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Chinese Jade (Part 3) : Symbolism and Ceremony

March 29, 2016 0 Comments

In our quest to understand Chinese people’s deep fondness for and fascination with jade, we now turn to the objects on which a successful society depended.

It may seem strange that so much weight could be placed on a stone, but in ancient China, peaceful and prosperous existence depended on the favor of the gods, and the favor of the gods must be won by the virtuous conduct of a society's leader. Therefore, worship and asking for the heavens’ guidance were a crucial part of a king’s responsibilities.

Six types of jade were instrumental in communing with the gods of the heaven, earth, and the four directions. According to Rites of Zhou, each requires a jade of a specific shape and color.

Not much is known about the specifics of these rituals—whether incense was lit, what the prayers sounded like, who presided—but it’s worth remembering that ancient Chinese lived very closely with the realm of spirits. For now, about all we know for certain is what’s left to us in the Rites of Zhou, a text of governance dating to the 2nd century BC, a good portion of which discusses the most important thing a king needs to know: rules for worship.

While these six shapes form the core of sacred jade designs, they are only a tiny portion of all jade motifs that we are now familiar with. Over the long course of Chinese history, jade design has absorbed from literati and folk traditions countless other decorative shapes and patterns—for example, bats for luck, pairs of mandarin ducks for a happy marriage, and a whole menagerie of mythical creatures.

Bi-disk for Heaven

Ashen Bi (donut-shaped discs) are used to pay respect to heaven.

Nephrite jade bi, late Neolithic period, ca. 3300-2250 BCE. (Freer Gallery of Art)

Cong for Earth

Yellow Cong (squared tubes with a round hollows), are used to pay respect to the earth.

Jade Cong, Late Neolithic period, ca. 3300-2250 BCE (Freer Gallery of Art)

Gui for East

Blue-green Gui (pointed tablets) are used to pay respect to the god of the East, which is believed to be the Azure Dragon.

Jade Gui tablets, Han dynasty, late 3rd century BCE-early 3rd century CE. (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

Zhang for South

Vermilion Zhang (forked sword) are used to pay respect to the god of the south, which is believed to be the Vermilion Bird.

Jade Zhang sword, Shang dynasty, ca. 1600-ca. 1050 BCE (Freer Gallery of Art)

Tiger For West

White Hu (tigers) are used to pay respect to the gods of the west, which is believed to be the White Tiger.

Jade Hu tiger, Eastern Zhou dynasty, 6th century BCE. (Freer Gallery of Art)

Huang for North

Dark grey Huang (crescents) are used to pay respect to the god of the north, which is believed to be the Black Tortoise.

Jade Huang carved as a pendant, Eastern Zhou dynasty, 6th century BCE. (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery)

This article is part of the Divine Land Gemstone Compendium, a weekly series by Yun Boutique exploring the gemstones of ancient China and their significance to Chinese culture. See the full series here. Subscribe to the email newsletter to receive future installments.

Produced and Researched by Ariel Tian. Edited by Christine Lin.


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