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Chinese Works of Art

The Enigmatic Allure of Liangzhu Jades

By Jennifer Huang Bernstein
Earlier in July, the Liangzhu Neolithic sites in Zhejiang province became a UNESCO World Heritage Site – an inscription recognizing and protecting the 5,300-year-old Chinese city that offers the earliest evidence of a culture that flourished about 3300 to 2200 BCE.

L ocated in China's lower Yangtze River Basin, the Liangzhu archaeological site shares its name with the Neolithic culture of the greater area, and was the location of the first documented findings of distinctive artefacts now considered characteristic of these communities. These man-made mounds were discovered in 1936, and subsequent excavations over the decades have led to the unearthing of more burial complexes and impressive ritual objects of jades, stones, pottery and other ceremonial tools. While this trove evokes the presence of a bygone culture, some objects still remain shrouded in mystery.

Liangzhu is considered one of the two most important Neolithic jade cultures in China, marked by the development of principal jade forms. Cong tubes, bi discs, yue axes and other ornaments were discovered close to the entombed dead, which suggests a special function in burial rites. Many of the ornaments, utensils, vessels and tools point to the importance of farming, fishing and hunting as a way of life, while the works of sophisticated jade craftsmanship are remnants of highly stratified social structures and religious practices.

The ceremonial jades provide clues to supplement our knowledge of the prehistoric period. However, some objects remain enigmatic, such as the cong tube. This is a characteristic form of Liangzhu jade, but there has not yet been any conclusive theory about its origin, function of the shape or meaning behind the distinctive man-animal mask motif. Cong are hollowed-out cylinders that are round on the inside and square on the outside. The dimensions vary greatly, ranging from wide bangles to tall, narrow tubes. A rare zhuo from the well-known Duanfang collection serves as a fine example of the bracelet-shaped cong, apparently worn by both sexes, and among the earliest Liangzhu jades. The cong is believed to have developed initially from this bangle shape and over time changed into a longer shape. As these taller cong became too narrow to be worn, they were used only for ceremonial purposes.

Lianzhu cong are embellished with finely engraved, highly stylized zoomorphic masks. The faces on the cong are carved with the characteristic Liangzhu features: a pair of eyes detailed by distinct ovals or swirls encircling two sockets, a mouth indicated by a narrow horizontal bar, and forehead suggested by two horizontal bands across the top. The masks will sometimes include nostril flanges. Earlier examples, such as the jade objects excavated in Yaoshan and Fanshan, were elaborately incised with patterns.

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Jade Cong from the Liangzhu Museum

The Neolithic form was given the name cong during later dynasties, and the combination of circle within the square was interpreted as a symbol of earth. The design and motifs hint at ancient religious or spiritual beliefs, and such clues have attracted much speculation, but any definitive interpretative remains elusive. While much of the function and meaning has long since been lost to time, the shape persists in Chinese works of art, important in not only jade, but also ceramics. For collectors through the centuries, Liangzhu jade still hasn't lost its luster, inspiring connoisseurs from as early as the Song dynasty through to the present. Some artefacts were appreciated for their aesthetic qualities while others were kept as ancient curiosities. In the Qianlong period court collection, a Liangzhu cong was flipped upside down and repurposed as a flower pot, suggesting that earlier collectors may not have had any deeper insight into the origins of this most mysterious ritual object.

Bi discs are another significant form of Liangzhu jades, found in far greater quantities compared with other ritual objects at the archaeological ruins. At Fanshan, one of the sites of Liangzhu, as many as 40 to 50 bi were discovered in a single tomb. Some can be quite large, with a wide range in size and thickness. Discs that were irregular or rough were piled around the feet, while finer bi were positioned above or beneath the entombed body.

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Ceremonial Disk (Bi), 3300-2200 BC. East China, Neolithic period, Liangzhu culture (3300-2200 BC). Jade (nephrite); diameter: 32 cm (12 5/8 in.); overall: 1 cm (3/8 in.); inner diameter: 5.4 cm (2 1/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Worcester R. Warner Collection 1917.974

Many bi are plain without engraving and the stonework tends to be simple. In exceptional cases, bi were found with incised symbols, but the significance of the carvings are unknown. The shape resembles a spinning ring and was primarily associated with female burials for the very wealthy, according to Professor Jenny F. So in an analysis from Early Chinese Jades in the Harvard Art Museums. Like the cong, the bi was so named centuries after its creation. The form was later interpreted as a symbol of heaven and hence became one of the most important design elements in Chinese history.

Yue axe heads are the third form in the Liangzhu ritual jade trinity, found with many of the other burial objects. It was probably considered a symbol of ruling power, as the blade was generally not sharpened and certain materials would not have been appropriate as a practical tool. Found in the tombs of noblemen only, the yue blade would normally come with matching mao and dui shaft fittings. These were all originally set into handles of wood, bone or other materials that would have long since disintegrated. The blades are plain and without engraving – the lone exception being the very important King of Yue, excavated from Fanshan M12 tomb, which bears both man-animal and bird emblems. Typical examples of yue are smoothly polished and feature one or more bored holes in the upper section. While not as intricate as the cong, the simplicity of yue shape belies the high level of skill required to flake such thin slices of nephrite or other stone material to produce the beveled axe head.

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A STONE AXE, NEOLITHIC PERIOD, LIANGZHU CULTURE WestImage - Art Digital Studio

It bears mentioning that at the Liangzhu burial sites, personal ornaments make up more than 75% of jades found. The trident plaque is an object entirely unique to Liangzhu culture. It is believed to have been a headpiece placed on the crown or attached to the hair. This three-pronged jade piece would only be found in tombs that contained a yue blade, suggesting that these were all instruments to memorialize the ruling class. Other hair and headdress ornaments include lunette plaques and shubei comb-top coronets for the hair.

A special exhibition, Liangzhu and Ancient China, opened at The Palace Museum in Beijing on July 16, and will display King of Yue and King of Cong as well as more than 200 works on loan from museums nationwide. Archaeological findings from the Neolithic sites are also on permanent display at the elegant Liangzhu Museum, designed by English architect David Chipperfield. For those who are unable to travel to Beijing or to the outskirts of Hangzhou, a virtual tour of the Liangzhu Museum collection has been made available on the museum website.

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