20080211-1212 jade tablet, Liang-cgu culture 3300 2000 BC tapei.jpg
Liang-gu culture jade tablet,
3300 2000 BC
According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Although areas with jade carving appeared in several places on the Eurasian continent toward the end of the Paleolithic era, the jade cultures in East Asia during the late Neolithic were exceptional. In fact, the original meaning of the character for "ritual (li)" in Chinese was "to serve the gods with jade". Archaeological evidence shows that, compared to pottery, which reflects the natural living environment or prevailing customs, pre-historic Chinese jade objects display more distinct regional styles. They also fit the geographic distribution of three major clans of tribes mentioned in ancient documents, which is evidence that jade objects are indeed representatives of China's spiritual past. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

In the Neolithic period (5000-2000 B.C.), priests and military men used jade pieces in the worship of deities and ancestors. The most common ornaments—round pi discs and square ts'ung tubes— symbolized the round heaven and the square earth. Jade ornaments in ancient China were used as authority objects and emblems of power.

According to Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Of all aspects of the Neolithic cultures in eastern China, the use of jade made the most lasting contribution to Chinese civilization. Polished stone implements were common to all Neolithic settlements. Stones to be fashioned into tools and ornaments were chosen for their harness and strength to withstand impact and for their appearance. [Source: Department of Asian Art, "Neolithic Period in China", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. metmuseum.org\^/]

Ancient Chinese Beliefs About Jade

Ancient Chinese believed that their ancestors originated with God and communicated through supernatural beings and symbols, whose images were placed on jade ornaments. Ancient shaman most likely used jade ornaments with divine markings to command mystical forces and communicate with gods and ancestors. Jade was also used in ancient burial ceremonies.

In ancient times jade was wedged or cracked from a stone and most likely shaped by artisans using grind stones. Metal tools had not yet been invented. It took a considerable amount of time to shape, polish and engrave the elaborate pieces displayed in museums. Most are though to have been created for royalty or nobility.

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: ““Myths about the birth of humanity from birds permeated the coastal areas along eastern China. As a result, religious art from this region is richer in concrete and abstract animal patterns. Most of the jade carvings from inland western regions of China tend to be simpler, but the rich resources of the loess highlands yielded pottery painted with a wide palette of colors. Shapes of and patterns on both jade and pottery objects as well as altars and tombs for sacrificing to the ancestral gods were round and square to symbolize the ancestral view of the universe as being an all-encompassing circular heavens and the square four corners of the earth. \=/ [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“Already at the dawn of Chinese civilization, cultural practices such as worship and an appreciation of jade had already matured. Through the integration of clans, diverse cultures gradually came to produce a similar common form. Passed down through the ages, jades in the form of ritual objects, as opposed to pottery, bronzes, lacquer wares, and porcelains, even more so came to serve as a medium for the notion of ritual.

Neolithic Circular Jades

leftCircular jades were fairly common in the Neolithic period. Although they were usually discs with a hole in the middle there were pronounced regional differences. Northern jades from the Hongshan culture (4000-3000 B.C) were transparent green in color, thin on the outer and inner edges, and decorated with images of interlocking clouds and linked circular shapes. Northern jades pieces were mainly worn as ornaments.

Southern circular jades from the lower-Yangtze Liangzhu (Liang-chu) culture (3200-2300 B.C.) were mostly green and often dotted with white spots. Used primarily as ritual objects, these circular jades were about 20 centimeters in diameter with a central hole drilled from both sides. Raised edges lined the central hole, while the outer edges were flat and circular. The small arc-curves sometimes seen on the surface are remnants of the cutting and carving process.

Northwestern circular jades from the Longshan (Lungshan) culture (2500-2000 B.C.) and Shaanxi and Kansu Qichian culture (2000-1600 B.C.) have a surface with straight lines and a central hole drilled from one side with an angled wall and an upper rim larger than the lower rim. Eastern jades from the lower Yellow River Ta-wen-kou culture (4300-2300 B.C.) were mostly small sized objects influenced by northern and southern styles.

