Betwixt Reality and Illusion

Jades from the Warring States Period to the Han Dynasty

Jade Dragon Pendant (-0375/-0276)National Palace Museum


In the history of jade craftsmanship, the era encompassing the Warring States period to the Han Dynasty (475 BCE-220 CE) stands out as a singular age of illusory art. Working within miniature confines, craftsmen strove to cut and polish various designs of dragons and beasts that, despite their physical immobility, could nonetheless induce dynamic illusions of motion. Via these shifting shapes, the visual senses of the viewer are ushered into a world between reality and illusion, to astonishing effect. 

This Exhibition is therefore entitled, "Betwixt Reality and Illusion", and through the visual changes presented, the techniques used to create jade artifacts and the visual causes behind the illusory effects experienced will be explored in depth. In this Exhibition, each work is exemplary, and together, not only do these exhibits reflect the brilliant and diversified aesthetics of their time, but also present a comprehensive narrative of jade artifacts from that era. 

During the Warring States period to the Han Dynasty, the pursuit of dynamic illusion remained consistent in jade craftsmanship, and decorative designs maintained the same sinuous shapes, but the illusory effects of works from different ages are clearly distinct. For example, jade dragons of the Warring States period were typically of a flat two-dimensional style, with misplaced legs and claws that could induce visual shifting between ambiguous states of movement and stillness, while jade beasts of the Han Dynasty were three-dimensional, with distorted bodies and varying changes in tension and slackness. To better explore these differences, this Exhibition has been further subdivided into four sections.

Jade Dragon Pendant (-0475/-0376)National Palace Museum

1. The Age of Dynamic Jades

Various Jade artifacts from the Warring States period to the Han Dynasty are displayed, and the ways in which their typology and styles serve to affect their visual strength, balance, and dynamism are discussed. In addition, select groups of artifacts are utilized to help viewers understand the differences between the "serpent" and "beast body" design paradigm. 

Although jade artifacts of both the Warring States Period and the Han Dynasty were similarly engaged in the pursuit of dynamic aesthetics, the impression given by works from these two eras is radically different.

Jade Dragon Pendant (-0375/-0276)National Palace Museum

For example, for the same dragon-beast motif, works from the Warring States period convey a soaring sense of fluid motion through flat design.

Jade Pi-Hsieh, Auspicious Beast (0025/0220)National Palace Museum

Han era works are rich in tension due to their three-dimensional nature.
What are the reasons underlying these differences? Could these differences be associated with the peculiarities of human vision?

The Powerful Visual Stimulation of the Beast LegNational Palace Museum

When identifying different animals, the brain appears to have minimum discernable thresholds for each; for example, a sinuous body shape is sufficient to generate perception of a serpent body, but the addition of beast legs to the same sinuous serpent form is sufficient to transform it into a beast form. This suggests that the visual stimulation induced by a beast leg exceeds that of a serpent form. Isn’t that interesting?

Double-Eared Jade Cup (-0206/0008)National Palace Museum

Have you ever considered why a motionless round sword pommel or oval jade cup can convey varying perceptions of strength and directional movement?

Jade Bi Disc of Chang Le (0025/0220)National Palace Museum

Or how two jade bi discs, identical in size but different in color, can induce a completely dissimilar sense of balance simply after switching places?

Jade Dragon Pendant (-0375/-0276)National Palace Museum

How at first glance, a long, curved section of jade material can be mistaken for a serpent?

This section presents various examples and evidence to awaken an understanding of our own visual sense, so that we may develop a new awareness of the shapes we see and the perceptions thus generated, for this is the key to our comprehension of this world, and the ultimate basis for the understanding and appreciation of art.

Form and Visual StrengthNational Palace Museum

Interesting peculiarities abound in visual perception, of which an example is presented here. According to gestalt psychology, when the eyes view images of different shapes, the resulting visual tension can vary. For instance, the image of a circle will induce an even tension that spreads outward in an annular fashion towards the perimeter, while the tension generated by an oval image will extend in both directions along the major axis, and a square image will project tension towards its four corners. When viewing these different rectangular forms, do you experience changes in visual tension?

The Dynamic Visual Effects Induced by Near-EquilibriumNational Palace Museum

Unbalanced images will create directional tension that draws vision toward a state closer to equilibrium. For example, the most stable and balanced point in an oval is where the major and minor axes intersect, while the ends of the major and minor axes form a second set of balance points. A circle depicted within the oval will therefore generate tension in the direction of the primary or secondary balance points.

Jade Bird Pendant (-0375/-0276)National Palace Museum

2. Artistic Style of Jades from the Warring States Period to the Han Dynasty

Through selected works, viewers will understand the preference for the "serpent" as the key design paradigm for Warring States period jades, as well as how this preference contributed to the flat, elongated style characteristic of works from this era. By contrast, the "beast body" was the favored design paradigm during the Han Dynasty, and therefore Han era jades are characterized by their three-dimensionality and distorted features.   

