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A Ming dynasty, jade belt plaque with shou ( )

Catalogue Entry
A rectangular, two-layer openwork Hetian jade belt plaque ( )

Measurements: Length – 79mm


Width – 64mm
Depth – 8mm
Weight – 62g

Place of Origin: China

Date: ca. 1500 to 1644 (Middle to Late Ming Dynasty)

Materials and Techniques: White nephrite jade carved in two-layer openwork.


A jade pai fang belt plaque; a near-square rectangle, measuring 79mm by 64mm and
8mm deep. The jade has a consistent colour apart from two brown streaks on the right
edge and one on the left. Both front and back have been carved to achieve a sense of
depth. The foreground layer and perimeter edges have been polished. The back and
background layer are rough and contrast with the polished foreground. Seven traditional
Chinese characters have been carved in script seal calligraphy, possibly different
variations of shou ( ). Lingzhi designs make up the background and rest of the
foreground layer. Beneath the characters is a large perforation reinforced by a 3mm
border. The belt plaque is in good condition and displays no sign of damage.

Figure 1.1. Front and back of the jade belt plaque. Photo: Mr. Jeff Veitch

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Figure 2.2. Illustration of the DUROM.19603747 jade belt plaque including foreground and background openwork layers.
Illustration: Author.

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Identification and Original Use
It can be established that the primary
role of this plaque was decoration, due
to the value of the material and ornate
nature of the double-layered openwork
carving. The empty recesses behind
the characters point to a deliberate
lightening of the overall weight. This,
paired with the unfinished reverse,
suggests it was meant to be worn
against the body with the polished side
facing outwards. Beginning in the Tang Figure 3.1. Complete Ming jade belt including the original
dynasty (AD 618-907), jade ornaments textile base. Photo: Palace Museum, Beijing.
were worn by lords and first- and second-
ranking officials, including belts varying from eight to twenty-five pieces attached onto
leather or textile by wire (Forsyth 1991, 132). Comparison with analogous examples
confirms that this plaque would have been manufactured as part of a jade belt, most
likely comprised of 20 pieces (Zhao 2001; Jiangxi Provincial Museum no date; Hunan
Museum no date; Yangzhou Museum no date).

Figure 2.2. The standard components of Ming dynasty jade belts (Xiao 2013, 168). The artefact illustration is imposed on
the type 1 plaques. This illustration is based on a middle Ming dynasty belt at the Jiangxi Provincial Museum.
Illustration: Author.

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Figure 2.3. A front and back example of how jade plaque belts would have been worn in the Ming dynasty. Photo: Ming Dynasty 2019.

The near-square ratio and openwork style of this


plaque share most similarity with examples
excavated from middle and late Ming dynasty
tombs (AD 1500-1664) (Nanjing Museum 2015;
Hunan Museum no date; Yangzhou Museum no
date). The standard components of Ming dynasty
jade belts were one san tai, six yuan tao, four fubi,
two yu wei, and seven pai fang (figure 2.2). There
are two types of pai fang, which are used
interchangeably depending on the style
preference; type 1 being a near-square and type 2
being a longer rectangle (Xiao 2013, 168). Due to
its shape, it can be determined this plaque was a
type 1 pai fang, which would have been worn at
the back of the belt. The combination of type 1
versus type 2 pai fang does not seem to have
been heavily standardised, and after the middle
Ming dynasty there is a marked increase in belts
using only type 2. Following displays by the
Yangzhou Museum and Palace Museum, it
appears that belts using both type 1 and type 2 pai
fang had three type 2 plaques among four type 1
(figure 2.2). This probably facilitated flexibility,
allowing the shorter type 1 to act as a hinge for Figure 2.4. A portrait of Li Dongyang (1447-1516),
the broader type 2. a Ming dynasty court official, wearing his yapai looped on
his jade plaque belt (Anon 1503). Photo: Palace Museum.