A description of a Liangzhu “Disc(ca3200-2100B.C.) By the Palace Museum, Taipei goes: “Outer diameter: 25 centimeters, hole diameter: 4.2 centimeters, thickness: 1.25 centimeters: Originally dark green and brown, much of this jade has a web-like pattern of greyish-white discoloration. The outline of the disc is round with imperfections along the rim. The hole is small in relation to the disc and was drilled from both sides with traces of the drilling still visible. About 0.8 centimeters from the edge is an engraved motif 4.3 centimeters tall of a “sacred bird standing atop an altar.” The lower part of the bird and the inside of the altar are no longer visible and only the three beads are prominent. This is a typical example of a jade disc from the late Liang-chu Culture.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

Neolithic Jade Figures

Mace head from 7000 BC

Neolithic Chinese also made jade figures of humans or human-like creatures. Popular animal shapes included the dragon and phoenix - both divine animals revered in ancient China — and real life animals with similar attributes. Jade was used for tomb objects carved to honor ancestors, exorcise evil, and protect against disasters. Personal jade items were worn in order to purify one's soul.

A description of a Neolithic figure (ca.4000-3100 B.C.) by the National Palace Museum, Taipei goes: “Height: 6.3 centimeters, width: 2.7 centimeters, thickness: 2.3 centimeters: This figurine is carved from greenish jade that has turned greyish-white and is speckled brown. The figure wears a conical crown divided into three levels, and the facial features are distinguished by slanting eyes and a protruding nose and mouth. Though apparently nude, there is no indication of gender. The figure kneels with hands clasped in front. The back of the neck has a hole drilled through it. A similar kneeling figure in stone, three times taller than this one, was unearthed at a Hung-shan culture site in Inner Mongolia, but the hands and feet are even more detailed. A seated jade figure with comparable facial features from the Hung-shan Culture is also in the Chan-chi-hsuan Collection in Taipei, suggesting that this posture perhaps had some significance. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Salamander-Human: Height: 10.8 centimeters, width: 9.2 centimeters, thickness: 2.1 centimeters: Much of the greenish jade here has turned white. The head and raised hands of this standing figurine appear similar to those of a salamander. The head, looking up, is marked by prominent eyes, a pointed snout, and etched lines behind. A long curving snake is carved in relief along the arms and front of the chest. Spiraling forms protrude from the upper thighs like coiled snakes. The feet, heel-to-heel, appear in a horizontal line. A hole was drilled from the back from one shoulder to the other, and traces of drilling are still evident. \=/

“The salamander is an amphibian of which there are many species. The large newt belongs to this category and is marked by a body 60 to 70 centimeters long. In Chinese, it is commonly called a “doll-fish” or “man-fish” and found in northeast China. This unusual jade figurine combines the features of a newt or a salamander with a person and probably has some spiritual importance in primitive religion. It is said to have been unearthed in Inner Mongolia. Such features as the quality of the jade, the staining, and the etched lines are close to jades from the Hung-shan Culture. The raised hands and the drilled hole are similar to a jade bear “spirit” in a British collection. This piece reflects the style of primitive art in northeast Asia and may be a relic from a people closely related to the Hung-shan Culture. \=/

Jade from the Middle Neolithic Period (ca. 7000-5000 B.C.)

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Recent archeological data has shown that as early as the middle Neolithic period (ca. 7000-5000 B.C.) three major jade-producing cultures existed in China, each distantly separated from the other in a tripartite arrangement. They were the Ch'a-hai/Hsing-lung-wa Culture in the Liao River basin; the Ho-mu-tu [Hemudu] Culture of the Ning-shao Plains in the lower Yangtze River area; and the Lao-kuan-t'ai Culture in the middle Yellow River area. By the late Neolithic period (ca. 5000-2000 B.C.), these three regions had developed into several different archeological cultures. From the characteristics of the jades of this period, however, it has been possible to identify three dominant tribal groups. Their geographical distribution corresponds to the adjacent territories of the Eastern Yi, Miao-Man and Hua-Hsia tribal groups, of which we learn from ancient written records. The jades in this exhibition represent only a few of the many cultures of this period.[Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

Liangzhu jade

“The Eastern Yi clan occupied the region of northwest China, with its southern periphery extending south to present-day Hebei and Shandong provinces. The Hung-shan jades are typical Yi jades. "Some other jades of similar style also belong to the Yi tradition, though the cultures to which they belong have yet to be determined. The preponderance of animal figures, especially insect larvae, pupae, and mammals in what appear to be embryonic form, may be explained by the belief then in the transformative and regenerative life forces of the animals represented. On many pieces, two or more types of animals are found joined together. On others, the mystical power of the animals is expressed in abstract form. \=/

