Ancient Chinese jade artifacts are a source of great interest for people around the world. The beautiful green stone, jade, has great significance in China and has for thousands of years. It would be no exaggeration to say that it is more significant than any precious metal, even gold. Jade had a profound impact on not only Chinese culture but also Chinese politics, economy, and society.
Jade is a green gemstone comprised mostly of jadeite or nephrite. Nephrite is much more common, but both are valued as the widely known term “jade.” While the gemstone has been coveted since its discovery in China, it would be an oversimplification to say that it was only the stone of emperors and kings and all jade was desired indiscriminately. The opposite is, in fact, true; the stone was desired by people of all classes and the quality of jade worn often reflected the wearer’s class. Jade has a profound effect on Chinese culture. There are hundreds of words and characters in the Chinese language related to jade. Indeed, the potency of many sayings rest entirely upon understanding the beauty and significance of jade. For example, a “jade girl” is a beautiful girl. This is a brief and easy to comprehend summary of the “green gold” in China.
Jade is a naturally beautiful stone, but artisans unlock its inner beauty. The Chinese have followed this principle for a long time. Some of the earliest carvings and ancient Chinese jade artifacts come from Neolithic cultures from China, such as the Hongshan. The bi discs are one of the oldest and most culturally significant jade objects in Chinese history. One of the earliest possible examples of written language is visible on some of the bi discs. Although the exact functions of such discs are not known, they were used in various ceremonies and rituals. Jade was also a vehicle for cultural exports and merging over time; artifacts once unique to some regions became commonplace in other parts of China.
Jade was a symbol of one’s social class. Rulers, shamans, and significant warriors ranked high on the social ladder and possessed jade wares and accessories. Spirituality and jade seemed intertwined in Chinese culture. Indeed, it was seen as a bridge between Heaven and Earth. Jade’s position as a measure of status and wealth was solidified long ago in the Neolithic era. Over time, specific cultural norms developed, and one’s social status was quickly identified by what jade one had. Strict boundaries were drawn to prevent one from crossing status lines. Artifacts became family heirlooms and would be handed down through generations. It even became a symbol of royal authority; every emperor had seals made out of jade.
Artisans worked with jade, much like how we work with diamonds today. Because of jade’s scarcity, lapidaries had to work with caution and precision. Any flaws were removed or reduced through careful carving. Inversely, any merits in the stone were emphasized by the cut. The process of carving jade was complex and time-consuming, but the results were nothing short of beautiful. Jade was also used for tools due to its hardness.
Unearthing China’s long art history reveals many artifacts and cultural objects. There are many names for the myriad of ancient Chinese jade artifacts. A few, for example, are the taotie masks, bi, bian fu, cong, and bu lu.
Taotie masks are eerily fascinating due to their history and meaning. While not always made out of jade (many were bronze), these masks are said to resemble monsters, or “the glutton.” The name comes from a passage in an old Chinese text that describes a voracious, monstrous head. Explanations for taotie inspiration, design, and purpose vary. Older explanations interpreted the design as a metaphor for greed and vice. Today, it is said to be inspired by tigers or bulls.
The bi is less understood than the taotie. These discs (often made out of jade) likely had great spiritual and religious significance at one point. The earliest discs were plain and simple. Over time, they evolved into elaborate works of art. Carving quality increased but so too did the innovation of the craftsmen. Eventually, creatures such as dragons were added to bi discs. The bi resembled Heaven, and in rituals, art, and ceremony, its linkage with Earth could be both symbolic and literal (if the bi was ever placed on a cong, for example). As the spiritual significance of the bi and cong waned, they became more like artistic objects rather than religious vessels.
The bat may be a pest in most cultures, but it is not in China. Bats symbolize happiness in Chinese culture, especially when they come in fives (for the five virtues). Bats have this prestigious position in Chinese art because the Chinese word for “luck” or “fortune”, fu, appears in the name for bat in Chinese, bian fu.
The peach and butterfly both symbolize immortality, among other things at times. At the Queen Mother’s banquet, one could receive immortality by the unassuming fruit. In Chinese folklore, the Eight Immortals received the peaches of longevity from the Queen Mother.
Butterflies are perhaps related to a long life or immortality because the cocoon was an excellent metaphor for death and the afterlife. One could only hope that the way the butterfly awakens in its cocoon, the dead would awaken in the afterlife. The grim metaphor later evolved into immortality. Butterflies can also symbolize a happy marriage.
It is impossible to discuss Chinese art without mentioning the dragon. The long is one of the most prominent and earliest products of Chinese culture known. It should come as no surprise that there are plenty of jade carvings depicting this great creature.
The evolution of the jade dragon is long and well-documented. The earliest forms were rudimentary but beautiful in their own way. The Shang dragons had short bodies, large heads and horns, and legs. By the Zhou time, the body had elongated considerably and developed a serpentine form; this form is more recognizable as the modern Chinese dragon. The Chinese dragon has incorporated the physiology of other animals since its inception, including snakes, horses, bovines, and hares. Worship of the snake in India likely played a significant role in the development (but not origin) of the dragon in Chinese culture.
In Chinese culture, the dragon has historically been viewed positively; the West, by comparison, has reviled the dragon. It has long been a symbol of power and royal authority in China. They are linked to the elements and nature. A noted area of their benevolence can be found in how they were seen to influence weather to help farmers.
The dragon can be found in virtually every part of Chinese material culture. Reliefs, rings, pottery, amulets, charms, ornaments, statues, and more, it would be easier to name places where the dragon doesn’t appear.
There is much to explore in the world of jade in China. This is only the basics, but it is enough to introduce the unaware and unfamiliar to this fascinating realm. Chinese history and culture are wide-spanning and complex, but they are worth the investment for anyone interested.
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