More than 12,000 kilometers separates China and Mexico across the Pacific Ocean, but the two ancient civilizations share a common cultural bond in their appreciation for precious jade. Many exquisite artworks carved of the stone from both countries are being showcased at Beijing's Palace Museum as part of the exhibition "Essence of Nature - Civilization of Ancient Jade in China and Mexico" to commemorate the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Jointly organized by the Palace Museum and Mexico National Institute of Anthropology and History, the exhibition features 200 jade artworks. The Palace Museum's collection was selected from 30,000 jade relics dating back to the Neolithic Age over 5,000 years ago to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), 80 of which have never before been shown to the public. Mexican jade on display at the exhibition dates back to the oldest Mesoamerican civilizations including the Olmec and Mayan, who populated modern-day Tabasco and Veracruz states more than 3,000 years ago.
Jade's ceremonial significance is arguably the strongest characteristic in both countries' appreciation for the hard, greenish gems. Xu Lin, a researcher from the Palace Museum and curator of the exhibition, pointed out it's also a reliable gauge to measure the importance a civilization attaches to jade.
"Chinese regard jade as the essence of nature, while ancient indigenous Mexicans regarded it as a gift from the gods. Both civilizations viewed jade as a link between humans and gods, which brings blessings, good health and other positive omens," said Xu, adding jade also became symbolic of "status and power" in both cultures.
The connection between jade and power in China is evident from worship of the stone in Hongshan culture, which thrived 5,000 years ago in North China between what is today Inner Mongolia and Liaoning Province.
In another indication of the spiritual significance of jade in China, it was used in burial rituals whereby the more powerful the deceased was, the more jade crafts would be lavished on their tomb. This was a similar practice embraced by ancient Mexicans - with jade ornaments used to decorate tombs of chiefs and religious leaders - as displayed at the exhibition in the form of jade truncheons recovered from tomb sites.
Jade was also central to both civilizations' beliefs of the afterlife. Xu explained how in China, jade cicadas were inserted into the deceased's mouth to help their resurrection, while ancient Mexicans put jade balls into the mouths of those who had died to serve a similar purpose. Jade masks were also used to help the dead breathe in their afterlife by both civilizations.
Although the exhibition highlights China and Mexico's many shared cultural appreciations, some visitors have been left feeling jaded by the ancient precious stones. Su Qinglian, a 24-year-old online vendor, told Metro Beijing she thought some Mexican artworks could barely be called as "jade" according to Chinese people's understanding of the stone.
"Look at that," she said, gesturing at a giant snake carved of igneous rock pyroxenite around the 14th century. "If you compare this with the delicate Chinese jade artworks of the same period, it's rough and barely polished. It's more of a 'stone' than 'jade,' strictly speaking."
Xu explained that jade craftsmanship in China was more developed than Mexico at that time, thanks largely to the Middle Kingdom's earlier access to metal tools. "By contrast, metal tools were not widely used in Mesoamerican civilization until Spanish colonialism. Locals there carved jade the way they carved other stones, so their artworks of that period are comparatively rough," she said.
Despite these differences, Xu claimed similarities in Chinese and Mexican culture represented "more than coincidence." "The relationship between two civilizations always has a deep background. More discoveries will be witnessed as research progresses," she said.
When: Until November 11
Where: Tower Gallery of the Meridian Gate (Wumen), The Palace Museum, 4 Jingshan Qianjie, Xicheng district
Admission: 60 yuan
Source: Global Times