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.
Jade Meaning and Symbolization in Chinese Culture
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 the great philosopher Confucius, Jade represents 11 essential 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 Jade of China?
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 remaining 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, gave out ritual jade articles as meaningful gifts during her meetings with some accomplished kings, including the Yellow Emperor, King Yao, King Shun, King Mu of Zhou, etc.
Therefore, from everlasting, jade has been believed to be the essence of the universe, the magic stones that were awarded by immortals and were able to connect heaven and earth, humans and deities, and bring good fortune and protection.
Jade Article of Shijiahe Culture (around 2800 BC — 2000 BC) Carved with Human Figure — The Art Institute of Chicago (Photo by Dongmaiying)
What had Jade Articles 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).
Six Ritual Jade Wares in Ancient Sacrificial Ceremonies, Photo by Dongmaiying:
Why had Jade been an Important Element of Burial Culture once in History?
Based on legendary origin and sacred functions, jade had been widely used as an essential part of royal and nobles' burial cultures.
In ancient China, it was believed that jade could protect one's body from decomposing and evil attacks and would help the deceased fly to heaven or be reborn in the future.
Therefore, since the Neolithic period, jade articles have 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 the well-developed Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), emperors and nobles wore jade clothes after they departed, consisting of jade tablets that sewed using gold, silver, or copper threads based on their hierarchies.
With the fall of the Han Empire, the new Emperor Wen of Wei (who reigned from 220 to 226) commanded to stop using jade clothes in burial culture.
How Did the Jade Symbolize Paramount Authority?
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 humans.
The ancient Chinese character for "emperor" is "皇", meaning white jade.
Since Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), jade in Chinese 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 following centuries as the symbol of legitimate reign and supreme imperial power.
Other nobles and officials would use jade seals as representatives of their status and authority, though patterns, decorations, and sizes followed hierarchies strictly.
In 936, Emperor Li Congke's empire perished, and he and his family burnt down. Together with them, Qin Shi Huang's imperial jade seal also disappeared.
Afterward, successive emperors would make their 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
Throughout history, some extraordinary emperors (such as Qin Shi Huang or Emperor Wu of Han) held Feng Shan, the most sacred worship ceremony at Mount Tai, to show that the holy heaven granted their great reigns.
During this holy rite, a vital procedure was to carve the emperor's words on Jade Tablet (or Yuce) and bury them in specific locations to report accomplishments to heaven and pray for blessings.
Hierarchical Jade Belt
Besides the seal, Jade Belt (in Chinese Yu Dai) had been an essential 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.
Based on their hierarchies, lower-ranked officials could wear gold, silver, and copper belts.
Meanwhile, patterns and numbers of tablets on the Jade Belt also followed hierarchy strictly.
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 pendant 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 was largely imported to China and highly appreciated by the ruling class, especially Empress Dowager Cixi (1835 — 1908). Her favor for jadeite soon made it one of the most popular types.
Jadeite Hairpin of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Shenyang Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)
What Are the Virtues that Chinese Jade Represents?
According to the great philosopher Confucius, jade embodies 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 was an important decoration that all decent people would wear as representatives of their 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 Jewelry and Articles in China?
After jade evolved out of sacrificial offerings and noble specialized appliances and entered the civilian world, many objects have been made using the virtuous stone.
Some Chinese Jade Jewelry and Articles in History, Photo by Dongmaiying.
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