The Duanfang cong
The creation of artefacts such as this jade at prehistoric times, when writing was not yet established and metal was not yet utilized, may be seen as one of the wonders of mankind. The advanced jade masterpieces Neolithic craftsmen fashioned with their primitive tools can hardly be admired enough. While the term Stone Age in most regions simply designates an age where tools and weapons were fashioned from stone, in China it has a very special meaning, since the stones in question included this particularly hard and beautiful material, jade, that is extremely laborious to work, but can be turned into veritable gems. It was undoubtedly not only its attractive colouration and sheen that contributed to the high esteem and value of jade items, but also the fact that they were most difficult to manufacture, and thus hard to come by and prestigious to own.
China’s most important Neolithic jade cultures are Hongshan in the Liaoning region and Liangzhu in the region around Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The Liangzhu culture, which is named after a village near Hangzhou in Zhejiang, flourished from the late 4th to the end of the 3rd millennium BC and has brought about a large variety of jade forms, foremost among them bi (discs) and cong. Cong remain among the most enigmatic objects of early Chinese cultures. Generally shaped as cylinders that are round on the inside and square on the outside, they can vary enormously in height and diameter, ranging from wide, shallow bracelets to tall, narrow tubes. Lianzhu cong are distinguished by finely engraved anthropomorphic or zoomorphic faces with highly stylized but distinctive features.
Bracelet-shaped cong like the present piece, also known as zhuo, appeared among the earliest Liangzhu jades and were apparently worn by both sexes. Their round shape, intersected in four places by prominent raised masks, often approaches a square section the outside, and cannot be separated from the more sharply angled, square cong, as intermediaries exist of all shapes and sizes. Tubular examples, which mostly are too narrow to be worn, appeared somewhat later than zhuo-shaped cong and are considered to have developed from the bracelet shape. The present piece, with the outer sides angled to form a rounded square, with a recessed vertical band in the centre of each side, dividing masks that are straddling the four corners, illustrates this development, which appears to have taken place in the middle Liangzhu period.
The faces on this piece are carved with the characteristic Liangzhu features of two prominent eyes, widening towards the temples and enclosing circular pupils, a narrow horizontal bar indicating the mouth, and two horizontal bands across the top, suggesting the forehead or hairline. Remarkable here are the extremely finely incised scroll bands also marvelled at by Duanfang in his inscription on the box of the piece, which are made up of hair-fine parallel lines. Sun Zhixin, ‘A Chronology of the Decoration of Liangzhu Jades’, in Rosemary E. Scott, ed., Chinese Jades. Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia, no. 18, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 1997, states, p. 53, that scrolls were being introduced around 2800 BC, around the beginning of the middle Liangzhu phase, although related monster faces probably date from slightly later in this period, around 2600-2400 BC.
With no obvious usage explaining their shape and no clearly understandable meaning legible in their decoration, Liangzhu cong have provided fertile grounds for interpretation (K.C. Chang, ‘An Essay on Cong’, and Jean M. James, ‘Images of Power: Masks of the Liangzhu Culture’, in Chinese Jade. Selected Articles from Orientations 1983-2003, Hong Kong, 2005, pp. 70-76 and 101-110). Given their common appearence in Liangzhu burials, their extremely complex and time-consuming workmanship, and their mysterious form and ornamentation, it is likely that they served some important ritual or ceremonial purpose among the elites of this early society, but any more specific interpretation has to await further archaeological or historical studies. As simple works of art handed down to us from a society that flourished over four millennia ago, the present jade and its companion pieces fascinate by their imaginative concept, distinctive style and superb control of the medium.
Although Liangzhu cong are unmistakeable, being composed of a number of recurring elements, individual examples nevertheless vary greatly. Zhuo-shaped cong are particularly rare and it is difficult to find close counterparts to the present piece. A smaller, but otherwise quite similar carving was included in the exhibition Jing tian ge wu. Zhongguo lidai yuqi daodu/Art in Quest of Heaven and Truth Chinese Jades through the Ages, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2011, pl. 4-4-9. A large range of examples in many different shapes and sizes, but none very close to the present piece, is illustrated in Liangzhu wenhua yuqi [Jades from the Liangzhu Culture], n.p., 1989, pls 6-58; and in Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade: From the Neolithic to the Qing, London, 1995, p. 34 and pp. 124-129.
The present cong formed part of the fabled collection of Duanfang (1861-1911), one of the most famous Qing dynasty collectors and connoisseurs of ancient Chinese artefacts (fig. 1). It comes in a wooden box with an inscription signed Taozhai, a sobriquet used by Duanfang. In the West, Duanfang is probably best known as the former owner of the unique Western Zhou bronze altar set in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Zhixin Jason Sun, ‘A Legend Retold: The Duanfang Bronzes’ Journey to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’, Mirroring China’s Past. Emperors, Scholars, and Their Bronzes, The Art Institute of Chicago, 2018, pp. 198-203). A Han Chinese official and member of the Manchu Plain White Banner, Duanfang served the Qing government in many different posts and places and was renowned as a far-sighted and influential politician. He travelled widely, visiting the United States and many countries of Western Europe, to study Western constitutions, educational systems and museums with the aim of modernizing China’s institutions. (The ‘Western lands’ mentioned in the inscription of the present piece’s box may, however, not stand in direct relation to this.) His collection of ancient bronzes, jades, paintings, calligraphies and other works was largely sold by his family in the decades following his death and the demise of the Qing dynasty.
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