traditional Chinese ring ornaments on their handles.
Half Gourd Cup with Ram's Head, Muslim Border Regions. Length: 13.1 cm, width: 8.6 cm, height: 4.7 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Censer with Two Floral Handles, Muslim Border Regions. Width: 20.3 cm, height: 8.5 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
An overview of artistic traditions behind ancient Chinese vessels reveals that decorative themes during the Chinese Bronze Age were often strictly animal representations until decorative designs based on floral patterns imported from foreign cultures became prevalent in the Eastern Chou, Ch'in and Han dynasties. These flower-and-leaf as well as gourd-and-fruit themes, having undergone profound transformations, eventually came to be found on the refined implements that define Sung and Yuan dynasty literati culture.
Once these floral designs were merged with those from Europe, India, and Central Asia by Mughal jade artisans, they were transformed into classic Mughal-style jades and their origins became unrecognizable. When these Mughal jades reached China, the Ch'ien-lung Emperor was moved to exclaim that this flawless handiwork had to be the work of spirits or immortals.
The emperor's enthusiasm for Mughal jades incited the popularity of Islamic styles in the art market. Chinese jade workers opted to use elements such as the acanthus leaf, ram's head, shell forms, double-floral handles, and inlayed precious stones. However, these Islamic elements were sinicized and even appeared on the same vessels with traditional Chinese symbolic decorative motifs like auspicious clouds, the T'ai Chi, and references to prosperity, wealth and longevity.
Water Container with Two Floral Handles, East Asian, Ch'ing Dynasty. Length: 13.8 cm, width: 10.5 cm, diameter of base: 7.5 cm, height: 3.8 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Small Lidded Pot with Two Floral Handles, East Asian, Ch'ing Dynasty. Maximum width: 7.8 cm, diameter of body: 7.2 cm, height: 9.1 cm © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.
Text and photos © National Palace Museum of Taipei, Taiwan.