Jades of the Liangzhu Culture: An introduction

The Liangzhu Culture has been dated by Carbon-14 and thermoluminescence tests to the Neolithic period, between circa 3400 to circa 2200 BCE. Extending along the Southeastern coast of China, from above Hangzhou Bay, around Shanghai and into Southern Jiangsu Province, the Liangzhu Culture is known mainly for the skillful production of jade objects. Although jades from the Liangzhu Culture were acquired by early collectors such as the Qianlong emperor and Charles Lang Freer, scientific excavations definitively dating these jades did not occur until the early 1980’s.

Jade is a hard stone, that ranges between 6 and 6.5 on Mohs’ scale, and therefore very difficult to work.1 Many dislike the term “carved jade” as jade must be abraded by using sand and a tool, such as a bamboo rod to slowly rub away areas of jade. However, the term “carve” will be used to describe the working of jade throughout this essay and catalogue for convenience sake. Due to the inherent difficulty in carving jade, the fine jade objects of the Liangzhu Culture reflect a stratified, technologically advanced society, where many worked to produce luxury grave goods for a powerful few.

The Liangzhu Culture produced large quantities of jade objects, but they fit into a few specific categories: ritual objects, tools or weapons, and ornaments.

Neolithic Period, Liangzhu Culture (ca. 3400 – ca. 2200 BCE)

Ritual objects consist of cong, or tubular prismatic forms with standard mask decoration often described as a shaman grasping a beast (fig. 2A), and bi, or discs with a hole in the middle (see cat. nos. 2B-D). Cong were indigenous to Liangzhu Culture, while bi discs appeared in other cultures but never in the same numbers or with such central importance. In Zhou Dynasty texts, cong were thought to represent the earth, while the bi disc represented the sun, however more recently scholars have rejected this theory. Elizabeth Childs-Johnson puts forth the idea that the cong “is actually related to the concept of a world delimited by four directions” and the bi is connected to sun worship.2 As Jessica Rawson states, bi discs of the Liangzhu Culture were large and thick — too large to function as personal ornament — therefore, “Discs that were assumed by later scholars to be of integral importance in all chinese rituals seem to have been fully developed only by the Liangzhu people.”3 Although we still do not know the function and meaning of these two ritual jades, we do know they were of great importance in Liangzhu tombs, often surrounding the body in the grave with the finest bi placed over the chest of the deceased.

Weapons and tools consisted of yue and fu axes (see cat. no. 2G), sometimes with jade haft fittings, as well as awls, adzes, and stepped axes (see cat. nos. 2E, 2F, 2K). The weapons and tools were not always made of jade, although jade tools seemed to hold greater importance. In Tomb 20 at Fanshan, Yuhang, Zhejiang Province, a jade yue axe was placed on the shoulder of the deceased, while twenty-four stone axes were piled at his feet.

Ornamental jades, such as plaques, bracelets, beads or fittings, (see cat. nos. 2I-N) and necklaces are numerous in Liangzhu tombs. These jades also prove mysterious in terms of how they were worn and what they signified. Bracelets seem straightforward and in Tomb 144 at Fuquanshan, the body was found with bracelets on his arms, however bell-shaped pendants (possibly like cat. no. 2I) were found suspended at the waist and beads were discovered beside the body with awl-shaped ornaments. Another tomb at 13 Fuquanshan revealed a necklace and headdress plaque (similar to cat. no. 2M) found by the right shoulder of the body. “Since the pieces were not actually on the body, it has been proposed that they may originally have adorned a wooden statue of a deity.”4 Therefore it is still difficult to state with certainty the purpose of many Liangzhu jade ornaments.

The creamy white color of many Liangzhu jades is caused by a chemical change in the stone. Because evidence of fire worship and grave fires were found at many Liangzhu tombs, it was speculated that burning could have caused Liangzhu jades to alter. It was also theorized that Liangzhu lapidaries burned jade before working it in order to soften the stone and make it slightly more pliable. A published investigation into altered Chinese jades explores the chemical phenomenon of Han Dynasty jades that have altered, however the findings should be applicable to Liangzhu jades as well. 5 The scientific examination found that jade altered under alkaline environments, causing “leaching and subsequent re-crystallization of the mineral.” The proximity to a decomposing body, according to this study, would cause jade to alter and turn a creamy white color.

Although the Liangzhu Culture seemed to die out, leaving masterworks of jade underground for millennia without passing on the symbolism so integral to the culture, small unadorned cong were produced during the Western Zhou Dynasty while the Eastern Zhou and Han dynasties saw a resurgence in the popularity of jade objects, especially the bi disc, which became lavishly carved. It is likely that during the Southern Song Dynasty, whose capital was only 18 kilometers from Liangzhu itself, archaic jades were discovered because they were copied in ceramic form, finished with subtle celadon glazes that mimicked the color of jade. Since then, cong-shaped vases have been produced, even into the Qing Dynasty, but with trigram, taking the place of the Liangzhu mask décor. In fact, the shapes of the cong and bi, archaic forms that are still mysterious in terms of their original significance and function, have come to represent the continuity of Chinese culture through their repetition and imitation.

Alexandra Tunstall

(Reprinted from Weisbrod 30 Years, 2002)

1 Jade includes more specific terms such as nephrite and jadeite. Jadeite has a glassier, translucent finish, while nephrite is more opaque. When jade is referred to in terms of the Liangzhu Culture, it is nephrite which is implied as that was the only type of jade available to that culture.

2 Childs-Johnson, p. 57–8.

3 Rawson, Mysteries of Ancient China, p. 54.

4 Huang, “Liangzhu Jades in the Shanghai Museum," p. 36.

5 Aerts, Janssens, and Adams, “A Chemical Investigation of Altered Chinese Jade Art Objects,” Orientations, November, 1995.