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This pai fang jade plaque would have been worn with the 5mm incised hole positioned
at the bottom, with the Chinese characters standing right-side up. Though this
perforation is present on many openwork jade belt plaques, existing scholarship does
not address its purpose in detail other than to suggest it was for attaching the plaque to
the belt (Forsyth 1991, 102; The British Museum no date). As the hole is carved into the
front layer, reinforced by a 5mm border, and located at the bottom (figure 4.4), this
seems unlikely. The author posits the true purpose of this perforation was made to hang
rank insignia such as the wearer’s yapai ( ), a “visitor’s badge” allowing access to
the imperial palace (figure 2.4; Jieqi no date). As jade belts were originally only awarded
to those close to the emperor, needing a place to store imperial documents seems likely
(Xiao 2013, 168).

Jade Composition
This plaque is made of nephrite jade. It is a light yellow-green colour that is consistent
throughout the stone. There is a light brown streak across the right side and two light
brown streaks across the left, one of which carries onto the face and across the
character on the lower left (figure 3.1). The plaque is overall a high-quality piece and
displays a solid composition when viewed head-on. The author ventures that the stones
in front of belt would have been of even better quality. In a Ming dynasty belt from the
Yangzhou museum (figure 3.2) two of the three noticeably marked jade pieces are pai
fang, which would have been worn at the back.

Figure 3.1. Brown streaks on the right and left sides of the plaque.

Figure 3.2. Comparison of “greasy” lustre on the Yangzhou Ming dragon belt (left) and the belt plaque (right).
Photo (left): Yangzhou Museum.

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Determining the make-up of this jade
in a non-destructive fashion requires
several different analyses to gain a
conclusive identification. The jade
was primarily determined to be
nephrite due to the time period in
which it was assumed to be made, as
jadeite was not used largely used in
China until the 1780s (Walker 1991,
25). However, due to the nature of
acquisition and lack of provenance,
there is no terminus ante quem to
validate the time period.
Subsequently, further analysis is
required.

The second method was to examine


the stone’s lustre. When compared to
a Ming dynasty nephrite belt, this
plaque exhibits the same “greasy”
shine (figure 3.2) where the reflection
is diffused on a slightly matte surface.
In comparison, jadeite’s reflection is
vitreous and translucent (Walker
1991, 33).
Figure 3.3. EDXRF spectroscopy readings from the plaque’s surface,
The plaque was also examined using showing high levels of calcium and significant levels of iron and
EDXRF spectroscopy (figure 3.3). magnesium. Courtesy of Ms. Vicky Garlick (2020).
Nephrite is a calcium magnesium/iron
silicate, with iron used as colouring agent (Sutherland 2018). Subsequently, the EDXRF
readings reveal peaks of calcium, magnesium, iron, and silicon. Had this been a jadeite
piece, there would be peaks of sodium and aluminium (Walker 1991, 23). However, as
EDXRF measures only a small surface area, further readings would need to be taken to
confirm these results were not contaminated by foreign substances on the surface. If
the facilities are available, the author also suggests using Raman spectroscopy for
conclusive results. It is a non-destructive method that has produced reliable results
easily distinguishing jadeite from nephrite using light interaction with chemical bonds
(Shurvell,Rintoul and Fredericks 2001). Other distinguishing methods such as infrared
spectroscopy and “scratch testing” are destructive and must not be used.

Following analogous examples, the plaque is most likely made of Hetian white jade, a
prized “mutton-fat” nephrite which was favoured for making jade belts in the Ming
dynasty (Nanjing Museum 2015; Forsyth 1991, 26). Consulting EDXRF results supports
this theory, as the white nephrite jades contain lower quantities of iron (Sutherland
2018). Refer to the ‘Social and Historical Background’ section for further discussion on
sourcing Hetian jades.

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Manufacture
Jade is an incredibly hard material, difficult to shape
without the right tools. Nephrite measures 6.5 on the
Mohs scale, the same hardness as steel (Sutherland
2018). Subsequently, incising jade requires hard
abrasives made of either quartz, garnet, corundum,
or diamond (National Palace Museum, no date).
Prior to the 20th century, Jade artisans utilised a
variety of tools to achieve different shaping and
incising goals (Table 4.1). These tools were created
with abrasives pulverised with sand (forming a
mixture called jieyusha ) and soaked in water
before being applied to tools made of copper, iron,
and/or steel. To use these tools, water was
necessary to lower kinetic heat and prevent the
jade from cracking (National Palace Museum no Figure 4.1. A magnified image of the foreground layer
with the matte background layer behind (stippled). Some
date). of the background has been carved into the foreground.

