Tales of cabbages and consorts

One of the most famous jadeite artworks is in the shape of a cabbage. 

Jadeite is recognized as the gemstone jade along with nephrite. Both types of jade are popular in China. In Chinese, jadeite is “feicui,” which represents the birds of two colors, red and green.

The most highly valued color of jadeite is intensely green while other green tones like pale apple green and blue green coexist. Other colors include white, red, lavender, yellow and black.

Other major qualities that affect the value of the gemstone are transparency and texture. Ranging from opaque to semitransparent, jadeite’s transparency is called “shuitou” in jargon while the texture is known as “zhong.”

Different from the nephrite mined in China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, jadeite is mainly found in Myanmar. It is said that local people began to mine jadeite since the 13th century. The gem was later brought to China and thrived in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Both Emperor Qianlong (1711-99) and Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) were fans of jadeite.

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One of the most famous jadeite artworks is in the shape of a cabbage. The treasure is on show at the Palace Museum in Taipei. It is known as one of the three treasures of the museum along with the Meat-shaped Stone made of jasper in the Qing Dynasty and the Mao Gong Ding, a bronze vessel from the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC).

Why does the artwork feature cabbage rather than pak choy, celery and scallion?

In Chinese, cabbage is “baicai” which sounds like the words meaning “hundred wealth” so it implies richness. The vegetable also represents health and peace. What’s more, it symbolizes honesty and innocence.

The lifelike jadeite cabbage is topped with a locust and a cricket. The two insects stand for fertility. The colors of green leaves and white stalks are natural and even flaws in the stone such as cracks and blotches resemble the veins of a cabbage.

According to Na Zhiliang, an expert in jade participating in checking the artifacts held in the Forbidden City since the founding of the Palace Museum in Beijing on October 10, 1925, the jadeite cabbage was owned by Imperial Noble Consort Wenjing.

She was a consort of Emperor Guangxu (1871-1908) and from the Manchu Bordered Red banner Tatara clan. Granted the title “Concubine Jin,” she had a younger sister entitled “Concubine Zhen.” They were the daughters of the Right Vice Minister of Revenue. Both of them entered the Forbidden City at the same time in 1889.

Their real names are unknown.

Before their marriage, their parents prepared various dowries for the sisters whose characteristics were quite different. Concubine Zhen was demure, polite, intelligent and modest while her 3-year-older sister was fat, short and wayward.

The elder sister heard that the jadeite cabbage was included in their dowries and thus went to her mother’s room to take a look. A glittering array of jewelry pieces was stuffed in her box but Concubine Jin was still unhappy as she didn’t find the jadeite cabbage.

Concubine Jin predicted that the treasure was given to her younger sister and was determined to check her sister’s box. However, there was nothing in the box but books and stationery.

Holding the jadeite cabbage, Concubine Zhen came up to her sister.

“I am only interested in books so you can take the jadeite cabbage,” the concubine Zhen told her elder sister.

The imperious sister was excited at the treasure. Nevertheless, she didn’t know the implication of the dowry — purity — but just paid attention to its gorgeous appearance. Concubine Jin “planted” the cabbage into a flowerpot along with a lingzhi mushroom, which seemed to be vulgar.

The outbreak of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) threatened the jadeite cabbage and other cultural relics. In February 1933, a total of 13,491 boxes of treasures from the Palace Museum in Beijing were moved south. After 12 years of being moved around, the artifacts stayed in Nanjing. Soon after, in late 1948 and early 1949, some of the rare treasures, including the jadeite cabbage, were relocated to Taipei by the Kuomintang.

Taking a closer look at the jadeite artwork, visitors might find that the left tentacle of the cricket is broken. It is said that the accident probably happened during a move.

There is another jadeite cabbage in Tianjin Museum. Two crickets and one mantis get together peacefully in the heart of the cabbage. The artwork is bigger than the one in Taipei, at 19.1-centimeter high and 13cm wide.

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