Objects do not easily give up their secrets, but for every secret they divulge many more are yet to be discovered.
When I was asked to research an object in the Voices of Asia exhibition at Leeds City Museum, I was keen to find a small and little-known item, something that might have been previously overshadowed. I saw the small Chinese jade bowl and I was intrigued by it from the start.
I started reading up on Chinese jades, both online and in the reference library at Leeds Discovery Centre. I gained interesting insights in to the history of Jade carving in China, which dates back 6000 years, as well as a rough idea of when this particular bowl may have been made (Qing dynasty, somewhere between 1800-1880).
Researching jade carved characters
However, I soon noticed that insights were not answers. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the meaning of the bowl’s band of elusive carved characters. The more I researched the carvings the more ambiguous they seemed. I spent a long time examining the object in its case, and then looking around at other items in our collections or in the various books and online references on Chinese symbolism. This was all informative, but I was still no closer to finding out what those characters actually were.
In the end, I needed a closer look. The curator kindly let me take the bowl from its case. Carefully tilting the bowl this way and that, I saw that the figures seemed more muscular than the sinewy lizard-like forms I had imagined, with strong defined spines and large feet.
Small carved lines on the base of the limbs and on the back of the head suggested fur, and not scales. There was something distinctly feline about the characters.
I took several pictures for our records, and prepared some hand-drawn sketches of the characters. What surprised me was that this act of sketching, which involved focussing in on certain seemingly insignificant incisions, revealed features that I had previously taken for granted. Two highly defined incisions on the top of each of the heads, and several incisions on the limbs, started to look too deliberate to just be a suggestion of fur. They seemed to be tiger stripes.
After some time, a cup of tea, and a bit more online research, I was finally brave enough to write the words ‘carved tigers’ in the object description. This discovery illuminated the meaning of the carving.
In China, the tiger is appreciated for its beauty and savage power, and is an appropriate symbol for a military person of high rank. The tiger is king of all the animals and can drive away evil demons.
Despite this small victory, I can’t help but feel that there is more that those characters can tell us. If anyone knows more please do tell!
By Sarah, World Cultures intern