Depicted from Origins of Chinese Art and Craft
Jade articles fall into four major categories based on their functions.
1. Ritual jades
These were used in ritual ceremonies like offering sacrifice to deities and ancestors, tribute paying, military operations and diplomatic activities. According to the Record of Rites, ritual jades consisted of ‘six objects’ and ‘six tallies’. The six objects were bi (disc), cong (tubes with a square cross-section and a circular hole), gui zhong, huang and hu (tiger jade). They were used in the rite of offering sacrifice to heaven and earth as well as deities, forming the core of ancient Chinese ritual jades. The six tallies referred to four types of gui and two types of bi, which were worn by princes, dukes, marquises, counts, viscounts and barons as emblems of their noble status and identities.
Left: Bi, Centre: Huang, Right: Cong
Bi is a flat-jade disc with a round perforation in its centre that first appeared in the Neolithic Period. It is the earliest and also the most enduring jade article used in the ceremony of offering sacrifice to heaven. It was also a nice souvenir that can be worn as an ornament, as well as a burial item.
Huang is a semi-circular ritual jade object featuring complicated patterns. It is found in huge quantities and has enjoyed the longest popularity. It was used in offering sacrifice to the north. A legend has it that it was created by the ancients in imitation of the rainbow in the sky after rain.
Cong is a tube-shaped jade article with a square cross-section and a circular hole. It first emerged in the Neolithic Period and prevailed In the period of Liangzhu Culture. Scholars speculated that the jade’s square and circle represented heaven and earth and it was mainly used in heaven-worshipping practices. It is also argued that it is a symbol of wealth and power. Another contention was that it signified the female and reflects the ancient worship of the sex organ.
2. Jade tools
Jade tools first appeared in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. With the advert of bronze and iron articles, jade tools went into oblivion gradually. A fundamental reason was that jade tools were hard but brittle. Typical jade tools include jade axe, dagger, chisel, heavy ring and dagger-axe.
3. Jade utensils
Jade utensils such as jade gui (a round-mouthed food vessel with two or four loop handles) first appeared in the Shang Dynasty. Later, there also emerged jade incense burners, jade hairpins as well as jade treasures of the study.
4. Decorative jades
Decorative jades were mainly jade screens, jade animals, jade mountains, jade ruyi, jade jue (slit rings), jade huang and jade bangles. Jade-carved mountains depicted trees, houses and figures but garden and landscape were the dominant themes. Jade huang was one of the earliest jade ornaments. It appeared in the Neolithic Period. It is generally deemed to be related to the dragon. This can be inferred from the expression – ‘sui shen dai long (having the dragon about all the time)’. Here the dragon refers actually to the arc-shaped huang. Later it developed into a ritual article.
Jade axe (Neolithic Age)
Jade dagger (Neolithic Age)
Jade jue appeared in the Neolithic Period as the mother of earrings. As an emblem of peace and prosperity, jade ruyi was actually given out as gifts. It was believed to be the first gift ever given by the Chinese emperor to the English King.
Jade ruyi (Qing Dynasty): As a symbol of peace and prosperity, it was usually given out as gifts. It is said that the first gift given by the Chinese emperor to the English king was a jade ruyi.