Among the ancient
cultures around the world, the great Yangtze and Yellow
Rivers of East Asia gave birth to the longest and one
of the world's most vital civilizations, that of China.
Chinese forebears accumulated knowledge about husbandry,
farming, stone grinding, and pottery making. Five or
six thousand years ago, following the gradual stratification
of society, a unique ritual system based on shamanism
also developed. Rituals made it possible to pray to
the gods for good fortune and to maintain a system of
human relations. The use of concrete ritual objects
is a manifestation of these thoughts and ideals.
Although areas with jade carving appeared in several
places on the Eurasian continent toward the end of the
Paleolithic era, the jade cultures in East Asia during
the late Neolithic were exceptional. In fact, the original
meaning of the character for "ritual (li)"
in Chinese was "to serve the gods with jade". Archaeological
evidence shows that, compared to pottery, which reflects
the natural living environment or prevailing customs,
pre-historic Chinese jade objects display more distinct
regional styles. They also fit the geographic distribution
of three major clans of tribes mentioned in ancient
documents, which is evidence that jade objects are indeed
representatives of China's spiritual past.
Myths about the birth of humanity from birds permeated
the coastal areas along eastern China. As a result,
religious art from this region is richer in concrete
and abstract animal patterns. Most of the jade carvings
from inland western regions of China tend to be simpler,
but the rich resources of the loess highlands yielded
pottery painted with a wide palette of colors. Shapes
of and patterns on both jade and pottery objects as
well as altars and tombs for sacrificing to the ancestral
gods were round and square to symbolize the ancestral
view of the universe as being an all-encompassing circular
heavens and the square four corners of the earth.
Already at the dawn of Chinese civilization, cultural
practices such as worship and an appreciation of jade
had already matured. Through the integration of clans,
diverse cultures gradually came to produce a similar
common form. Passed down through the ages, jades in
the form of ritual objects, as opposed to pottery, bronzes,
lacquer wares, and porcelains, even more so came to
serve as a medium for the notion of ritual.