The primary aesthetic goal of both Warring States period and Han Dynasty jades was dynamism. However, the preferred design paradigm for the Warring States period was the serpent, while the Han Dynasty favored the beasts as three-dimensional figures, to create their respective dynamic effects, Warring States period jades typically used winding lines to trace serpent outlines on flat pieces of jade material, thereby conveying a sense of fluid motion through the sinuous, twisting shapes.

Similar Sinuous Body ShapesNational Palace Museum

The aesthetic goal of jades in both the Warring States period and the Western Han Dynasty was the pursuit of dynamism, and because wave-like sinuous body shapes induce strong visual dynamic effects, jade dragons, phoenixes, and sacred beasts were all designed with twisting body shapes for effect.

Jade Sacred Beast (-0073/0220)National Palace Museum

By contrast, Han Dynasty jades were primarily crafted from material with weightiness and volume, upon which the distorted bodies of beasts were carved in relief to induce a sense of fullness and strength. Therefore, the jade styles of the Warring States period and the Han Dynasty can be respectively classified into the following two paradigm: the two-dimensional serpent silhouette paradigm, and the three-dimensional distorted beast body paradigm.

Distorted Body Forms that Defy PhysiologyNational Palace Museum

This jade bear has been twisted into an impossibly distorted body form, in order to convey a sense of muscle tension and dynamic strength. A closer look at the spine reveals its physiology-defying curvature, as it extends into the inner side of the bear’s left hind leg. The orientation of the left and right hind legs is similarly incongruous. However, although this design defies reason, it perfectly achieves its aesthetic objective in creating a strong sense of dynamic movement.

Heng Ornament with dragon pattern (-0375/-0276)National Palace Museum

Changes in the accompanying openwork in response to differences in design paradigms can also be noted among the exhibits. Warring States period openwork generally covers larger areas and is more orderly.

Jade Dancer Pendant (-0206/-0074)National Palace Museum

Han Dynasty openwork is characterized by its thinness and sharpness. Although the changes are minor at most, the resulting visual effects are distinctly different, and further contribute to the clear contrast in aesthetic styles between these two eras.

The Power of the TiltNational Palace Museum

Why does the light, lifting dancer appear to step to the left? This is because the main form of the dancer is in the shape of a triangle, thereby producing an uplifting effect, while the sinuous, wavy line created by the long left and right sleeves induce a sense of flowing, undulating rhythm. In addition, the curves extending from the head and waist to the hem of the robe can generate directional tension towards the left. Thus, the light, narrow-waisted, willowy dancer appears to rise up in a flowing, airy dance.

Jade Sword Pommel with Beast Pattern (-0206/-0074)National Palace Museum

3. Dialogue Between the Perceived World and the Physical World 

With the validation of the general theory of relativity in 1919, the world as perceived through vision may be an illusion, while what is perceived to be a visual illusion may in fact be closer to reality. Thus, the distorted bodies of sacred beasts adorning Han era jades may seem to anomalies that go against common sense, but in truth, they may more accurately reflect the reality of this physical world. 

The previous two sections have allowed us to gain insight into the various workings of human vision, as well as an understanding that our perceived world is a three-dimensional world.

Jade Sword Pommel with Beast Pattern (-0206/-0074)National Palace Museum

As a result, when viewing jade artifacts with three-dimensional styles or two-dimensional silhouette designs, the brain perceives these designs to be natural and harmonious.

Jade Sword Pommel with Beast Pattern (-0206/-0074)National Palace Museum

However, jade beasts with distorted three-dimensional designs, or which have been projected as flattened units on a surface, are generally perceived by the brain after close inspection as being weird and unnatural, as such contorted creatures cannot exist in the real world.

Visually Challenging FormsNational Palace Museum

Upon examination of the legs and claws near the center of the dragon’s body here, it can be seen that the body should be posterior to the legs and claws, while the neck and head should be anterior under natural circumstances; however, these positions have been reversed, and the legs and claws are attached to the dragon’s head and neck, while the body and the tail are posterior to the legs. Why would designers of the Western Han Dynasty create such unreasonable forms?

Jade Sword Pommel with Beast Pattern (-0206/-0074)National Palace Museum

Yet from another perspective, based on the general theory of relativity proposed by Albert Einstein and which was validated in 1919, the perceived world is really an illusory construct of the brain, while the actual physical world is a four-dimensional space, where the passage of time may quicken or slow, and space can be warped and distorted by physical forces. Therefore, the contorted and flattened jade beasts that seem so unnatural in our perception, may in fact be more accurate representations of objects in the real physical world.

Are these Distorted Body Forms Truly Impossible?National Palace Museum

The three distorted divine beasts seen here have twisted body forms that completely defy physiological principles. The head, neck, front legs, torso, and hind legs of each beast point in opposing directions, and such a body position simply could not exist in real life. However, physicists suggest that this depiction may be a more accurate representation of the forms of these divine beasts when they enter a zone of curved space and time. So between the world that we perceive and the world that is “real”, which is real? And which is but an illusion?

