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New Book by ODU Researcher Documents a 'Jade Age' in China

Childs-Johnson talks with a colleague in China

Elizabeth Childs-Johnson, an Old Dominion University researcher who is an expert on ancient Chinese jade objects and early Chinese art and archaeology, is an author of a new book from Science Press, "The Jade Age: Early Chinese Jades in American Museums."

In its more than 400 pages, the hardcover book features 200 large photographs and text in both Chinese Mandarin and English. The publisher lists the price at $95.

"This is a very exciting time for archaeology in China," Childs-Johnson said. "The country has only been open to Sinologists outside China since 1980 and it's been a long, hard road. The book is a real coup, the first of its kind to be published by Science Press in Beijing and by a collaborative scholarly team. Science Press is the preeminent publisher of books on Chinese art and archaeology."

Her co-author is Gu Fang, a Chinese archaeologist and a leading expert on ancient Chinese jade. Julia Murray, a professor of art history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and an expert on Chinese art, assesses the book's objectives in an introduction.

The book "represents the culmination of many years of intensive research and reading on Chinese archaeology by the authors," Murray said. "Their detailed analyses of museum pieces, usefully grouped into meaningful classifications and related to examples recently unearthed from archaeological sites, offer a trove of information on beautiful objects that have often been little-known or misunderstood."

The co-authors contribute analyses and essays. Childs-Johnson in a separate and pace-setting lengthy analysis introduces a "Jade Age" that can be associated with three primary late Neolithic jade-working cultures: Hongshan, Liangzhu and Longshan. She explains why these cultures, which existed from about 6,000 to 4,000 years ago, stimulated the rise of civilization in China and the beginning of the historic Bronze Age. This is the first time that this era has been definitely analyzed and identified as the "Jade Age."

The book can be purchased from Throckmorton Fine Art in New York City (info@throckmorton-nyc.com), which previously has published catalogs with text by Childs-Johnson, "Enduring Art of Jade Age China," and "Enduring Art of Jade Age China, Vol. II." The book is also available from Science Press in Beijing and will be distributed by the University of Hawaii Press in Honolulu.

Childs-Johnson, an archaeologist and art historian, as well as an associate research professor in the ODU art department and an affiliate of the university's Institute of Asian Studies, was the subject of an article about Chinese jade last year in Science magazine. She explains in the article the significance of finely carved jade artifacts-some more than 5,000 years old-that have been unearthed in regions of China not traditionally credited with being seats of Chinese civilization.

The ODU faculty member has documented evidence to challenge the long-standing belief of archaeologists and historians that Chinese civilization was born and centered in the northern Yellow River valley more than 5,000 years ago.

In several regions, north and south of the Yellow River plains, archaeologists are turning up ruins and objects that indicate sophisticated cultures were present long before the Xia and Shang dynasties (ca. 2100-1100 B.C.E.). Furthermore, certain materials and symbols that came to be associated with the Shang and traditional Chinese culture, such as images of dragons and feng (phoenixes) in jade, have been found in numerous excavated sites that predate the Xia and Shang.

Jade helps establish the origins of China in several ways, according to Childs-Johnson. Recent discoveries of jade objects from three major cultures along coastal China make a case for the existence of an elite class among the pre-Shang cultures. This elite class defines what Childs-Johnson calls a Jade Age, which precedes China's Bronze Age, and is singularly Chinese in its relationship with jade.

"Jade is like gold in the West," Childs-Johnson told Science magazine. "It is a major symbol of power" in China from the Neolithic to the modern era. She points out that the stone is extremely hard to work, requiring labor-intensive abrasion to create finely formed and decorative images. She argues that like precious metals such as gold in the West, the use of jade as a symbol of both political and religious power in China was a major stimulus for the social evolution of China's early ruling elite.

Childs-Johnson, who received her Ph.D. from New York University's Institute of Fine Art in 1984 and joined ODU in 2006, has been senior editor since 2003 of Chinese Archaeological Digests published by the Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing.

She is the recipient of an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship (2003) and a National Gallery of Art, J. Paul Getty Trust Paired Research Fellowship (2004), which enabled completion of several studies, including the newly published "The Jade Age: Early Chinese Jades in American Museums."

Her book, "The Meaning of the Graph Yi and Its Implications for Shang Belief and Art," was published in 2007.

This article was posted on: January 26, 2010

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