5 minutes with... A finely carved white jade figure of Guanyin

Kate Hunt, Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art specialist, explains why this delicate rare white jade figure of the bodhisattva Guanyin is an exciting prospect for collectors

For many thousands of years, jade has been more highly prized in China than silver and gold. In ancient Chinese culture jade was associated with status and wealth and, according to Kate Hunt, Director of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art in London, it has been a scholarly metaphor for the kind of person you are.

‘Jade signifies that you are a gentleman, steadfast and, most importantly, that you uphold certain moral values,’ explains Hunt. ‘It’s also an auspicious stone associated with immortality and longevity.’

Jade is extremely hard and near impossible to carve. Instead, as the specialist explains, you must abrade it. This involves wearing away the stone with an abrasive substance — normally sand and water — or various drilling tools.

A rare and finely carved white jade figure of Guanyin and spinach-green jade 'Lotus' stand, Qianlong period (1736-1795). The figure, 2⅝ in (6.8 cm) high, 3⅜ in (8.8 cm) high overall including stand.

‘It would have taken months and months to abrade the relief and detailed drapery of this tiny white jade figure,’ Hunt says. ‘It demands huge respect for the highly skilled artisan-craftsman who would have made it’.

The white jade figure in question, dated to the Qianlong period (1736-1795), depicts Guanyin, the graceful bodhisattva of compassion. It came to auction on 14 May from the Dizang Studio Collection of Chinese jade.

This important collection of jade, comprising jewellery, pendant plaques, deities and animal carvings, was largely assembled between 1970 and 1990 by a renowned Taiwanese scholar and collector of Chinese jade. His son has further expanded the collection. ‘This piece was acquired by the father prior to 1990 and is absolutely fresh-to-market,’ says Hunt. ‘Its delicacy, size and unusual subject matter make it a very exciting prospect for collectors of Chinese jade.’

‘The market is predominantly guided by the taste of Asian buyers for white jade from this particular period’ — Kate Hunt

A popular figure in Chinese art, Guanyin is most commonly depicted holding a flask or an alms bowl. In the present figure, however, she is elegantly seated on a spinach-green jade double lotus stand, draped in long robes, clasping a sphere, which probably represents ‘the pearl of light’.

The sphere evokes a well-known story in the 16th-century Chinese novel Complete Tale of Avalokiteśvara and the Southern Seas. In the story, the Dragon King gives Guanyin a pearl of light in gratitude for saving his son’s life. This precious night-shining pearl, which constantly emits light, enables Guanyin to read the Buddhist scriptures by night.

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Its unusual subject matter and small scale suggests that this figure was a highly personal, precious piece, perhaps made to be placed on an altar in the home of a pious and wealthy individual.

Although jade comes in a range of different colours, white jade dated to the Qianlong period was the most highly prized jade among 18th-century Chinese collectors. ‘This is due to its association with purity and Buddhism in China,’ explains Hunt. 

And the current market? ‘It's predominantly guided by the taste of Asian buyers and their taste is still for white jade from this particular period.’

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