Chinese Jade and the Beginning of the World


Since time immemorial, China has been interested in the ‘Great Narrative’ of the universe. Even before the first dynasties were established, stargazers recorded the movement of celestial bodies. Cosmology and then astronomy became a science of the State and the Chinese sovereign; the Son of Heaven, became the guarantor of the relationship between Heaven and Earth. In China, Man belonged to Heaven as much as to Earth. Chinese history can be seen through the prism of jade. That is precisely the sense of this exhibition, The Beginning of the World – According to the Chinese: Dragons, Phoenix and Other Chimera, was held at the Baur Foundation in Geneva (November 2020 to May 2021) and is now at the Musée Départemental des Arts Asiatiques de Nice in France.

Jade serves as a bridge through eight millennia and reflects the relationship among Heaven, Earth and Man. The visitor will discover these connections from the symbolic emblems, mythical beasts and ritual instruments which make up the 200 works of art presented from the Sam and Myrna Myers Collection. Their inherent beauty simultaneously enchants and raises questions as it reveals the foundations of China’s long history. Each object is a window on a world waiting to be discovered.

Archaic Chinese Jade

Archaic Chinese jade from the Neolithic period is represented by figures of birds, cicada and the zhulong, a dragon-shaped pendant created during the Hongshan culture (4500-3000 BC). They are symbols of regeneration and the vital force or qi. The cong (a cylinder with square sections) and the bi (a round disc with a hole in the centre) were the creation of the Liangzhu culture (3200-2200 BC). Unlike the bi, the cong is decorated on its four corners with zoomorphic and anthropomorphic designs, the iconography of which is still subject to conjecture. These ritual objects appear to have been monopolised by shamans.

Lingjiatan Culture (3600-3200 BC)

The number of sections or stages may have indicated the degree of knowledge and supernatural power of the owner. A relationship between the cong and an engraved jade plaque from the Lingjiatan culture (3600-3200 BC) has been suggested. The plaque is decorated with a diagram which appears to represent the cosmos, with a circular sky and a square earth. In the third millennium, the sky was already an object of attentive observation. This was confirmed when the oldest observatory in China was found at Taosi in Shanxi. Dated between 2100 and 2000 BC, it was contemporaneous with the foundation of the Xia dynasty. This Neolithic prefiguration of a key concept of Chinese cosmology was codified in the Shang and Zhou dynasties. During that time, shamans, sorcerers, and soothsayers reigned over the spirits, as exemplified by jade figures in the exhibition, with their astonishing headdresses, two of which are from the Hongshan culture, while the third is from the Western Zhou dynasty (fig 1).

The enigmatic simplicity of bi is the subject of numerous hypotheses, with the point of departure being the sibylline sentence from the Zhouli (the Rites of Zhou): ‘Use a green bi to worship the heavens, use a yellow cong to worship the earth’. Many theories have attached the bi to Heaven. In any event, it is certain that the function of the bi, just as the cong, evolved.

The bi, which had been so closely linked to Heaven over the centuries eventually became more an object of this world. By the Han dynasty, it had become merely a token of allegiance or a gift. It was no longer necessary that it be restricted to the form of a perfect circle. At the direction of the elite, the carvers were free to decorate the bi in high relief and add dragons and phoenix which sometimes surrounded it (fig 2).

Xia Chinese Jades

The majority of the Xia jades were large thin, well-polished blades with a hole at the bottom and a butt so that they could be fixed to a shaft (fig 3). These yazhang appeared in the Longshan culture (circa 2300-1800 BC) and evolved to reach their apogee in the Erlitou (circa 1850-1550 BC). They have been found over a wide area. At Shimao, yazhang have been found attached walls, which attests to their ritual use in the Longshan period, a practice which was continued and amplified during the Zhou. Yazhang were reinterpreted during the Western Zhou dynasty, as illustrated by two dark green blades in the Myers collection decorated with birds in delicate relief, using a vocabulary inherited from their predecessors, the Shang.

Over time the yazhang was the basis for weapons in bronze and other materials thanks to the development of metallurgy and, in turn, these blades were the precursors of tablets, gui, for which the morphology was codified in the Zhouli. It provided that tablets could have different forms and could be placed in sacrificial pits to serve as agents of communication with the ancestors. Codified as an insignia of authority, the gui tablet became a symbol of the power of the sovereign, which he held in ceremonies, indicating his Mandate from Heaven.

Simultaneously, because of its supposed apotropaic qualities, Chinese jade had increasing importance in funeral rites. Geometric plaques of jade were sewn on shrouds creating an aspect of a mask; one could distinguish the eyes, nose and mouth; the body of the deceased was richly dressed. Use of jade objects went so far that there was a shortage of the material. To meet the demand, carvers began to recut pieces of ancient jade, working with thin slices. Instead of carving jade in the round, as they did in the Shang period, they turned to engraving during the Zhou, with designs incised on the bias. Designs developed over time: the dragon of the 9th century BC became two interlocking dragons in the 8th century, which then gave way to the tiger in the 7th century.

