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Chinese jade

Chinese jade

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Chinese jade is any of the carved-jade objects produced in China
Chinese civilization may refer to:* China for more general discussion of the country.* Chinese culture* Greater China, the transnational community of ethnic Chinese.* History of China* Sinosphere, the area historically affected by Chinese culture...

 from the Neolithic Period onward. The Chinese regarded carved-jade objects as intrinsically valuable. They metaphorically equated jade with human virtues because of its hardness, durability, and (moral) beauty.

The Chinese used jade for tools, but also for carved insignias and talismans probably related to ceremonial ritual. Jade was prized by the Chinese for its durability, its musical qualities, its subtle, translucent colors, and its alleged protective powers - it was thought to prevent fatigue and delay the decomposition of the body.


In almost all dictionaries, the Chinese character 'yù' (玉) is translated into English as 'jade'. However, this frequently leads to misunderstanding. The cultural concept of 'jade' is considerably broader in China and Korea than in the West. A more semantically inclusive rendering of this character on its own would be 'precious/ornamental stone'. It is seldom, if ever, used on its own to denote 'true' jade in modern Mandarin Chinese; for example, one would normally refer to 'ying yu' (硬玉, 'hard jade') for jadeite, or 'ruan yu' (軟玉, 'soft jade') for nephrite. (Though it is used with these meanings in Classical Chinese
Classical Chinese
Classical Chinese or Literary Chinese is a traditional style of written Chinese based on the grammar and vocabulary of ancient Chinese, making it different from any modern spoken form of Chinese...

 texts e.g. in poetry.) The Chinese names for many ornamental non-jade rocks also incorporate this character as a radical, and it is widely understood by native speakers that such stones are not, in fact, true precious nephrite or jadeite. Even so, for commercial reasons, the names of such stones may well still be translated into English as 'jade'.


Jade has been used in virtually all periods of Chinese history and generally accords with the style of decorative art
Decorative art
The decorative arts is traditionally a term for the design and manufacture of functional objects. It includes interior design, but not usually architecture. The decorative arts are often categorized in opposition to the "fine arts", namely, painting, drawing, photography, and large-scale...

 characteristic of each period. Thus, the earliest jades, of the Neolithic Period, are quite simple and unornamented; those of the Shang
Shang Dynasty
The Shang Dynasty or Yin Dynasty was, according to traditional sources, the second Chinese dynasty, after the Xia. They ruled in the northeastern regions of the area known as "China proper" in the Yellow River valley...

 (18th–12th century BC), Zhou
Zhou Dynasty
The Zhou Dynasty was a Chinese dynasty that followed the Shang Dynasty and preceded the Qin Dynasty. Although the Zhou Dynasty lasted longer than any other dynasty in Chinese history, the actual political and military control of China by the Ji family lasted only until 771 BC, a period known as...

 (1111–255 BC), and Han
Han Dynasty
The Han Dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin Dynasty and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms . It was founded by the rebel leader Liu Bang, known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han. It was briefly interrupted by the Xin Dynasty of the former regent Wang Mang...

 (206 BC–AD 220) dynasties are increasingly embellished with animal and other decorative motifs characteristic of those times; in later periods ancient jade shapes, shapes derived from bronze vessels, and motifs of painting
Painting is the practice of applying paint, pigment, color or other medium to a surface . The application of the medium is commonly applied to the base with a brush but other objects can be used. In art, the term painting describes both the act and the result of the action. However, painting is...

 were used, essentially to demonstrate the craftsman
An artisan is a skilled manual worker who makes items that may be functional or strictly decorative, including furniture, clothing, jewellery, household items, and tools...

's extraordinary technical facility.

During Neolithic
The Neolithic Age, Era, or Period, or New Stone Age, was a period in the development of human technology, beginning about 9500 BC in some parts of the Middle East, and later in other parts of the world. It is traditionally considered as the last part of the Stone Age...

 times, the key known sources of nephrite jade in China for utilitarian and ceremonial jade items were the now depleted deposits in the Ningshao area in the Yangtze River Delta
Yangtze River Delta
The Yangtze River Delta, Yangtze Delta or YRD, also called Yangzi, or Chang Jiang Delta, Rive Chang Delta Tai Lake Region or the Golden Triangle of the Yangtze, generally comprises the triangular-shaped territory of Wu-speaking Shanghai, southern Jiangsu province and northern Zhejiang province of...