“The jades of the Liang-chu Culture are the most important ones of the Miao-Man tribal group. The round pi discs and square ts'ung ritual tubes left by the Liang-chu Culture reflected China's earliest known concept of the cosmos, in which heaven was believed to be round and the earth square. Both were important ritual objects placed at altars to channel the spirits of the gods and ancestors during worship. Some were etched with ciphers used by the shamans to communicate with the other world. A jade pi disc on display in this exhibit is faintly etched on its obverse side with one such symbol, depicting a bird atop a sacrificial altar. On ts'ung ritual tubes, huang pendants, awl-shaped jades, and three-pronged jades, we find a variety of small- and large-eyed mask motifs representing the trinity of the gods, ancestors, and divine animals, as well as the faith of the Liang-chu people that each could transform into the other. In addition to the pi, ts'ung, and other worship jades, the Liang-chu produced a variety of emblematic jades, like the yueh axe. An early prototype of the kuei tablet, this object identified its bearer as a member of the ruling class. \=/

“The dominant culture in the southern part of the Eastern Yi territory was the Shandong Lung-shan Culture. This culture inherited from the Eastern Yi its intense faith in bird totems and the tradition of wearing jade chueh earrings as a symbol of the wearer's connection with the heavens. It also absorbed from the Liang-chu Culture the motifs of the ox-horn deity crest and mask with glaring eyes and protruding fangs. The influences of the "Yi" and "Yueh" traditions were thus combined to create an entirely new form. When the Lung-shan culture migrated from the Shandong Peninsula to the middle Yangtze River, it influenced the development of the deity-ancestor mask motif on jades of the Shih-chia-ho Culture in that region. This motif, a typical example of which appears in this exhibit, reoccurs in silhouette in other display items, though without birds, ox horns, or protruding fangs. This is probably due to the lesser status of the gods depicted. \=/

“The third major Neolithic tribal group, the Hua-Hsia, was mainly distributed along the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River in western China, and extended as far south as present-day Sichuan. Though the Hua-Hsia jade tradition can be traced back to the Lao-kuan-t'ai Culture, it reached its apogee later. The plain pi discs and ts'ung ritual tubes in this exhibit were produced by the Ch'i-chia, one of the major cultures of the Hua-Hsia. These pieces show that the Miao-Man concept of a round heaven and square earth was shared by the people of this region. Ch'i-chia jades include the powerful kuei tablet and large knife, as well as distinctively shaped ya-chang blades and jade batons with bowstring decor. All are large, unadorned, and bladed objects, corroborating ancient accounts that jade was used to make weapons in the time of Huang-ti, the chieftain of the Hua-Hsia tribal group. \=/

“In about the 21st century B.C., following a long period of development and integration among the three tribal groups, the Hsia house of the Hua-Hsia established the first Chinese kingdom in the middle Yellow River region. The kingdom was surrounded by many other states. It is recorded that "When King Yu unified the vassals at Mt. Tu, there were ten thousand states that used jade and silk. "In ancient times, jade (yu ) and silk (po) were used together as ritual objects for worship and diplomatic meetings between states. For this reason, "yu-po" (jade-silk) has come to mean "peace" and "friendship" in modern Chinese.” \=/

Hongshan Jade

Hongshan, ceremonial object, perhaps a headdress

The Hongshan Culture of northeastern China was one China’s major Neolithic cultures. According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei, “Five to six thousand years ago, the Hongshan Culture reached new heights. In addition to constructing temples to a giant, painted goddess, they also built round sacrificial altars and square tombs. They carved animals from pieces of jade. Some of these were animals in the fetal position, others were birds with hooked beaks and beasts with fangs, and some had mesmerizing vortex eyes. This unusual blend of human, bird, and beast features in a single carving may imply that ancient shamans used the essence of jade and spirits of animals to pray to divine ancestors for protection. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

More than 20 cirrus-shaped jade articles have been unearthed at the site of Hongshan Culture, and each of them represents two fundamental themes-cirrus-shaped angles and minor convexities. Combination of cirrus-shaped angles and minor convexities in different ways constitute the various patterns and designs of the cirrus-shaped jade articles of Hongshan Culture. These cirrus-shaped jade articles can be classified into four types by analyzing their patterns and designs: decorative articles, tools, animals and special ones, of which the hoop-shaped articles are among the typical pieces of the jade ware of Hongshan Culture. The association of the shapes of these jade articles with their cultural context indicates that the special articles and the tools were made to meet the needs of religious ceremonies. [Source: China.org **]

