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Wallace Chan on an ancient jade cicada

Wallace Chan on a jade cicada

June/July 2017

I first began carving gemstones as an apprentice in 1973 – the year after Nixon visited China. There was a craze in America for Chinese artefacts at the time, and my master was showing me pictures of ancient carvings. One of them was a tiny jade cicada from the Han dynasty (200BC-220AD) like the one above. I was overwhelmed. I wondered why he wanted me to imitate something so ugly.

Wallace Chan is a jeweller based in Hong Kong. He was talking to Melanie Grant

But the more I delved into the history of the cicada, the more excited I became. Jade was an important part of burial in ancient China, and jade cicadas were most important of all. These creatures – which spend much of their lives underground, and then come to the surface to shed their outer shell and reveal themselves fully formed – were symbols of resurrection. When people died, their relatives would place a jade cicada in the mouth of the body to ensure a smooth transition to a new life. But their symbolism was more complex than that. They were also related to birth: babies were given cicada carvings as symbols of wisdom and as a means to cultivate the soul. They were used by ancient magicians and emperors as an aid to prayer, carved into temple walls. And they represented the goddess of mercy, Guanyin, and became a symbol of nobility that decorated officials’ uniforms.

But what I noticed most was the eyes. They are huge, out of proportion with the rest of the body. I began to realise how important that was as a symbol of perception – of looking at the world in all its different dimensions and forms. I tried to place myself in the role of the cicada, so that I could see the world more clearly.

As I explored the history of Chinese craftsmanship, I learnt that the people who made these ornaments were using totally different tools from me, including a manual lathe with a rotating wheel used for cutting and drilling. When I tried to carve something similar I found that I couldn’t bring out the spirit of the work. I was inspired by their skill, and thought to myself that if I were living in 200bc, I wouldn’t be able to make something like this with the tools they had. I was 18 years old at the time. It might take me 20 years to acquire their ability. Would it be worth it? Would I give up 20 years of my life to make something like this? I thought that, yes, it would be worth it – because when I looked at the cicada I saw a whole world.

I tried to imitate traditional carvings throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then in the 1990s I made a crystal cicada out of rutilated quartz. It had a very rudimentary form, but when it was backlit you could see the intricate structure in the stone, like strands of hair. It was simple on the outside but complex inside. By the 2000s I had started working on cicada jewellery, and in 2012 I made a shoulder brooch called “Stilled Life” (above). The largest stone was housed by diamonds and small pieces of jade. There was no visible metal holding it in place. That was important to me. It was another way of expressing the cicada’s spirit of purity and minimalism in a new form.

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