The jade belt plaque is carved in an openwork design, comprising of 2 layers carved on
top of each other by hollowing out recesses. The foreground layer is polished and
catches the light well. In contrast, the background layer has a rough, matte texture that
absorbs the light, allowing the foreground to stand out clearly. Some of the background
layer’s swirl designs are carved in high relief, joining the foreground layer and creating a
glittering effect. From the back, the jade is rough and unpolished. The foreground’s
characters rest above recesses, possibly done to increase legibility as well as lightening
the artefact. Examining the plaque from behind allows a view of individual toolmarks,
including the tapered angle at which the jade was worked with hand tools (figure 1.1).

Jade was shaped using rotary and rigid tools.


The rotary tools would have been powered by
moving a tension bow back and forth (figure 4.2),
while rigid tools used arm movement. The jade
was first cut into a rough shape using wheel
cutters and rigid saws (figure 4.3). In the case of
this plaque, it would have been shaped into a
rectangle. The design was then outlined by
drilled points and bored holes, some of which are
still visible in the design (table 4.1). Finally, a
combination of rotary wheel cutters, string saws,
and “riffling” saws were used to incise and file the
openwork in fine detail. Once the design was
finished, the foreground would have been
polished with a concoction of carborundum and
Figure 4.2. An illustration of a rotary drilling point (Sax
calcareous silt or loess (Sax et al. 2003, 1414).
et al. 2003, 1421). Illustration: Tony Simpson

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Table 4.1. Summary of jade-working tools and techniques, with examples from the jade belt plaque

Tool Description Mark Evident marks on the plaque


Rotary drilling Various shapes, but usually a Circular grooves.
point cylindrical, pointed or round
tool-head with abrasive. Used
for primary shaping.

Rotary wheel A disk shape with abrasive on Circular and


cutter the rim for incising, apparent in longitudinal grooves,
various thicknesses. Used for slightly tapered.
shaping and incising details.

Rigid saw Tools with long, straight working Parallel longitudinal


edges used for primary and grooves, usually faint or No marks present* though it would
secondary shaping. Useful for removed by other tools. have still been used for primary
incising edges and convex shaping.
surfaces.

Flexible string Tools made of hemp or sinew Parallel longitudinal


saw and charged with abrasive. grooves, sometimes
Used for incising thin lines. pronounced.

“Riffling” short Tools with short, straight Parallel longitudinal


saw working edges used for working grooves, diverging from
“flattish surfaces” away from the ends of features,
edge and finishing details. sometimes pronounced.
Similar to a file.

Hand-held Tool with very hard point or Smooth and non-


point blade, used without abrasive. grooved surfaces. No marks present* and unlikely to
Held like a pencil for detailed have been used, as there are no
incising. etched motifs.

*Plaque observation for marks conducted using photos. Additional physical examination is recommended.

(Sax et al. 2003, 1419–1420).

Figure 4.3. An illustrated diagram of the openwork carving process. Illustration: National Palace Museum.

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A visual study of the plaque was conducted
to identify the individual tools used (table
4.1). It was determined all tools except for
the hand-held point were used to create the
jade belt plaque. There are deep grooves
around the central perforation that would
have been created by a rotary wheel cutter,
identified by the tapered ends and curved
incision. An SEM micrograph image of a
separate Ming dynasty jade plaque
provides a closer view of the rotary tool’s
indentations (Sax et al. 2003, 1423).
Additionally, a rotary drilling point was used
behind the characters, as evident by the
circular abrasions (table 4.1).
Figure 4.4. Top: a magnified image of rotary wheel cutter
marks on the jade plaque. Bottom: SEM micrograph image of
wheel cutter incisions on a Ming dynasty belt plaque (Sax et
al. 2003, 1423).

Design and Iconography


This jade belt plaque displays seven traditional
Chinese characters resting on two openwork layers of
swirling lingzhi motifs. The lingzhi designs stem from
the lower central perforation and unfurl beneath each
character as if in bloom. This lingzhi motif is referred to
as "Flower embossing” and appears on the majority of
Ming dynasty openwork belt plaques (Xiao 2013, 169).