The high level of skill of jade ware of Hongshan Culture is best demonstrated by the enormous blackish green jade dragon unearthed at Sanxingtala Township of Wengniute Banner in 1971. The dragon is 26 centimeters in height with the head of a swine and the body of a serpent, coiling like cirrus. Similar dragons were found later in Balin Right Banner and the Antiques Store of Liaoning Province. The discovery of cirrus-shaped jade dragon at Hongshan Culture strongly suggests Inner Mongolia as one of the essential sites to trace the worship for dragon by the Chinese people. A jade pig-dragon form the Late Hongshan Culture (approximately 5500-5000 years ago) is a famous piece at the Palace Museum in Taipei. **

Yellow River Neolithic Jade Cultures

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “The National Palace Museum inherited the Ch'ing (1644-1911) imperial collection of ancient jade carvings, which was largely composed of pieces from the upper and central areas of the Yellow River valley. The form and content of this collection not only demonstrates the particular tastes of the Ch'ing court, but it also reflects traditional notions of jade and jade collecting. Traditional attitudes toward ancient jade, which persisted until the end of the Ch'ing, were largely derived from classical texts. The jade kuei tablets, chang (multi-holed jade blades), pi disks, ts'ung tubes, huang pieces, and other ritual objects on display here generally date from the late Neolithic to the early Bronze age (2200-1600 B.C.). [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“Current scholarship suggests that these jades were primarily worked and used by the Ch'i-chia Culture of the upper Yellow River valley, and by the T'ao-ssu and Erh-li-t'ou cultures of the central Yellow River valley. It appears that the Ch'i-chia, in particular, figured prominently among the jade carvings that eventually found their way into the Ch'ing collection. The upper reaches of the Yellow River were once home to abundant sources of the very types of jade that traditional Chinese collectors prized most highly. Easy access to these resources made it possible for the ancient Ch'i-chia people to develop a distinctive style of jade carving. Their pieces are characterized by their large size, high quality, and simplicity. Of the jades on display in this exhibit, the large pi disks, ts'ung tubes, and huang pieces are all attributed to the Ch'i-chia Culture. \=/

The first questions traditional notions of so-called huang pieces. Archaeological research now allows for the reconstruction of jade circle arrangements originally composed of such huang pieces. These arrangements suggest the possible existence in prehistoric times of a sense of geometry. Second, current findings suggest that pi and ts'ung of the Ch'i-chia culture were originally parts of jade ritual sets. Third, mineralogical studies of the natural coloring of jades combined with the views of anthropologists points to how prehistoric cultures in China treated jades as part of the environment. Fourth, traces left on ancient jades allows us to study how they were made and how they relate to matters of religion. Finally, in the past, the reworking of prehistoric jades from the upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River valley involved mostly surface engraving, but some were also redesigned for other functions. This exhibition of jades can only provide glimpses of these prehistoric cultures, which have gradually just come into focus in recent years. Though the results are often still fragmentary and incomplete, the jades displayed here open a concrete path to unlocking the secrets of China's prehistoric cultures in the Yellow River valley.” \=/

Ancient Jade from the Lower Yangtze and East Coast of China

Dawenkou yueh ax

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Five or six thousand years ago, the people of the Ta-wen-k'ou [Dawenkou] Culture living on the Shandong [Shandong] peninsula carved jade "yüeh" axes. Four thousand years ago, by combining the large vortex eye popular in jade carvings in the northeast with the divine crown insignia "chieh" from the lower valley of the Yangtze River, the Shandong Lung-shan [Longshan] Culture developed an elegant and profound image of the divine ancestor. They worshipped the flying bird and believed it was a messenger sent by the gods. A mask outlined by twisting lines became the predecessor of the animal-mask pattern found in the Bronze Age. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

According to Metropolitan Museum of Art: One major “group of Neolithic artifacts consists of jade carvings from the eastern seaboard and the lower reaches of the Yangzi River in the south, representing the Hemudu (near Hangzhou), the Dawenkou and later the Longshan (in Shandong Province), and the Liangzhu (1986.112) (Hangzhou and Shanghai region). Nephrite, or true jade, is a tough and attractive stone. In the eastern provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang, particularly in the areas near Lake Tai, where the stone occurs naturally, jade was worked extensively, especially during the last Neolithic phase, the Liangzhu, which flourished in the second half of the third millennium B.C. [Source: Department of Asian Art, "Neolithic Period in China", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. metmuseum.org\^/]