Chinese Jade Burial Suit

Burial in jade in the Western Han dynasty (206 BC-AD 9) resulted in the famous funerary jade suit, yuyi, cited in the texts, the existence of which was doubted for a long time, until 1968 when, in a tomb in Hebei province in Mancheng, two examples sewn with gold wire were discovered. The jade vest in the Myers collection fits in this group and attests to the importance of jade and its presumed virtues at the time of the funeral. Burial was a moment of great importance because it concerned the passage from one world to another.

As Neolithic cultures developed in China, they influenced each other. The first royal dynasties, the Xia and the Shang, sought to install the unknowable in the heart of the State. The Zhou imposed rites. At that point, man and nature were one. The unification of authority in the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) established an equivalence between the functioning of the cosmos and that of human society, identifying the role of the Sovereign with the principle of the universe, of which he was the guarantor. Called the ‘Son of Heaven’, it was believed that he received his Mandate from Heaven itself, not by inheritance nor by conquest. Therefore, with the Emperor, Heaven descended to Earth, Xianyang, the capital of the Empire, which no longer exists, was conceived as a ‘cosmological’ city.

The city was built to be aligned with the celestial pole and the River Wei, which represented the Milky Way. It is not surprising that, at the dawn of our era, jade carvers sought to use the iconography of the stars, as can be seen in the pillow in the Myers collection which takes advantage of the veins in the jade to suggest the Milky Way (fig 4). That pillow is one of a pair, one for the male with a three legged bird, the symbol of the sun, and the other for his wife, with a toad, referring to Chang’e, the divinity who resides in the moon.

The Chinese Heaven and the Four Sacred Animals

The sky fascinates, the sky forms, the sky questions, the sky responds, the sky nourishes the spirit, the sky stimulates creators. The Chinese were able assign the role taken by theology in the West to cosmological speculations. The Chinese Heaven was considered something that always changed; whereas, in the West, it was seen as permanent and unchanging, an image of divine transcendence.

On the first morning of the world, after the beginning of the beginning, Heaven and Earth were formed. This binome, together with the dragon and the phoenix, has been found in iconic jades ever since the Neolithic period. Then the constellations appeared in the firmament. At the four cardinal points, there were the Four Sacred Animals: the Red Bird of the south, the Green Dragon of the east, the Black Tortoise of the north, and the White Tiger of the west, all of which encircle the celestial pole. This concept is sometimes expressed on a bi (fig 5). That metaphorical vision of the world was the basis for the importance of ritual in all things, from political questions to architecture. The Four Sacred Animals and the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac permit the Chinese to master time and space. It was believed that the universe was a precise system in which time, space, men and things obeyed ganyin, the principle of resonance.

Marquis of Dai

One of the most surprising pieces of evidence was the discovery in 1972 of Tomb Number 3 at the Mawangdui site in Hunan, which contained a trove of 51 manuscripts on silk. This funerary library belonged to the second Marquis of Dai, who died in his thirties in about 170 BC. One of these are extremely interesting because of the richness and accuracy of the information it contains: the Wuxingzhan, ‘Divination by the Five Planets’, a text recording observations of the movements of the five planets during the period from 246 to 177 BC. The Wuxingzhan is the most complete compendium of information on the planets.

In the tomb of Xin Zhui, Marquise of Dai, the mother of Li Cang, who died between 168 and 145 BC, archeologists found a banner on the coffin which portrays the itinerary of the soul, a voyage across three worlds, the World of the Dead, the World of the Living, and the World of the Immortals. More than merely showing the ascension to heaven, it suggests that each individual has a particular destiny, thus illustrating the emergence of humanism in the Han dynasty.

The voyage begins with the funeral rites. In the first section, at the bottom, there are the ‘Yellow Springs’, with their sea monsters and animal forces in the World of the Dead, from which the soul, po, must be liberated. A muscular figure supports a platform on which a funeral banquet is taking place; this is identifiable by the row of ritual vases as well as the musical stone depicted above the scene. On the left, a figure wearing a white mourning garment presides over the ceremony. He is accompanied by six assistants: this is a depiction of the seven souls of the flesh. A cloth canopy with two human-headed birds, an allusion to the ancestors of the deceased, separates this first scene from the others.

In the middle, in the second section, the World of the Living emerges between the sinuous bodies of two dragons who cross over each other in a bi disc and disentangle on opposite sides. They are the embodiment of the breaths of yin and yang, creators of the ‘Ten Thousand Things’. At the end of a terrestrial path guarded by two bixie is the deceased woman, elegant and dignified, leaning on a cane. Behind her, are three women representing the three spiritual souls, hun, called to ascend to Heaven. In front of her, two messengers bearing the summons of destiny bow before her. Here too, the section is closed by a cloth canopy, this time supported by an owl with outstretched wings.

