“Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold”

The cicada (meaning “tree cricket”) has been around for some 250 million years and is infuriating for the rapid clicks the male makes to attract a female. In China, the cicada is an ancient symbol of rebirth, but one in particular is worth more than its weight in gold.

China’s Ming dynasty lasted from 1368 to 1644 and became the world’s largest, wealthiest, most cultured and most populous empire. It was the first native dynasty to rule over the whole of China after 300 years of alien rule. Sixteen emperors of the Zhu family oversaw this famous empire, which in many ways marked the birth of modern China.

The Ming period saw the construction on the Great Wall of China, the building of Beijing’s imperial palace (known as the Forbidden City), and the completion of the 22,877 volume Yongle Canon, an encyclopaedia about China written entirely by hand, as well as Li Shizhen’s Compendium of Materia Medica, a compilation of over 18,000 different Chinese medicines and 11,000 formulas for treating disease.

But few people remember such facts. For most the Ming dynasty means the arts, especially painting, calligraphy, formal gardens, and, above all, ceramics. The imperial porcelain factory was established at Jingdezhen at the beginning of the Ming Dynasty and began producing wares bearing the reign mark of the emperor himself for use at the imperial court.

Cicada(3)The Nanjing Museum, based in China’s pre-Ming dynasty capital, has a permanent collection of more than 400,000 items, including enormous quantities of Ming and Qing imperial porcelain – among the largest in the world. It is also the proud custodian of a famous gold cicada, perched on a translucent jade leaf. The wings are less than 2cm long and just 0.2mm thick. The leaf is made of jade from Hotan, noted for its flawless whiteness, of which the best kind is known as “suet jade”.

Symbolizing rebirth, the cicada is often found as a tiny piece of carved jade, placed on the tongue of the dead in the hope that the person will be reborn. In China, too, the phrase “to shed the golden cicada skin” is the poetic name for the tactic of using deception to escape danger, specifically of using decoys (discarding the old skin) to fool enemies. It became one of the 36 classic Chinese stratagems. In the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th century), Diaochan gets her name from the sable tails and jade decorations in the shape of cicadas that at the time adorned the hats of high-level officials who were doubtless adept at subterfuge and intrigue.

The gold cicada on a jade leaf, however, has a special meaning. In 1954, it was discovered near the head of a body in a tomb of the Ming Dynasty, together with two silver hairpins and four headdresses. The tomb was found near Suzhou, which stands on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River. During the Ming and Qing dynasties, it was an economic and cultural centre.

An exquisite piece of jewellery from the second half of the 15th century, the gold cicada on a jade leaf is also the only one of its kind found in China. It was a brooch and it conveys two meanings: that is belonged to a woman of noble birth and of unsurpassed beauty. No one knows which Ming princess lay in the tomb.

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