Paved with jade

By Zhao Xu | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-03 09:02
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Two long pieces of ornamental jade, from the burial ground of a vassal king, dating to early Warring States Period (475-221 BC). [Photo provided by Nanjing Museum/China Daily]

For China, the first millennium BC, characterized as much by artistic and cultural brilliance as by political volatility, represents a long road toward a unified country — a road embellished with artful pieces carved out of the stone, Zhao Xu reports.

When one of Confucius' disciples asked him whether it was jade's rarity that made it such a treasure, he was categorical: "Jade emanates a soft luster comparable to the subtle sense of benevolence exuded by a noble soul. That's why."

Benevolence, the first and foremost thing that Confucius was looking for in a man, was also the ultimate benchmark he set for a ruler.

Confucius, whom generations of Chinese have venerated as the sage of the ages, lived between 551 and 479 BC. A little more than two centuries before he was born, two vassal kings were interred in a grand burial ground in what is today the city of Sanmenxia in Henan province.

There they lay in separate tombs largely undisturbed for 2,800 years until archaeologists excavated them in 1990 and 1991. Although their identities remain unclear, both are believed to have once ruled the vassal state of Guo in the final years of the Western Zhou Dynasty (c. 11th century-771 BC). They also had at least one other thing in common: Both chose to go into the afterlife literally buried in jade, all created with consummate artistry.

One had his coffin covered and filled with every imaginable type of ritualistic, decorative and funerary jade. A jade-hilted iron sword may be symbolic of the man's political and military power; other items were there to preserve his body, or simply to serve as objects of beauty for an afterlife spent in the lap of luxury.

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