“Liangzhu jade artifacts are made with astonishing precision and care, especially as jade is too hard to "carve" with a knife but must be abraded with coarse sands in a laborious process. The extraordinarily fine lines of the incised decoration and the high gloss of the polished surfaces were technical feats requiring the highest level of skill and patience. Few of the jades in archaeological excavations show signs of wear. They are generally found in burials of privileged persons carefully arranged around the body. Jade axes and other tools transcended their original function and became objects of great social and aesthetic significance." \^/

The Shijiahe culture (2500–2000 B.C.) was a late Neolithic culture centered on the middle Yangtze River region in Hubei Province, China. Distinct jade worked with advanced techniques were common to the culture. Many jade artifacts have been unearthed from Shijiahe sites, mainly dating from the late phase. Most jades have parallels in the Liangzhu culture, and in many ways the Shijiahe site complex is similar to the Mojiaoshan complex of Liangzhu, suggesting strong influences from the lower Yangtze region to the east. In 2015, archaeologists excavated the Tanjialing site, dating to late Shijiahe culture. They discovered more than 250 pieces of jade in five tombs. The jade carving technology exhibited by these artifacts appear to have exceeded that of the Liangzhu and Hongshan cultures, both of which are renowned for their jades. [Source: Wikipedia]

Jade from the Liangzhu Culture

Liangzhu disc jades

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Six to seven thousand years ago, jade carvings began appearing in the lower valley of the Yangtze River, and by four to five thousand years ago, its development reached a peak. At this time, society was stratified, and powerful shamans held jade "yüeh" axes symbolic of their power at the altar. As later generations have mentioned, they used circular "pi" and square "ts'ung" to worship the heavens and the earth. Some "pi" and "ts'ung" have shallow carvings of mystical emblems, which are renditions of birds on altars. Masks with small and large eyes were carved on "ts'ung". There were also jade knives with crowns in the shape of the character for "chieh" carved at the top. These were all revered as ritual objects. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/ ]

“Pi discs of great beauty and significance. All were probably used in important ancient rituals to assist in communication with the gods. Withstanding the test of time, they retain all of their former mystique and vitality. One of the jade pi discs from the Liang-chu Culture (ca. 3200-2000 B.C.) is etched with the marking of a bird perched on an altar. This suggests to us that the “Sun Bird” was the totem of Neolithic tribes inhabiting the lower Yangtze River valley. Up until the Han dynasty, pi discs were not only frequently hung at the imperial palace, but “treasured jade pi discs” were also objects of veneration. The pi disc in this exhibit carved with the characters for “perpetual happiness (ch’ang-lo)” also includes a dragon and tiger design on the inner rim and a dragon, tiger, phoenix, and turtle-and-snake pair (the “four spirit animals”) arranged clockwise along the outer rim. These are both perhaps expressions of the ancient belief that the universe revolved around the earth.” \=/

According to Smithsonian’s Freer-Sackler Museum of Asian Art: “The Liangzhu must have placed great value on jade, judging by the high number and outstanding quality of jades found in their tombs. Since they did not have a system of writing, no records remain describing their historic events, religious beliefs, or leaders. Consequently, the meaning of objects, their specific origins, and the significance of their shapes and surface decorations are still unknown. How the Liangzhu regarded these bi and cong in ritual burials is difficult to surmise, yet they obviously held jade in high esteem, considering the untold hours required to craft these disks, tubes, and blades from an unyielding material. Liangzhu patterns of jade use spread to other Neolithic cultures, including the Qijia and Sanxingdui, via China’s vast river systems. The influence of the prehistoric Liangzhu culture continued for centuries and can be found in early Bronze Age centers, such as Anyang, the capital of the late Shang dynasty. [Source: Smithsonian]

A description of a Liangzhu “Disc(ca3200-2100B.C.) By the Palace Museum, Taipei goes: “Outer diameter: 25 centimeters, hole diameter: 4.2 centimeters, thickness: 1.25 centimeters: Originally dark green and brown, much of this jade has a web-like pattern of greyish-white discoloration. The outline of the disc is round with imperfections along the rim. The hole is small in relation to the disc and was drilled from both sides with traces of the drilling still visible. About 0.8 centimeters from the edge is an engraved motif 4.3 centimeters tall of a “sacred bird standing atop an altar.” The lower part of the bird and the inside of the altar are no longer visible and only the three beads are prominent. This is a typical example of a jade disc from the late Liang-chu Culture.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

Image Sources: Neolithic Jade, Palace Museum, Tapei; Circular Jade, Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University/+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei \=/; Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

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