The Chou patriarchal system gradually collapsed in the latter half of the dynasty, known
as the Eastern Chou period, leaving a new upper class in its place. This period also saw
the development of thriving trade and commercial activity with remote regions, leading to
a vast increase in the supply of fine jade from the Kunlun Mountains in eastern Central
Asia. It was a time, moreover, of greater intellectual freedom and increased contact with
the pastoral tribes on the northern and western frontiers. The jade forms and designs of
these areas were consequently incorporated by the Chou. These new influences, together
with the development of iron tools and sophisticated lapidary techniques, brought jade
carving to an unequaled level of beauty and refinement.
During this period, ritual jades
were used for sacrifices, ceremonially exchanged between nobles, worn as adornments, and
interred in graves. The most important ritual jades were the kuei tablet and pi disc. The kuei was stylized from the
jade ko dagger and
retained the peaked top of its predecessor. In small- to medium-sized graves of Eastern
Chou nobles, the deceased are buried with stone kuei tablets and pi discs.
By the Han dynasty, jade kuei tablets were buried only in the tombs of emperors and
the kings of vassal states. At several sacrificial sites throughout the empire, kuei
tablets and pi discs are found placed together as a set. In successive dynasties,
the two are even fashioned together.
In its funerary function, jade was
placed in the mouth, hands, ears, nostrils and other orifices of the corpse. In many
tombs, the deceased is buried with a jade face cover or placed in a jade shroud. The
latter, commonly known as a jade suit,
was made of small jade plaques tied
together with wire or silk thread. The body was totally encased, except for the round
opening of a pi disc at the top of the head. It was believed that the hole served
as a conduit for the spirit to return to heaven. Pi discs were also laid on and
beneath the corpse, affixed to the top end of the coffin, and hung from its four corners.
Funerary pi were depicted on silk tapestries, lacquer coffins, tile, and stone, and
fashioned from various materials, such as pottery, wood, lacquer, and bronze. Some bronze pi
are cast with the characters tien-men (the gate of heaven). The wide use of pi
discs in the Warring States and Han dynasty tombs to conduct the soul to heaven continues
a practice apparent in Neolithic graves of the Liang-chu Culture as well. From
archeological evidence, we know that the Liang-chu Culture produced jade face covers and
lacquer cups and plates with jade inlay. The jade cups and chih vessels displayed in this exhibit were
probably used by the Chou and Han nobility to collect morning dew for making elixirs of
immortality. All of these pieces indicate that the ancient customs of the Yueh in the
Yangtze River valley were revived by the Eastern Chou and Han.
During these periods, it was also
customary for the nobility to wear elaborate sets of jade pendants to symbolize their high
social position. Most were hung from the waist and consisted of various kinds of huang pendants and pi discs,
as well as huan rings
and jade pendants with dragon and phoenix decor strung together with silk cord. Each is an
integral work of art by itself, with a noble quality that is further heightened when
joined as a set. On several of the pendants in this exhibit, the nose, ears, horns, jaw,
tongue, and limb joints of the dragon motif have disintegrated into full and round cloud
scrolls, gradually developing into the comma-shaped ku (millet grain) pattern. The
coiling lines perhaps represent the mystical power of the endlessly evolving universe.
When worn by a chun-tzu (gentleman),
pendants with these patterns were known as adornments of virtue (te-pei ). The chun-tzu walked
with particular dignity and composure when wearing this adornment.
Another jade adornment from this
period is the thumb ring. Originally used by archers for hooking bowstrings, they
developed as a decorative object during the late Warring States period and were further
refined in this function during the Han. Jade thumb-ring shaped pendants were sometimes
threaded together as adornments of virtue,
and most were worn separately.
Sometimes they are found in tombs with jade seals, huan rings, knives, and sword
fittings. Some examples of jade seals, jade sword fittings, and bronze knives with jade
handles and scabbards are displayed in this exhibit.
Overall, we witness the ascendance
of humanism and the decline of shamanism by the Eastern Chou period. Ritual objects for
sacrificial worship and burial are made from lower-grade materials and roughly fashioned,
serving simply to represent the fine jade objects that once served these purposes. The
most beautiful and refined jades of this time were used by high nobles during their
lifetime as offerings to their lords, adornments, and curios. These consisted of the many
objects mentioned above, as well as functional objects, such as the belt hooks, belt
plaques, hairpins, and combs found in this exhibit, and sculptural pieces, such as amulets
with winged beasts and figures and staff pommels in the form of turtledoves.