Tracing the Origins of Chinese Archaic Jades

Tracing the Origins of Chinese Archaic Jades

Why are jades from Neolithic China so highly regarded by collectors?
Why are jades from Neolithic China so highly regarded by collectors?

J ade has held a position of reverence and paramount importance in the long-standing history of Chinese culture for thousands of years. Used as weaponry, tools and ritual items, ornamental and also as ceremonial pieces for burial, worked jades in China precede bronze and even the written word. Although jade working is found in the ancient cultures of Mesoamerica and later spreading to the South Pacific, Persia and beyond, there is perhaps no other civilisation that has seen the same advancement. In China, the oldest worked jades excavated – possibly also of the world – come from sites of the Xinglongwa culture.

For a long time, the study of Neolithic jades was largely one of deduction and theorising. Although excavations of sites in China date back to the early 20th century, it is only from around the 1970s that a rise of extensive, controlled excavations and scientific analysis led to new inconvertible studies of Neolithic China.

Illustrated with examples from the Chuan Ching Tang Collection offered in CHINA / 5000 YEARS (4-18 April), we trace the origins of some of the most well regarded jade forms, with a primary focus on the major jade-using Neolithic cultures of Hongshan, Longshan, Liangzhu where jade working achieved levels of unmatched sophistication and influenced later developments in the Han and Zhou dynasties.

Hongshan (c.4500-c.3000 BCE)

T he Hongshan culture of north-eastern China flourished from the fertile soils of the Liao River, which flowed through the south of Manchuria – now known as the Liaoning Province – in a silt-enriched basic stretching to the Bohai Gulf. Communities of the Hongshan culture also extended to Inner Mongolia, south of the Xilamulun River.

Hongshan’s artistically mature culture, possessing a sensitivity that was not seen in other parts of China for another millennium, may be attributed to its geographic position at a crossroad of prehistoric times. Jade workmanship of Hongshan is simple but fine. A number of Hongshan jades is made of a silicate of magnesium known as bowenite, which comprises a similar but slightly softer physical structure to nephrite. Colours range from semi-translucent dark green and a translucent yellow-green, to semi-translucent white and opaque white.

Several traits found in Hongshan culture remain exclusive and are not shared by other Neolithic cultures. For example, unique to Hongshan jades is an open-work flat pendant often ascribed as a cloud-scroll. These spiral-form pendants are most often found carved on both sides and of a rectangular of square form.

Jades for daily use was rare. Most often worked jades served ceremonial or burial purposes. Among the jade pieces excavated in Hongshan sites are small axes with highly polished faces that have clearly not been produced for utilitarian use. Ornamental jade was not yet prevalent, though forms found include tubular beads with an elliptical shape.

Zoomorphic forms are some of the most intriguing and lasting of the Hongshan jades – though prevalent also in other Neolithic cultures. The best known for of all Hongshan jades is indisputably the zhulong (pig-dragon). Comprising a coiled serpentine body with the head of a pig or wild boar, the form has endured the centuries, revived and continued in dynastic eras. Other zoomorphic forms include birds with spread wings, terrapins, and the cicada, which has is held in regard in Chinese culture as a symbol of the cycle of rebirth.

Dawenkou (c. 3550-c.3050 BCE)

J ade forms of the Dawenkou culture encompass tools and weapons, including the dao square-ended blade knife, and ornamental jewellery such as rings, bangles and jue slit-ring earrings. Unlike Hongshan however, no clear evidence of ceremonial or ritual jades of Dawnkou have been found.

The sites of Dawenkou is situated in Shandong Province near Tai’an, on the Dawen River which flows through the lowest reach of the Yellow River.

Jade workmanship is simple but exquisite, demonstrating a preference for art over utility. Though there are some exceptions, Dawenkou jades are typically flat with little sculptural form and typically of a translucent grass green with a nephritic texture. Other colours found in Dawenkou jades include an opaque green-black, opaque creamy brown, translucent white, opaque pea green and opaque moss green.

Longshan (c.2500 - c.2000 BCE)

T he Longshan culture may be regarded as a successor to the Dawenkou, with sites situated along the small hill ranges of Shandong. Material used are nepthritic and colours range from opaque lentil brown and opaque olive-grey to translucent white, lime green, and golden-brown.

With some shared similarities to jades found in Dawenkou, jade tools commonly found include adzes, axes, and small scraper blades. Longshan weaponry jades also include the dao square-ended knife blade, but possessing single cone holes drilled equidistantly along the spine, away from the cutting edge of the blade. The hollow-ground lunette form found in the Dawenkou blades is seen in Longshan culture too, though this form does not appear to have been continued beyond this period.

The first appearance of the xuanji – a flat disc with a centre hole and deep notched perimeter extensions – is attributed to Longshan culture, as is the zhang with a broad concave-bladed structure, both for ceremonial use.

Among the zoomorphic creations unique to Longshan is a sculptural form of a perched eagle with an inverted ‘V’ ridge at the crown of the skull in the shape of a short pen barrel-like totem. However aside from this form, Longshan jades workings are flat, with no other sculptural forms discovered so far.

Liangzhu (c.3300-c.2200 BCE)

T he Liangzhu culture of south-eastern China is extremely vast, spanning from the area of Lake Tai in Jiangsu Province north of the Yangtze River, into the Nanjing area to the west and east to Shanghai and Fuquanshan. To the south, the culture extends to Hangzhou, the provincial capital of Zhejiang Province. It’s contemporary site is at Shixia in northern Guangdong Province adjacent to Hong Kong.

Encompassing a period of some 1300 years, Liangzhu is divided into a late and early period, and produced some of the most sophisticated jades of the Neolithic era. Liangzhu jades can largely be classified into three categories. Those for ritual or ceremonial use include the cong, yue-axe, battle axe, gui-tablet, bi-ring. Ornamental jades include plaques and pendants as well as jue slit-disc earrings. Beads took the form of zhu round balls, cylindrical, the shape of miniature cong and guan tubular beads. Jade was also found used for inlay. Made with mostly nephritic material, colours range from a semi-translucent green or yellow to yellow with tea-coloured specks, opaque beancurd white, grey-black with fibrous texture, opaque grey-green, and opaque dark green.

The most important jade invention from the Liangzhu culture may quite well be the cong – a cylindrical form enclosed by a square-sided box, used as a burial item.

The cong reflects the greatest ingenuity of all Liangzhu jades. Two types of cong designs emerged in the Liangzhu culture. One was wider than it was high, typically divided into two horizontal layers with animal masks at each corner. The other was taller with a height greater than its width, and usually had a number of layers if a uniform type of animal face with incised eyes. The taotie mask of the later Shang and Zhou periods is thought to arise from the Liangzhu pendant of a trapezoidal form displaying a monster mask incised with fangs, not dissimilar to those found on the cong.

Five small jade congs, Neolithic period and later | Estimate: 100,000 - 150,000 HKD

The large bi disc of a plain and undecorated nature is another major ritual jade creation of the culture. No other Neolithic culture is known to have produced the bi disc of the same size.

As China entered the age of bronze, it would close the page on this chapter of Neolithic history. The influence of the highly polished and advanced craftsmanship of Liangzhu jades and other Neolithic jade cultures provided the seed for the advancement of jades through the dynastic era, and the rise of the stone’s imperial status, reaching a pinnacle with the 18th century introduction of Burmese jadeite.

Explore Other Archaic Jades from the Collection

Chinese Works of Art The Hong Kong Sales

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