From their long experience in making stone implements, people in ancient
times developed an appreciation for the exceptional durability and luminous beauty of
jade. They believed that this mineral was a sacred material that embodied an
essential vital force. Jade was carved into ritual objects based on the
cosmological views and religious faith of the time. The shapes, designs, and markings of
these objects were believed to channel supernatural powers that could assist in the
communication between the mortal and celestial worlds. From the middle Neolithic age to
the Han dynasty, a period spanning more than 6,000 years (ca. 6000 B.C. to A.D. 220), the
art of jade carving in China developed with the evolving political, economic, and social
climate to form a jade venerating tradition that attributed a vital force and
the power to channel spirits of the other world to this precious mineral. This vast epoch
may be called the classic period of Chinese jade.
From the Six Dynasties (220-589) onward, social change and the rise of Buddhism brought
upon the gradual decline of jade veneration. The art of jade carving was revived from the
Sung dynasty (960-1279), but by then it had lost most of its former significance. Nearly
all of the jades exhibited here are exceptional pieces from the classic period. The traits
of each period within this extensive epoch are described separately in the individual
The original meaning of the word ritual was to serve the gods with
jade. The earliest character for shaman (wu) tools used to draw circles superimposed at right
angles"". From this
we may deduce that shamans perhaps monopolized the technology for making circular pi discs, and thus had the
exclusive power to present sacrifices to the gods and ancestral spirits. The round shape
of the pi is said to derive from the circular path that the sun follows in the sky.
The central hole of the disc represents the eternally fixed Pole Star and the principle of
the Absolute (tai-chi ) or Absolute Oneness (tai-i ) in Chinese philosophy. In
the beginning, jade pi discs and tsung ritual tubes were used together for
sacrificial rites and at court ceremonies. Later, the kuei tablet replaced the tsung
in this pairing. The pi was also the highest emblem of noble status as well as the
most important funerary object for guiding the spirit of the deceased to heaven. Its role
was so fundamental that one could say the pi permeated the entire spirit of all
jade ritual systems during the classic period.
The circular shape of the pi disc perhaps conveyed the equilibrium, symmetry,
completion, and perfect beauty that the ancients saw in the path of the sun across the
sky. It was also the most important ritual object for assisting in the communication with
the gods and ancestors. Because of its profound cultural significance, the pi
influenced the development of many classical jades. Its circular motif recurs in the arch,
conical, and cylindrical forms of many other jade objects, as well as in the round spiral
designs with which they are often adorned. These designs symbolize the eternal cycle of
the primeval force of the universe. From accounts of a struggle between the states of
Chin and Chao over a he-shih pi disc in 283 B.C., we know that an unblemished pi
disc was not only worth the price of several cities, but that a king would fast for many
days and receive the disc at a ceremony of the highest grandeur.
This exhibit includes several pi discs of great beauty and significance. All were
probably used in important ancient rituals to assist in communication with the gods.
Withstanding the test of time, they retain all of their former mystique and vitality. One
of the jade pi discs from the Liang-chu Culture (ca. 3200-2000 B.C.) is etched with
the marking of a bird perched on an altar. This suggests to us that the Sun
Bird was the totem of Neolithic tribes inhabiting the lower Yangtze River valley. Up
until the Han dynasty, pi discs were not only frequently hung at the imperial
palace, but treasured jade pi discs were also objects of veneration.
The pi disc in this exhibit carved with the characters for perpetual
happiness (chang-lo )
also includes a dragon and tiger design on the inner rim and a dragon, tiger, phoenix, and
turtle-and-snake pair (the four spirit animals) arranged clockwise along the
outer rim. These are both perhaps expressions of the ancient belief that the universe
revolved around the earth.
Both in their shape and profound decorations on their surface, pi discs convey a
yearning for immortality. The ancients who used them sought to worship the greatness of
nature with objects made of a material that best embodied this quality. In high antiquity,
it was believed that similar things generated an empathy between each other. Ultimately
they sought to attain a state of oneness and harmony between man and nature.
The appreciation of archaic Chinese jades involves more than just the enjoyment of their
solemn aloofness and brilliant luster. One must look beyond their physical
properties--what can be seen and touched--to the metaphysical spirit that they embody.
This spirit is born of the Chinese veneration of heaven and ancestors. It grows moreover
from a culture that seeks to live in harmony with nature. In presenting this selection of
refined jades, appealing to many different tastes, this special exhibition hopes to share
with viewers this age-old Chinese tradition of placing equal importance on the
metaphysical as well as the physical.