 (Liangzhu culture
Liangzhu culture
The Liangzhu culture was the last Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta of China. Its area of influence extended from around Lake Tai north to Nanjing and the Chang Jiang, east to Shanghai and the sea, and south to Hangzhou...

 3400–2250 BC) and in an area of the Liaoning province in Inner Mongolia
Inner Mongolia
Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China, located in the northern region of the country. Inner Mongolia shares an international border with the countries of Mongolia and the Russian Federation...

 (Hongshan culture
Hongshan culture
The Hongshan culture was a Neolithic culture in northeastern China. Hongshan sites have been found in an area stretching from Inner Mongolia to Liaoning, and dated from about 4700 BC to 2900 BC....

5th millennium BC
The 5th millennium BC saw the spread of agriculture from the Near East throughout southern and central Europe.Urban cultures in Mesopotamia and Anatolia flourished, developing the wheel. Copper ornaments became more common, marking the Chalcolithic. Animal husbandry spread throughout Eurasia,...

–2200 BC). As early as 6000 B.C. Dushan Jade has been mined. In the Yin Ruins of Shang Dynasty (1,600 B.C. to 1,050 B.C.) in Anyang, Dushan Jade ornaments was unearthed in the tomb of the Shang kings.
Jade was used to create many utilitarian and ceremonial objects, ranging from indoor decorative items to jade burial suit
Jade burial suit
A Jade burial suit is a ceremonial suit made of pieces of jade in which royal members in Han Dynasty China were buried.-Structure of a jade burial suit:...

s. Jade was considered the "imperial gem". From about the earliest Chinese dynasties until present, the jade deposits in most use were not only from the region of Khotan
Hotan , or Hetian , also spelled Khotan, is the seat of the Hotan Prefecture in Xinjiang, China. It was previously known in Chinese as 于窴/於窴 and to 19th-century European explorers as Ilchi....

 in the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang
Xinjiang is an autonomous region of the People's Republic of China. It is the largest Chinese administrative division and spans over 1.6 million km2...

 but also from other parts of China, like Lantian
Lantian may refer to:*Lantian technology, a term coming from the show Stargate Atlantis. It refers to technology created by the Ancients that used to live in Atlantis*Lantian County , of Xi'an, Shaanxi, China*Lantian Man, subspecies of Homo erectus...

, Shaanxi
' is a province in the central part of Mainland China, and it includes portions of the Loess Plateau on the middle reaches of the Yellow River in addition to the Qinling Mountains across the southern part of this province...

. There, white and greenish nephrite jade is found in small quarries and as pebbles and boulders in the rivers flowing from the Kuen-Lun mountain range northward into the Takla-Makan desert area. River jade collection was concentrated in the Yarkand
Yarkand River
The Yarkand River is a river in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of western China. It is one of the headstreams of the Tarim River. It is approximately 970 km in length....

, the White Jade
(Yurungkash) and Black Jade (Karakash
Karakash River
The Karakash or Black Jade River, also spelled Karakax , is a river in the Xinjiang autonomous region of the People's Republic of China, which lies partially in the disputed Aksai Chin region. The river originates near Sumde on the northern slopes of the Karakoram range in the Aksai Chin region of...

) Rivers. From the Kingdom of Khotan
Kingdom of Khotan
The Kingdom of Khotan was an ancient Buddhist kingdom that was located on the branch of the Silk Road that ran along the southern edge of the Taklamakan Desert in the Tarim basin. -Early names:-Capital:...

, on the southern leg of the Silk Road
Silk Road
The Silk Road or Silk Route refers to a historical network of interlinking trade routes across the Afro-Eurasian landmass that connected East, South, and Western Asia with the Mediterranean and European world, as well as parts of North and East Africa...

