Elaborate Jade ‘Cong’ and ‘Bi’ as Grave Goods of the Liangzhu Culture
The Liangzhu culture (written in Chinese as 良渚文化) is a Neolithic culture that existed from around 3300 BC until 2300 BC. The archaeological evidence suggests that the Liangzhu culture possessed knowledge of silk weaving, lacquering, and the use of mortise-and-tenon joints in timber construction. Nevertheless, this culture is perhaps best known for their sophisticated jade artifacts.
Whilst other contemporary Chinese cultures also produced jade objects, theirs did not compare with those made by the Liangzhu. The jade objects of the Liangzhu culture are commonly believed to have been used for ritual purposes, and the two most prominent types of such objects are known as cong (琮) and bi (璧).
The Liangzhu culture lived along the lower reaches of Yangtze River Delta of China, in the area that is today Zhejiang Province. One source reports that over 50 sites belonging to this culture have been excavated over the years. According to another source, the Liangzhu culture has been identified at “approximately three hundred sites in northern Zhejiang and southern Jiangsu provinces, in the area surrounding Lake Tai, and in present-day Shanghai.”
Examples of areas where remains of the Liangzhu culture have been discovered include Yaoshan, Fanshan and Meirendi. The architectural remains of the Liangzhu culture include city walls, residences, docks, workshops, altars, and tombs. It is from the last of these, in particular those belonging to the elite, that many high quality jade artifacts have been found.
Jade in burial, Liangzhu culture (CC BY-SA 2.5)
A cong may most simply be described as a “squared tube with a round hole”. There are two types of cong – single-section ones, as well as longer types. The cong is said to have been a symbol of supreme power, and many of these objects have been found to be large, even, and of a symmetrical shape. The squared corners of the cong are usually decorated with face-like designs. It has been speculated that the Liangzhu may have attributed some sort of magical or protective powers to these designs. As for the round hole within the cong, it has been suggested that they were bored with a tubular drill, perhaps a bamboo shaft.
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Jade cong from Liangzhu culture, Neolithic Period (3300 - 2200 BC), lower Yangzi River Valley (CC BY-SA 2.5)
The bi, on the other hand, are “wide discs with a center hole”. Thousands of bi have been unearthed from tombs of the Liangzhu elite. The best examples of bi are perfectly circular in circumference. Those of lesser quality, however, are irregular in shape. Additionally, bi would normally bear traces of saw and drill marks on their surfaces. By contrast, the best bi would have such traces completely polished away, leaving behind surfaces “buffed to a lustrous shine”. Regardless of the quality of the bi, the production of the objects was an extremely laborious and time-consuming process, and it is likely that only the elites of the Liangzhu culture could have afforded it.
A Han Dynasty bi, 16 cm (6.3 inches) in diameter. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Unclear Burial Artifacts
It is unclear what the cong and bi were used for. Based on their discovery in elite tombs, it has been commonly thought that they were used for ritual purposes by the Liangzhu elites. Although we no longer know why the cong and bi were buried with the dead Liangzhu elite, it is likely that they had an influence on later Chinese mortuary practice. This is because the burial of jade objects with the dead continued well into Chinese history.
For example, as late as the Han Dynasty (206 BC – AD 220), jade disks were placed above the head, on the chest, and below the feet of deceased Chinese elites. One suggestion is that the jade disks were meant to guide the soul of the deceased into heaven. Another suggestion is that jade was believed to prevent the decomposition of the flesh.
Jade Bi Disc in Xuzhou Museum. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Speculation regarding the function(s) of the cong and bi is not limited to modern times, as these objects have intrigued the Chinese from different periods of history as well. For example, during the Qing Dynasty, the Qianlong Emperor speculated that a bi he owned was in a fact a bowl stand, and decided to inscribe a poem onto the object, the first two lines of which are as follows:
This translates as “It is said there were no bowls (wan) in antiquity / but if so, then where did this stand come from? It is said that this stand dates to later times / but the jade is antique and not of modern stuff.” The Emperor goes on to demonstrate his knowledge about bowls and their stands.
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Finally, Qianlong reaches the conclusion that the bi in his possession is a bowl stand, though the bowl accompanying it is no longer in existence. Thus, the Emperor wrote, “不可無椀置，定窰選一枚。”, meaning “As one cannot show a stand without a bowl / We have selected a Ding-kiln ceramic for it.”
Jade bi from the Liangzhu culture. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Featured image: Jade Cong, c. 2500 B.C.E., Liangzhu culture, Neolithic period, China (British Museum) Photo source: (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
By Wu Mingren
Art Institute Chicago, 2016. Cong. [Online]
Available at: http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/69711
Cultural China, 2014. Jade Cong. [Online]
Available at: http://history.cultural-china.com/en/54History12796.html
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Available at: http://www.chinaculture.org/gb/en_artqa/2003-09/24/content_39174.htm
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Available at: http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5805/
Smithsonian Institution, 2016. Liangzhu Jade Bi. [Online]
Available at: http://www.asia.si.edu/explore/china/jades/bi.asp
Smithsonian Institution, 2016. The Liangzhu Culture. [Online]
Available at: http://www.asia.si.edu/explore/china/jades/culture.asp
The BBC, 2014. A History of the World in 100 Objects, Episode 90: Jade Bi. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/transcripts/episode90/
The British Museum, 2016. Bi. [Online]
Available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=258946&partId=1&museumno=1937,0416.140&page=1
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. Ritual Object (Bi). [Online]
Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1986.112/
Zhejiang Provincial Museum, 2009. Jade Cong. [Online]
Available at: http://www.zhejiangmuseum.com/en/collections/sq_yz.jsp