Emblems of Ethereal Grace

emblems of ethereal graceMay 17 – June 22, 1997
THE CHINESE CULTURE CENTER OF SAN FRANCISCO is pleased to present this exhibition of adornments by San Francisco artist Pat Tseng. In addition to her latest designs, the exhibition also features the artist’s own collection of antique jades. Tseng has been designing jewelry since the mid-seventies and her works have been featured in numerous institutions including the Bowers Museum of Cultural Arts, the De Young Art Museum, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Using jades, silver, coral, ivory, and other semi-precious stones, Pat Tseng leads us through the fascinating history of Chinese decorative motifs beginning with archaic symbols from the Neolithic period such as the bi disc, to contemporary geometric forms. Jade comes in a variety of colors and gradations within a single stone. Choosing them carefully, Tseng combines the stones with silk cords which are painstakingly hand sewn to the desired width. These tube-like silk cords have become Tseng’s signature design. Each necklace is a one-of-a-kind creation, where her Chinese heritage and contemporary sensibilities coexist in harmony.
The exhibition is divided into four sections. The first is comprised of pieces made with antique and archaistic jades; the second presents modern jade carvings; the third section displays ethnic Chinese motifs and materials, and other types of adornments such as purses and belts; the last section features Tseng’s contemporary stones and carvings. Jade is the most beloved stone in Chinese civilization. Its usages had been associated in the past with magic and ritual ceremonies. It is admired for its purity, hardness, warmth when hold in the palm of the hand, and translucent qualities. It is not surprising, therefore, to find that most of Tseng’s adornments are made of this material and influenced by Chinese aesthetics, even though she received her education mostly in the west, where she also studied art and design concepts. The most commonly used adjectives to describe Tseng’s works revolve around the concepts of harmony, grace, and simplicity. Strong colors such as deep purple, maroon, and black are utilized in silk cords to highlight the subtle refinement of the selected stone or silver in a necklace. But the artist’s preference seems to incline towards silk cords of subdued tonalities of celadon green and gray that are combined with jades in compositions that radiate a sense ethereal gracefulness.
On behalf of the Chinese Culture Center, I would like to thank artist Pat Tseng for creating a whole new body of work for this exhibition and for her invaluable input and assistance throughout the project. Special ~hanks go to Terese Tse Bartholomew, Curator of Indian, Himalayan, and Chinese Decorative Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, for contributing her time and writing the essay for this catalogue. Our gratitude goes to the funding agencies and individuals whose generosity made this exhibition project possible.

Modern Adornments: Meanings and Origin
For the past 7000 years, the Chinese have been fond of jade. In ancient times, jade was fashioned into ritual and sacrificial objects, and rulers wore jade ornaments as symbols of wealth and power. Ancient tombs excavated in recent years revealed royalty buried in jade suits and literally covered with jade ornaments, for jade was believed to have the power to guard against evil and to preserve the bodies from decay. Through the ages, Chinese men and women had adorned themselves with jade ornaments. This custom continues today, and jade is worn not only by the Chinese but non-Chinese as well.
Many of the jade carvings used by Pat Tseng in her creation are forms of great antiquity. Pat Tseng’s interest in antiques stems from her childhood experience. Her maternal grandfather who was a scholar and an art collector, had a household full of art objects and antiques. Growing up in an artistic environment evidently influenced Tseng’s aesthetics and inclinations. Examples of Tsena’s usage of archaic forms are the plain bi discs and the square cong tubes. These are shapes that can be traced back to Neolithic times (ca. 5000 2000 B.C.).Jade sword guards and scabbard, fashioned with openings to fit Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) swords, are now transformed into modern pendants. Other popularpendants are the jade belt and garment hooks with heads of arching dragons. Standardized in the Han dynasty, these hooks were in use throughout the Qing period (1644-1911). The rulers of the Qing dynasty were Manchus from north-eastern China. The Manchu rulers encouraged archery, so as to remind their descendants of their nomadic origins. To protect their thumbs from the bow strings, the archers wore ring of jade and other semi-precious stones. These archer rings now form important elements in Pat Tseng’s designs’. Manchu officials of high status wore peacock and pheasant feathers in their headdresses, inserted into jade tubes. These tubes have rounded bottoms and flat tops, and the latter are often artificially enhanced to resemble the skin of jade pebbles. These too, are included in Pat Tseng’s creations.
Some of the jade toggles and pendants, especially those from the Ming (1368 ~ 1644) and Qing dynasties, are depicted with auspicious symbols. Chinese believe that by wearing such personal adornments, their wishes will come true. These symbols represent the basic wishes for happiness (or blessings), numerous offsprings, wealth, high rank, and longevity. One of the most popular designs is the bat. Known as fu in Chinese, the bat shares the same sound as the word for “blessings.” Carvings of little boys convey a wish for the early arrival of sons, while melons and butterflies represent numerous descendants. Coins and ingots are symbols of wealth, twin fishes connote abundance as well as conjugal bliss. Longevity is symbolized by peaches, cranes, the sacred fungus, and cats and butterflies. ~ lany of these groupings are known as rebuses or pictorial puns. They are a combination of well-known symbols and of objects haying the same sound as those in the auspicious sayings, such as melons (gua), and butterflies (die) to represent the term guadie mianmian, or “May you have numerous descendants.”

Besides jade ornaments, Pat Tseng also incorporates antique silver jewelry in her designs. In the early 1970’s, there was an influx of silver jewelry and amulets in the art market. Dealers handling this jewelry claimed that they were from Inner Mongolia and northern China, and that they were confiscated during the Cultural Revolution. Many are in the shape of locks inscribed with auspicious sayings, originally given to little boy when they were born, in order that they could be “locked” to the earth and to “live long and prosper.” For women, there are silver needle cases, some of them decorated with colored enamels, figures, and calligraphy. On one of Pat Tseng’s necklaces is a silver ding or tripod, ornamented with bats (blessings), the shou or “longevity” character, endless knot (longevity) and two goldfish (abundance). It is attached with an ear pick, a pair of tweezers, and a tiny awl. Once pan of a peasant’s necklace, it has now been transformed into an art form of simplicity and elegance.
Terese Tse Bartholomew
Curator of Indian, Himalayan, and Chinese Decorative Art Asian Art Museum of San Francisco