Art and Scientific Thought: Historical Studies Towards a Modern Revision of Their Antagonism

By Martin Johnson | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
Ancient Chinese Carvings in Jade, and their Appeal to the Modern Western Mind

I

Books and articles on jade carvings and other Oriental crafts are commonly issued for collectors, antiquaries, art critics, or scientific anthropologists, with the assumptions that a specialist outlook will be both necessary and also sufficient for appreciating works of so remote a civilisation. Each assumption may be wrong. An expert bound by Western tradition may find more difficult than an unprejudiced stranger the task of realising the intentions which depended upon the mental background of so distant a craftsman. On the other hand, I propose to suggest that this barrier is not impenetrable, and that neither artist or connoisseur or scientific investigator, nor the untrained enquirer, need regard as inaccessible the mind of those who created and loved the art of jade. Perhaps there is an insight discovering strange kinship where worship gave rise to fine workmanship. Consider that during three thousand years, while our own ancestors have been preoccupied with phases of civilisation ranging from druidical rites to railways, there have never been lacking some Chinese who regarded jade as possessing peculiar magic and as conferring character and nobility upon those who cherished it. To the modern Western mind the interpretation might well be different but the facts unaltered; there is only no longer any need to invoke a supernatural explanation. For in contemplating and handling these stones we are not merely soothed by the marvel of their subtle colours, their lustre, and their touch, but we begin to realise our relationship with the distant artist who believed his years well spent in their carving; the imagining of an imperturbable poise and a serenity, which the exquisite things seemed to stimulate at the other side of the world hundreds or thousands of years ago, is created again in a living English mind. By nothing more mysterious than this inheritance, the piece of jade becomes a talisman to convey the permanence of

-55-

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