, yearly tribute payments consisting of the most precious white jade were made to the Chinese Imperial court and there transformed into objets d'art by skilled artisans as jade was considered more valuable than gold
Gold is a chemical element with the symbol Au and an atomic number of 79. Gold is a dense, soft, shiny, malleable and ductile metal. Pure gold has a bright yellow color and luster traditionally considered attractive, which it maintains without oxidizing in air or water. Chemically, gold is a...

 or silver
Silver is a metallic chemical element with the chemical symbol Ag and atomic number 47. A soft, white, lustrous transition metal, it has the highest electrical conductivity of any element and the highest thermal conductivity of any metal...

. Jade became a favorite material for the crafting of Chinese scholars objects, such as rests for calligraphy brushes, as well as the mouthpieces of some opium pipes, due to the belief that breathing through jade would bestow longevity upon smokers who used such a pipe.

Jadeite, with its bright emerald-green, pink, lavender, orange and brown colours was imported from Burma to China only after about 1800. The vivid green variety became known as Feicui (翡翠) or Kingfisher (feathers) Jade. It quickly replaced nephrite as the imperial variety of jade.


Jade objects of early ages (Neolithic through Zhou) fall into five categories: small decorative and functional ornaments such as beads, pendants, and belt hooks; weapons and related equipment; independent sculptural, especially of real and mythological animals; small objects of probably emblematic value, including the han (ornaments, often carved in the shape of a cicada
A cicada is an insect of the order Hemiptera, suborder Auchenorrhyncha , in the superfamily Cicadoidea, with large eyes wide apart on the head and usually transparent, well-veined wings. There are about 2,500 species of cicada around the world, and many of them remain unclassified...

, to be placed in the mouth of the dead), and many examples of larger objects — such as the cong
Cong (jade)
A cong is a form of jade artifact from ancient China. The earliest cong were produced by the Liangzhu culture ; later examples date mainly from the Shang and Zhou dynasties....

(a hollow cylinder or truncated cone)

Six Ritual and Six Ceremonial Jades

The "Six Ritual Jades" originating in pre-history were the bi
Bi (jade)
The bi is a form of circular jade artifact from ancient China. The earliest bi were produced in the Neolithic period, particularly by the Liangzhu culture . Later examples date mainly from the Shang, Zhou and Han dynasties. They were also made in glass.-Description:A bi is a flat jade disc with a...

(a flat disk with a hole in its center), the cong
Cong (jade)
A cong is a form of jade artifact from ancient China. The earliest cong were produced by the Liangzhu culture ; later examples date mainly from the Shang and Zhou dynasties....

, the huang (a flat, half-ring pendant), the hu and the flat, bladelike gui and zhang. The original names, value and functions of these objects have invited much speculation. The Zhou Li
Rites of Zhou
The Rites of Zhou , also known as Zhouguan, is one of three ancient ritual texts listed among the classics of Confucianism. It was later renamed Zhouli by Liu Xin to differentiate it from a chapter in the Classic of History which was also known as Zhouguan.Though tradition ascribed the text of the...

, itself probably compiled in the Han Dynasty
Han Dynasty
The Han Dynasty was the second imperial dynasty of China, preceded by the Qin Dynasty and succeeded by the Three Kingdoms . It was founded by the rebel leader Liu Bang, known posthumously as Emperor Gaozu of Han. It was briefly interrupted by the Xin Dynasty of the former regent Wang Mang...

, ascribes the circular bi as representing the heavens, the cong as representing the earth, the gui the east, the zhang the south, the hu the west and the huang the north. Although over two millennia old these names and symbolism were given to these objects by much later writers, who interpreted the objects in a way that reflected their own understanding of the cosmos.

The original use of the "Six Ritual Jades" became lost, with such jades becoming status symbols, with utility
In economics, utility is a measure of customer satisfaction, referring to the total satisfaction received by a consumer from consuming a good or service....

 and religious significance forgotten. The objects came to represent the status of the holder due to the expense and authority needed to command the resources and labour in creating the object. Thus it was as the "Ceremonial Jades" that the forms of some of these jades were perpetuated. The "Zhou Li" states that a king (wang) was entitled to gui of the zhen type, dukes (gong) to the huang, marquis to gui of the xin type, earls (bo) to gui of the gong type, viscounts (zi) to a bi of the gu type and barons (nan) to a bi of the pu type.

Further reading