, Research Paper
Jades in Chinese Culture and Religion
My hypothesis is that jades held some kind of religious significance to the Hongshan people.
A jade is a strongly colored stone that can be polished to a shine. As many people may know, jades are abundant in Chinese culture. Ancient Chinese considered jades to be sacred material. It is said that jades reflect the cosmological and religious views of the people of ancient China. The manufacture of jades can be traced back 12,000 years thanks to a discovery of jade-cutting implements from the Xiaogushan site. (Liu Junyong 1989) But even with a more conservative estimate Chinese have been working with jade for at least 8,000 years. (Teng Shu-p’ing; “A Theory of the Three Origins of Jade Culture in Ancient China”)
The Chinese believed that jade possessed “jingqi,” an essential force. They also felt that jade was the purest form of “yang,” a positive force. “The ancient Chinese believed that an empathy existed between things of similar nature, and thus chose jade, a stone with supernatural qualities, to perform rituals of worship. Jade objects were fashioned in a variety of shapes, often with special incised marking, to enhance the object’s power as a medium between man and the spiritual world.”(Teng Shu-p’ing; “A Theory of the Three Origins of Jade Culture in Ancient China”)
Jades are the only grave goods found at the Hongshan sites. These jades have no practical use in day to day life, and this shows that the Hongshan Culture valued intellect over material things. Commonly found jades are hooked cloud-shaped pendants, bi, tortoises, pig dragons, hoof shaped tubes, and animal figures. Many of the jades have ox-nose loops on the back which resemble button holes, that were most likely used to attach the jades to another object. These jades found in the burials are all large and heavy, and therefore should be seen as religious objects, and not day to day decorations. (Guo Dashun, “Understanding the Burial Rituals of the Hongshan Culture through Jade”)
Some believe that the hoof shaped tubes were used for binding hair, because they are found under the head. In ancient Chinese culture, hair styles and hair ornaments have been symbolic of a person’s status. The hooked cloud-shaped pendant and dragon are thought to have led to other Hongshan jade designs. (Guo Dashun, “Understanding the Burial Rituals of the Hongshan Culture through Jade”)
The actual jade-working techniques used by the Hongshan were chipping, grinding, and polishing. First the piece was chipped into shape, and then all of the rough edges were ground down until they were smooth and rounded. After this the jade would be polished to a luster. These processes were extremely time consuming, especially the grinding process. Decorations on the jades were used sparingly by the Hongshan artisans, lines were used only to accentuate heads of animals and wings of birds. Pieces were generally polished thoroughly as to bring out their best qualities. Shallow grooves were used by the more skilled artisans, in a style known as the grooving technique. It is when tiny grooves are made in the jade, that can be felt by the touch, but are not necessarily seen unless light is shown on the jade at certain angles. When light hits these grooves, it adds a sense of depth to the jade, creating a special glow. We can see that the Hongshan people had a deep understanding of jade, and knew the different properties and capabilities of jade.
It is also believed that the jade-working technology was dominated by the shamans, who also controlled the religious ceremonies. From this it has been inferred that the shamans were using the jades and other ritual objects to communicate with the spiritual world, and to reach a level of oneness with nature. (Teng Shu-p’ing; “A Theory of the Three Origins of Jade Culture in Ancient China”) Because the Chinese held beliefs that jade had an ‘essential vital force’ and also had an empathy between things of similar nature, we can explain the significance of jade as a worship object.
These jades were religious objects, as well as cultural artworks. Jades have not declined in importance in China, and they have maintained a constant presence in China’s history. They have also played an important role as an art form that allowed the different cultures of China to communicate with each other and to pass on the essence of virtue. These jades were large and heavy and only found in graves. By looking at the quality of workmanship, and how jades play an important role all throughout China’s history, I feel that it is evident that, although we will never know what the Hongshan people were truly like, we can assume that they held some kind of religious beliefs, and that they used jades to show their spirituality both in life, and death.