Chinese Jade — Ultimate Introduction to Origin, History, Meaning, Culture, and Utilization

Chinese Jade is a culture that includes sacred ritual origins, long history, exquisite carving skills, and invaluable artworks. 

Importance of Jade in Chinese Culture


  • Jade articles were important sacrificial offerings in holy worship ceremonies from the Neolithic era to Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 256 BC). 


  • Jade had been used to make emperor's imperial seals from Qin (221 BC — 207 BC) to Qing (1636 — 1912) dynasties, as a symbol of paramount supremacy. 


  • Jade articles had been perfect representatives of one's social status.

Jade Figure of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • According to great philosopher Confucius, Jade is the representative of 11 important virtues of a decent person. 


Hence, in history, a decent person would always wear something made of jade.


  • In literature, jade has been used to form many beautiful Chinese characters and phrases, as a wonderful character to describe elegant and brilliant people, pretty women, gorgeous appearances, tasty food, splendid scene, extraordinary buildings, etc. 


  • Jade had been a significant part of rich burial culture, especially from the Neolithic era to the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD). 

Dragons Shaped Jade Decoration of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), Unearthed from Mausoleum of King of Chu — Xuzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Jade Decorated Filigree Gold Hairpin of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Hubei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)


What are mysterious legends about Chinese jade?


A long time ago, when the sky was broken, Nv Wa, the deity who creates humans using clay, refined a five-colored magic stone and used it to fix the big hole in the sky. 


Afterward, she dispersed the remained part of this magic rock on earth, which later turned into jade stones scattering on land. 

Jade Dragon of Hongshan Culture (around 4000 BC — 3000 BC) — National Museum of China

Thousands of years later, Xi Wangmu, the goddess of Mount Kunlun, had given out ritual jade articles as important gifts, during her meetings with some accomplished kings, including Yellow Emperor, King Yao, King Shun, King Mu of Zhou, etc. 


Therefore, from everlasting, jade has been believed as the essence of the universe, magic stones that awarded by immortals and were able to connect heaven and earth, humans and deities.

Jade Article of Shijiahe Culture (around 2800 BC — 2000 BC) Carved with Human Figure — The Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Dongmaiying)


What jade articles had been used in grand worship ceremonies in ancient China?


In ancient China, six types of jade articles were used to worship heaven, earth, and four directions, based on ancient Chinese cosmology and astrology: the sky is round, the earth is square, and four mythical animals are guarding in four directions (Azure Dragon in East represents spring, Vermillion Bird in South as summer, White Tiger in West symbolizes autumn, and Black Tortoise in North as winter).


Click to read more about Ancient Chinese Astrology

Six Ritual Jade Wares in Ancient Sacrificial Ceremonies, Photo by Dongmaiying:


Why jade had been an important element of burial culture once in history?


Based on legendary origin and sacred functions, jade had been widely used as an important part of royal and nobles' burial cultures. 


In ancient China, it was believed that jade could protect one's body from decomposing and evils' attacks, and would help the deceased to fly to heaven or reborn in the future. 


Therefore, since the Neolithic period, jade articles had been placed in the dead's hands, mouth, face, chests, and back. 

Jade Articles Used to Cover on Face, Unearthed from Tomb of A Noble of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC) — Nanyang Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Later in well developed Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), emperors and nobles wore jade clothes after they were departed, which were consisted of jade tablets that sewed using gold, silver, or copper threads, based on their hierarchies. 

Click to Read More About Jade Burial Suit at Official Website of Xuzhou Museum


With the fall of the Han Empire, new Emperor Wen of Wei (reigned from 220 to 226) commanded to top using jade clothes in burial culture. 


How the jade symbolizes paramount authority in history? 


Sacred Origin of Chinese Character for Jade


In inscriptions on bones or tortoise shells of the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC — 1046 BC), "jade" was the same character as the "king" (王), meaning the connection of heaven, earth, and human. 


The ancient Chinese character for "emperor" is "皇", meaning white jade.


Since Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), jade has been written as "玉", as the king's token.

The Chinese Character "皇" (the right one) on Emperor Qin Shi Huang's Certificate (Hu Fu) to Deploy Forces — National Museum of China

Imperial Jade Seal or Yuxi


When Qin Shi Huang defeated the other six kingdoms of the Warring States Period and established the first unified feudal empire, the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC, he made an imperial seal using jade, in Chinese named Yuxi. 


Since then, his jade seal had passed on to different emperors in the next centuries, as the symbol of legit reign and paramount imperial power. 


Other nobles and officials would use jade seals too, as representatives of their status and authority; though patterns, decorations, and sizes followed hierarchies strictly. 


In the year 936, Emperor Li Congke's empire perished, he and his family burnt down themselves. Together with them, Qin Shi Huang's imperial jade seal disappeared as well.  


Afterward, successive emperors would make their own imperial jade seals, to represent their paramount authority.

Jade Seal of Queen of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD) — Shaanxi History Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Fengshan Jade Tablet


In history, some extraordinary emperors (such as Qin Shi Huang or Emperor Wu of Han) had held Feng Shan, the most sacred worship ceremony at Mount Tai, to show their great reigns were granted by the holy heaven.


During this holy rite, an important procedure was to carve the emperor's words on Jade Tablet (or Yuce) and bury it in specific locations, as a means to report accomplishments to heaven and to pray for blessings. 

Jade Tablet of Emperor Xuanzong's Feng Shan Ceremony (Held in 725) — Taipei Palace Museum

Hierarchical Jade Belt


Besides seal, Jade Belt (in Chinese Yu Dai) had been an important representative of one's social status from the Sui Dynasty (581 — 618) to the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644), when only emperors and highest rank officials could wear Jade Belts.


Lower-ranked officials could wear gold, silver, and copper belts, based on their different hierarchies. 


Meanwhile, patterns and numbers of tablets on the Jade Belt also followed hierarchy strictly.

13-Block Golden Jade Belt (Die Xie Jin Yu Dai) of Emperor Yang Guang (569 — 618), the Highest Format of Unearthed Jade Belt — Yangzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)


What are the aesthetics of Chinese jade?


From the Neolithic to Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC), different colors of jade were appreciated equally. 

Dragon Shape Jade of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)
— National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Since Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), white jade, especially the flawless mutton-fat jade (Yangzhi Yu), became the most valuable and popular type. 

Flying Deity Shape Jade of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Until the mid to late Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), green jadeite started to be largely imported to China and highly appreciated by the ruling class, especially Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 — 1908). Her favor to jadeite made it one of the most popular types very soon.

Jadeite Hairpin of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Shenyang Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)


What are the virtues that Chinese jade represents?


According to great philosopher Confucius, jade is the embodiment of 11 virtues: benevolence, wisdom, righteousness, politeness, loyalty, credibility, positivity, magnanimity, modesty, morality, and value.

Later, another scholar of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) added strength and courage. 


With Confucianism being the dominant ideology in ancient China, jade has been an important decoration that all decent people would wear, as representatives of one's social status and virtues.

Jade Made Hat Decoration of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)


What are popular jade articles in China?


After jade came from sacrificial offerings, royal and noble specialized appliances, to civilians' world, many things have been made using the virtuous stone. 

Some Common Chinese Jade Articles in History, Photo by Dongmaiying.

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