Jade "Zhi" Cup with Bird and Beast Pattern (-0206/-0074)National Palace Museum

To create their fantastical illusory effects, jade artifacts from the Warring States period to the Han Dynasty utilized many design techniques that challenge sensory perception; but when viewed in the context of their ultimate aesthetic goal of dynamic illusion, the rich imagination and creativity inherent in each work becomes clear.

Jade "She" Thumb Ring-shaped Pendant with Dragon Pattern (-0140/0008)National Palace Museum

Moreover, a close inspection of the unnatural aspects of these jade designs can serve as a starting point for the exploration and comprehension of other scientific theories.

Disappearing and Reappearing Dynamic IllusionsNational Palace Museum

These overlapping layers of cloud actually conceal ingenious creativity. This work was designed from a round piece of jade material, and among the misty clouds, two sacred dragons with fangs and long snouts are partly concealed. Towards the lower edge, legs and claws overlapping with long curved clouds can be seen, such that in the murky world of illusion and reality depicted, we cannot truly be sure how many dragons are concealed within the cloudy fog.

Agate Scabbard Slide with Dragon Pattern (-0140/0008)National Palace Museum

4. Mesmerizing Illusory Art

This section discusses the processes by which craftsmen of the Warring States period and Han Dynasty, working under either serpent body or beast body paradigms and employing the simplest visual principles, subsequently designed and crafted their respective masterpieces. 

Regardless of whether we believe the perceived world is an illusion, or whether illusions represent the real physical world, illusions can only exist in our sensory perception, for they need to be experienced through our visual senses.

Visual ObstructionNational Palace Museum

Visual perception is capable of uniting the bisected sections of a sinuous body shape into one continuous wavy form, and designs depicting appearing and disappearing dragons in layers of cloud made ample use of this principle. Using agate material with naturally formed red and white patches, with sacred dragons depicted on the red areas and the remaining white areas transformed into clouds bisecting the red dragons, this Han Dynasty work exemplifies this technique, and demonstrates how visual obstruction can preserve the sinuous form of the sacred dragons, while also softening the discordance caused by their distorted bodies.

Jade Dragon Pendant (-0375/-0276)National Palace Museum

The sinuous serpent body designs of Warring States period jades are often accompanied by unobtrusive legs of uncertain number. For such jade artifacts, when the heads of their designs are viewed in combination with legs of different orientation, dynamic illusions of varying tension, slackness, movement, and stillness can thus appear.

Mesmerizing Illusory ArtNational Palace Museum

Ambiguous stimulation is akin to a photograph with repeated exposures; although the same person is depicted, the two sets of arms in different positions creates a dynamic effect, as the brain oscillates between varying interpretations. The jade dragons of the Warring States period also employed this technique to great effect, and their two sets of opposite-facing legs and claws were capable of stimulating a strong dynamic illusion that alternated between movement and stillness.

Jade Scabbard Chape with Sacred Beast Design (-0206/0008)National Palace Museum

As for Han era jade artifacts with beast designs, physiological principles such as forelegs at the chest and hind legs at the abdomen must be adhered to, in accordance with the rules for visual acceptability. However, by distorting the bodies of the beasts so that the chest and abdomen each face in a different direction, the orientations of the attached legs can also be adjusted, to create a dynamic illusory effect.

The Challenge of Generation Dynamic Ambiguity when Designing Three-Dimensional Body FormsNational Palace Museum

To be perceived as natural and reasonable, the front legs of beasts must be joined to the chest, while the hind legs should extend from the abdomen. However, to create dynamic illusions using the principle of ambiguity, the beast body must be distorted, so that the front legs and hind legs can face in different directions. Although such designs succeed in achieving their aesthetic objectives, the resulting body shapes are unnatural and defy reason. How then, can this paradox be resolved?

Jade Belt Hook with Beast Mask Pattern (-0140/0008)National Palace Museum

Jades from the Warring States period and the Han Dynasty respectively adopted the serpent paradigm and beast paradigm for their designs, and although the creative techniques involved may differ, each work is able to achieve dynamic illusion in its own perfect way.

These effects are akin to the stroboscopic phenomenon utilized by modern filming, in which repeated exposures of continuous movement are taken at very short intervals. When viewing such works, human vision can automatically draw together differently oriented heads and limbs, to produce illusions with a rich sense of motion and speed.

Credits: Story

This presentation is from "Betwixt Reality and Illusion: Special Exhibition of Jades from the Warring States Period to the Han Dynasty in the Collection of the National Palace Museum," an exhibition curated by Dr. T�SAI Chingliang, and organized by the Department of Antiquities at the National Palace Museum (September 20, 2018–May 24, 2020).

© 2020 National Palace Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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