Above, the third section portrays the World of the Immortals, with a large hybrid beast on each side of a central path. They have taken over from the terrestrial dragons. The entrance to this area is flanked by two pillars topped by clambering felines; at the foot of each pillar sits a guardian. To the left, lying hidden in the wing of one of the beasts, is Chang’e, the deity referred to previously, who lives on the moon, which is depicted as a crescent with the toad that represents the metamorphoses of souls. On the right, the only remaining great sun shines, inside of which there is a black bird; the smaller suns depicted below have been struck down by the archer Yi, the husband of Chang’e.

In the middle, a bell is rung by two immortals riding phantasmagorical mounts: they announce the arrival of the deceased. At the top, five cranes, the traditional bird of the immortals, surround a central figure encircled by a coiled snake, which is a symbol of eternity. Identification of this enigmatic figure seated in majesty, often described as a spirit in meditation, remains a matter of debate.

This mythical map makes use of ritual objects which mark the stages of the voyage to the afterlife: the vases, chimes, bi, and incense burner, as well as the immortals, fantastic beasts, dragons, phoenix and bixie, many of which have been made in jade, as shown in this exhibition, are elements in the incredible voyage from Earth to Heaven.

Chinese Jade in the Han Dynasty

In the Han dynasty, towards the close of the first millennium, the Chinese jade carver became a sculptor as he created three-dimensional objects. At first, designs were carved on the surface of the jade, then they penetrated the material to create images in high relief, reflecting energy and power, as illustrated in the musical chimes in the Myers collection (fig 6). In three dimensional figures, such as the bixie, they succeeded in creating objects of convincing realism based on careful observation. The artisans also worked with other materials, such as cornaline, turquoise, and rock crystal.

Chinese Jade Bixie

The ensemble of bixie and immortals in the exhibition of Chinese jade is remarkable; of particular interest is the dark green bixie with inlaid gold wire. Its coat is covered with mythical creatures and immortals surrounded by clouds which are a manifestation of the vital breath, the qi (fig 7). That bixie makes one think of the pair in bronze from Zhongshan discovered in 1978 in the tomb of King Cuo, who died in 314 BC. As Professor Filippo Salviati rightly says in the catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, the three-dimensional exuberance of these small sculptures is remarkable. He suggests dating them to the Han dynasty, based on the four animal figures found in the tomb of Emperor Yuan who reigned from 48 to 33 BC. Bixie had a long career after the Han, continuing in the Six Dynasties period (220-589), in particular on the famous Spirit Way leading to the tomb of the Liang (502-557), which was photographed by Victor Segalen (1878-1919) on his China expedition.

As to the immortals, they were believed to be supernatural beings which lived forever; thanks to their taking drugs and special hygiene, they were able to transcend the frontiers of yin and yang. Immortals are winged creatures with claws and free flowing hair; their faces are strangely elongated and they have big ears; they ride celestial winged mounts in the heavens and fight evil spirits to gain access to the afterlife for the deceased (fig 8). They appeared in northern China in the middle of the 1st millennium. Called Xianren, they were believed to live in the mountains, particularly in the west on Mount Kunlun, but also in the east, in the middle of the ocean on the three islands, Penglai, Fangzhang and Yingzhou. The first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, sent an important search party to find the islands, but their ship was lost at sea. Emperor Wu (r 141-87 BC) tried to create a microcosm of the universe by placing monumental stone sculptures of immortals in his park, Shanglin, in the hope of enticing them.

The Fangshi

The Fangshi were the first experts on immortality and contributed to the belief in immortals, saying that they knew where the immortals lived and claiming to have drugs which would confer immortality. The First Emperor sent Fangshi to bring back such drugs. Emperor Wu, influenced by the Dowager Empress Dou (205-135 BC), was greatly interested in techniques of immortality. In 133 BC, he had the famous Fangshi, Li Shaojun, make offerings to the God of the Furnace to get what was claimed to be the first alchemical transformation. The idea of transcending bodily limitations and extending life became a leitmotif in Chinese history. Jade and gold were the perfect materials to prepare, store and consume the elixir of long life. Were not jade and morning dew the composites of the alimentation of immortals? Ingesting powdered jade was believed to prolong life. In the Han court, a range of vessels were specifically designed for that particular use. They are characterised by precious material and the refinement and sophistication of the forms (fig 9). To assure the results of these efforts, one turned to Daoist specialists to conduct erudite rituals. As a result, Daoism became a religion during the Han dynasty.

What is reflected by Chinese jade over 8,000 years other than the irresistible ascension of Man, a creature created from Heaven and Earth? Archaic jades teach us that Heaven is the other half of Earth. Before the Han dynasty, the Chinese looked to Heaven for guidance, thinking that Heaven determined what would occur on Earth. They studied the sky to find out. While Qin Shihuangdi assumed the title of Son of Heaven, which he claimed was based on the Mandate from Heaven, it was he as Emperor who decided what action would be taken on Earth. It was then that Earth became the other half of Heaven. The Emperor continued to worship at the Temple of Heaven, but his astrologers continued to work at the observatory.


The exhibition of archaic Chinese jade and other objects runs until 19 September 2021, at Musée Départemental des Arts Asiatiques, Nice,