Pursuing optimal equilibrium and harmony between human and nature has always been a key concept in Chinese aesthetics. When it is embodied in the art of jade carving, fitting the design to the material and its inherent property is the guiding principle.
In short, the principle means that the natural hues or forms of the material in use induce the theme and designs of the work to be rendered. The artisan fully contemplates the substance and characteristics of the material at hand, which seems to restrict yet actually challenges him and ultimately inspires his creativity. The results are often surprisingly original, but at the same time so aptly natural that works like these are considered very "smart" and called "smart carvings".
The earliest specimen of jade "smart" carving known to us is a three-thousand-year-old jade turtle, unearthed from the archeological site of YinXu, at Anyang. The cute little white body contrasts with its black shell, pleasingly lively, so very approachable, far from the typical alienating, esoteric impression an ancient artifact would strike on us, testifying to that "smartness" does transcend time and space. The National Palace Museum boasts in its collections such treasured smart carvings, mostly made during the 18th and 19th centuries, including ones made of "genuine" jade (nephrite and jadeite), as well as those of agate, chalcedony, or others. Many are ingeniously fashioned using a special design technique called "cute use of tints", which takes advantage of naturally-formed color spots or areas preexisting on the material in use and transforms them into fitting parts of the intended subject. The motifs of such carvings take on a great intriguing variety, from auspicious signs, figures or animals, to flowers and birds, sometimes even featuring vegetables and meat. Among all smart carving curios, the jadeite cabbage of Qing dynasty reigns as the most popular and impressive one, beloved of many visitors to the Museum. It embodies a perfect three-in-one union of intrinsic nature, human creativity, and symbolic significance, indeed a paramount beauty illustrating the Oneness of Nature and Human.
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