Jade dragon cup

Central Asia, about AD 1420-49

A cup with the power to detect poison?

The handle of this cup is carved as a chi, or hornless Chinese dragon. A dragon handle is a convention from Chinese drinking vessels of the Song period (960-1279), which became popular in Central Asia, Iran and Turkey. The cup was probably copied from a Chinese original.

According to Central Asian belief, a jade cup could detect poison. Jade has long been valued as a talisman by the Central Asian Turks, who credited it with the power to protect against illness, lightning, and earthquakes. The tenth-century polymath al-Biruni noted that the Turks called it the 'victory stone', and decorated their swords, belts and saddles with jade.

The major source of jade was in the Kunlun mountains near Khotan in Central Asia, which in the fifteenth century was within the Timurid Empire. Timur, the founder of the Timurid dynasty, was buried beneath a black jade cenotaph. Ulugh Beg (died 1449), Timur's grandson, is known also to have had a passion for jade, in keeping with his Central Asian heritage.

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Object details

Height: 6.4 cm
Diameter: 19.4 cm


ME OA 1959.11-20.1 (36)

Room 33: Asia


    T.Lentz and G. Lowry, Timur and the princely vision: (Los Angeles and Washington D.C., 1989)

    B. Brend, Islamic art (London, The British Museum Press, 1991)

    F. Robinson (ed.), The Cambridge illustrated hist (Cambridge University Press, 1996)

    See this object in our Collection database online

    Further reading

    B. Brend, ‘A Sixteenth-century Manuscript from Transoxiana: Evidence for a Continuing Tradition in Illustration’, Muqarnas, 11 (1994), 103–116

    F. Collard, The Crime of Poison in the Middle Ages (Westport, 2008)

    S.F. Dale, ‘Steppe Humanism: the Autobiographical Writings of Zahit al-Din Muhammad Babur’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 22 (1990), 37–58

    S.F. Dale, ‘The Legacy of the Timurids’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd series, 8 (1998), 43–58

    L. Golombek, and D. Wilber, The Timurid Architecture of Iran and Turan (Princeton, 1988)

    F.J. Hecker, ‘A Fifteenth-century Chinese Diplomat in Herat’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd series, 3 (1993), 85-98

    B. Forbes Manz, Power, Politics and Religion in Timurid Iran (Cambridge, 2007)

    B. Forbes Manz, ‘Tamerlane and the Symbolism of Sovereignty’, Iranian Studies, 21 (1988), 105–122

    B. Forbes Manz, The Rise and Rule of Tamerlane (Cambridge, 1989)

    B. Forbes Manz, ‘Temur and the Problem of a Conqueror’s Legacy’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3rd series, 8 (1998), 21–41

    B. Forbes Manz, ‘Tamerlane’s Career and Its Uses’, Journal of World History, 13 (2002), 1–25

    B. Forbes Manz, ‘Women in Timurid Dynastic Politics’, in Guitty Nashat and Lois Beck, Women in Iran from the Rise of Islam to 1800 (Chicago, 2003), pp. 121–139

    A.S. Melikian-Chirvani, ‘Precious and Semi-precious Stones in Iranian Culture: Chapter 12, Early Iranian Jade’, Bulletin of the Asia Institute, 11 (1997), 123–174

    R. Pinder-Wilson, and W. Watson, ‘An inscribed Jade Cup from Samarqand’, British Museum Quarterly, 23 (1960), 19–22

    M. Rossabi, ‘Two Ming Envoys to Inner Asia’, T’oung Pau, 62 (1976), 1–34

    D.N. Wilber, ‘The Timurid court: Life in Gardens and Tents’, Iran, 17 (1978), 127–133

    J.E. Woods, ‘The rise of Timurid Historiography’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 46 (1987), 81–108