While flower embossing was


common, the use of multiple
characters alone is an unusual
Figure 5.1. The first openwork layer.
occurrence. From the belt plaques Illustration: Author
available to view online, any
Chinese characters occurring on plaques are shou ( ), an
auspicious character meaning ‘long life’ and one of the most
common characters in Chinese art (Hill-choi 2018). On belt
plaques, it is usually accompanied by another subject (figure
5.2). Most jade belt plaques have dragons, phoenixes, deer,
lions, rabbits, or the occasional human (Hunan Museum no
date; Hill-choi 2018). Usually belts gifted by the emperor
included dragons and phoenixes to symbolize the imperial
Figure 5.2. Two Ming dynasty connection bestowed upon the receiver. However, as
jade plaques with shou ( ). Top: regulations on rank-based fashion softened near the end of the
shou with rabbits (Hill-choi 2018). Ming dynasty, ritual imagery began to be lost as people
Bottom: shou with swastikas (Xu
Zi Xuan Antique 2019).
commissioned their own individual designs (Xiao 2013).

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Figure 5.3. The seven script seal characters carved in the jade belt plaque.

The seven characters on this belt plaque are written in


Chinese seal script (figure 5.3), an ancient form of
Chinese calligraphy created in 221 BCE and still used
in art due to its compact and flowing linework (Li 2010,
109). The script had three thousand characters and
was read top-to-bottom and right-to-left. While modern
Chinese shares origins in seal script, the shapes have
significantly evolved over time, to the point of being
unrecognizable (ibid., 101). While the order of strokes
used to create the seal script character had to be kept,
the arrangement of lines and shapes could vary
significantly, meaning there is no one way to write a
character (ibid., 78). The 17th century wan shou vase
showcases 10,000 different ways shou can be written
(figure 5.6). During the Ming and Qing dynasties it was Figure 5.4. 18th century Bai shou tu (Zhongjin 1796).
popular to write out the character shou many different Photo: Harvard University
ways in an art form named bai shou tu ( ) (figure
5.4).

Due to the unique style of this jade belt plaque, it is possible


it was commissioned to be done in the bai shou tu style,
with each plaque decorated with different iterations of shou.
Some examples of bai shou tu characters bear a
resemblance the characters on this plaque (figure 5.5).
However, it must be noted that to decipher seal script
characters, one must first identify the radicals, which are the
“building blocks” making up characters (ibid., 78). This is
quite difficult to accomplish, as each radical shows a single
Chinese character in various stages of development (Sears Figure 5.5. Lower left character on
2017; Li 2010, 76). To definitively identify the characters the plaque (left) compared to a shou
carved into the plaque, specialist knowledge is required. seal script variation ( 2016).

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Figure 5.6. The wan shou vase
with 10,000 different variations of
shou ( ). This piece illustrates
the immense variety of how one
character can be written.
Photo: The Chinese University of
Hong Kong

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Dating
This plaque dates from the middle to late Ming
dynasty (AD 1500 to 1644). Jade belts originated
with the Tang dynasty (7th-10th century AD), where
plaques were solid jade with incised designs
(Hunan Museum no date; Nanjing Museum 2015).
The shapes were limited to san tai, yuan to, yu
wei, and type 1 pai fang (figure 6.1). Over time the
carvings became more intricate and the plaques
evolved in order and shape. After the advent of
Ming dynasty, openwork plaques of two to three
layers were most common (Hunan Museum no date; Figure 6.1. Tang dynasty jade belt with incised
dancer motif. Photo: Hunan Museum
Xiao 2013, 168).
t
The near-square rectangle shape of the DUROM
type 1 pai fang plaque suggests a link to the early
Ming dynasty, before the type 2 pai fang came into
vogue. However, the unusual iconography
suggests it was commissioned by a wealthy
individual during the latter half of the dynasty (most
early Ming plaques bore imperial dragons and
phoenixes). Subsequently, it seems likely that this
plaque was created between AD 1500-1644 when
Figure 6.2. An example of a Ming type 2 pai fang. type 1 pai fang were still in fashion and individual
Photo: Hill-Choi 2016 customisation was becoming accepted.

