Chinese jade

There are about ten 20th Century prints in a corridor near the Korean room; and in the lobby of the rear entrance a case holds about as many very old pieces of pottery; and so much for Japan at the British Museum. Prehistory and the last century, and fuck the rest, apparently. They converted Japan’s modest permanent space to offices earlier this year, and the section downstairs that staff told me was its new home only lasted a couple of months before changing its focus to Tibet. Is that great culture not as deserving of some space as, say, Korea? Could Greece not give up another room full of urns much like the hundreds we can see in the previous room?

Anyway, this leaves the half a room of Chinese stuff (doesn’t warrant its own room, apparently, so shares with another minor world culture, India!) as my favourite section. This lunchtime I spent in the corridor leading off of the far end of this stuff, that likes to call itself room 33b, I think it is. It’s easy to miss, but worth finding as the exhibit entitled 7000 Years of Chinese Jade is a beauty.

Obviously the first half of that period makes up a tiny part of the show, and that’s understandable – though some of those early vessels (named cong, pronounced tsoong, square in body with a cylindrical hole) and flat discs (known as bi, used as some kind of burial token) and axe heads are spectacularly lovely. It’s also impressive if you know how tough jade is to work – steel tools are insufficient! – and that grinding it into shape could be the work of months of toil, besides the artistry involved.

Once you get into the last four millenia, the variety increases and there are some exquisitely rendered little animal figurines and filigreed openwork carvings, as well as some simple dining containers (though with subtly articulated surfaces) which seem to me to be ineffably perfect, and two glorious little snuff bottles, an established taste of mine already.

It’s a small show, that you might only spend fifteen minutes in, but it is worth a side trip from the blockbuster mummies and ‘Elgin Marbles’.