Recent archeological data has shown that as early as the middle Neolithic period (ca.
7000-5000 B.C.) three major jade-producing cultures existed in China, each distantly
separated from the other in a tripartite arrangement. They were the Ch'a-hai/Hsing-lung-wa
Culture in the Liao River basin; the Ho-mu-tu Culture of the Ning-shao Plains in the lower
Yangtze River area; and the Lao-kuan-t'ai Culture in the middle Yellow River area. By the
late Neolithic period (ca. 5000-2000 B.C.), these three regions had developed into several
different archeological cultures. From the characteristics of the jades of this period,
however, it has been possible to identify three dominant tribal groups. Their geographical
distribution corresponds to the adjacent territories of the Eastern Yi, Miao-Man and
Hua-Hsia tribal groups, of which we learn from ancient written records. The jades in this
exhibition represent only a few of the many cultures of this period.
The Eastern Yi clan occupied the
region of northwest China, with its southern periphery extending south to present-day
Hopeh and Shantung provinces. The Hung-shan jades are typical Yi jades. "Some other
jades of similar style also belong to the Yi tradition, though the cultures to which they
belong have yet to be determined. The preponderance of animal figures, especially insect
larvae, pupae, and mammals in what appear to be embryonic form, may be explained by the
belief then in the transformative and regenerative life forces of the animals represented.
On many pieces, two or more types of animals are found joined together. On others, the
mystical power of the animals is expressed in abstract form.
The jades of the Liang-chu Culture are the most important ones of the Miao-Man tribal
group. The round pi
discs and square ts'ung ritual tubes left by the Liang-chu Culture reflected China's earliest
known concept of the cosmos, in which heaven was believed to be round and the earth
square. Both were important ritual objects placed at altars to channel the spirits of the
gods and ancestors during worship. Some were etched with ciphers used by the shamans to
communicate with the other world. A jade pi disc on display in this exhibit is
faintly etched on its obverse side with one such symbol, depicting a bird atop a
sacrificial altar. On ts'ung ritual tubes, huang pendants, awl-shaped jades, and
three-pronged jades, we find a variety of small- and large-eyed mask motifs representing
the trinity of the gods, ancestors, and divine animals, as well as the faith of the
Liang-chu people that each could transform into the other. In addition to the pi,
ts'ung, and other worship jades, the Liang-chu produced a variety of emblematic jades,
like the yueh axe. An
early prototype of the kuei tablet, this object identified its bearer as a member of the ruling
The dominant culture in the southern part of the Eastern Yi territory was the Shantung
Lung-shan Culture. This culture inherited from the Eastern Yi its intense faith in bird
totems and the tradition of wearing jade chueh earrings as a symbol of the wearer's connection with the
heavens. It also absorbed from the Liang-chu Culture the motifs of the ox-horn deity crest
and mask with glaring eyes and protruding fangs. The influences of the "Yi" and
"Yueh" traditions were thus combined to create an entirely new form. When the
Lung-shan culture migrated from the Shantung Peninsula to the middle Yangtze River, it
influenced the development of the deity-ancestor mask motif on jades of the Shih-chia-ho
Culture in that region. This motif, a typical example of which appears in this exhibit,
reoccurs in silhouette in other display items, though without birds, ox horns, or
protruding fangs. This is probably due to the lesser status of the gods depicted.
The third major Neolithic tribal group, the Hua-Hsia, was mainly distributed along the
upper and middle reaches of the Yellow River in western China, and extended as far south
as present-day Szechwan. Though the Hua-Hsia jade tradition can be traced back to the
Lao-kuan-t'ai Culture, it reached its apogee later. The plain pi discs and ts'ung
ritual tubes in this exhibit were produced by the Ch'i-chia, one of the major cultures of
the Hua-Hsia. These pieces show that the Miao-Man concept of a round heaven and square
earth was shared by the people of this region. Ch'i-chia jades include the powerful kuei
tablet and large knife, as well as distinctively shaped ya-chang blades and jade batons with bowstring decor.
All are large, unadorned, and bladed objects, corroborating ancient accounts that jade was
used to make weapons in the time of Huang-ti, the chieftain of the Hua-Hsia tribal group.
In about the 21st
century B.C., following a long period of development and integration among the three
tribal groups, the Hsia house of the Hua-Hsia established the first Chinese kingdom in the
middle Yellow River region. The kingdom was surrounded by many other states. It is
recorded that "When King Yu unified the vassals at Mt. Tu, there were ten thousand
states that used jade and silk. "In ancient times, jade (yu ) and silk (po) were used together as ritual objects
for worship and diplomatic meetings between states. For this reason, "yu-po"
(jade-silk) has come to mean "peace" and "friendship" in modern Chinese.