Social and Historical Background


The creation of this jade belt plaque offers a window into Ming customs and
international relations. The Ming dynasty oversaw the height of openwork jade belt
creation, during which the belts served as insignia of rank in the imperial palace (Xiao
2013; Nanjing Museum 2015; Hunan Museum no date). As a precious material, jade
was restricted to use by civil and military officers of second rank or higher. However,
excavations of tombs reveal that this rule was less enforced in the latter half of the Ming
dynasty; a manifestation of the decline of the
power of the feudal imperial system (The British
Museum no date; Xiao 2013, 169).

This plaque is likely made of Hetian white jade


(see ‘Jade composition’ section). At this time the
Ming rule did not reach as far as Khotan
(Hetian), and jade had to be sourced through
trade and tributes from the current rulers of the
area, totalling an average 5000kg annual intake
(Forsyth 1991, 139). Even if the wearer was not
of first- or second-rank, this belt plaque would Figure 7.1. Hetian in relation to the Ming dynasty (Chen et
have symbolised wealth and subsequent status. al. 2018; Boda 1991, 129). Map: Author

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Acquisition
The Ming dynasty jade plaque was gifted to the Oriental Museum by Sir Charles
Hardinge (1878-1968), who had purchased it on June 20, 1939 from a London antique
shop for £1.10. At the time of purchase Hardinge labelled the plaque as a “square white
jade plaque, carved with different designs on each side” (Armstrong pers. comm.).

It is unknown how or when exactly the jade belt plaque came to London. It is possible it
came over in the 19th century, which saw an increase in Western consumption of
Chinese artefacts brought back by visitors to pre-World War II China (Lange
Rosenzweig 1991, 42). It is possible that the complete jade belt was disassembled and
the plaques sold as individual art pieces to maximise profit.

It is also possible the plaque came to the


UK as part of a pastiche item. From the late
Ming dynasty until the end of the Qing
dynasty (1600-1913) the literati, or
gentleman scholar, style was desirable to
the middle and upper classes of society. It
dictated refined study decoration that
emphasised the owner’s literacy, such as
brush stands or ink pots. Jade was a
favoured stone for these pieces, as it
invoked ancient styles and customs (Boda
1991, 142). It is possible this plaque was
repurposed into a piece of study decoration,
such as a decorative box (figures 8.2, 8.3)
that was then later disassembled.
Figure 8.1. A small cloisonné enamel box made c. 1900.
Photo: Kunsthaus Lempertz

Figure 8.2. A silver-mounted


box with inlayed jade belt
plaques. It is advertised as
being Ming dynasty, though
it is more likely made in the
18th-19th century with
repurposed Ming plaques.
The differing designs and
multiple yu wei indicates an
assemblage of plaques
from different belts.
Photo: Bonhams

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Acknowledgements
The author would like to thank the following individuals for their assistance with
completing this report: Ms. Helen Armstrong, for providing a history of Sir Charles
Hardinge’s collection; Dr. Emily Williams, for providing materials in an experiment to see
if the plaque could have been used as an incense burner (omitted from the final report
as results proved negative); Ms. Tullia Fraser, for providing Chinese translation and
proofreading when needed; and Ms. Cerise Jackson, for assisting the author in
understanding the morphology of Chinese scripts.

This report was written during COVID-19 lockdown, meaning university museum and
library collections were not accessible in person. Should further research be done on
DUROM.1960.3747, the following publications (of which the author had no or limited
online access to) might prove useful:

Liu, M. S. L. (2018). In Pursuit of Fine Jades: Ming Court Belt Plaques. Limited Edition.
Hong Kong: CA Design.

Rey, M. C. and Tsao, H. C. (2018). Jade: from Emperors to Art Deco. Paris: Somogy Art
Publishers.

Further resources for Chinese seal script:

Sears R. (2017). Chinese Etymology . [Online]. Available at: https://hanziyuan.net


[Accessed 4 May 2020].

. (2016). N , . [Online]. Available at:


https://kknews.cc/culture/n2eyg.html [Accessed 30 April 2020].

. (1992). . .

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