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]

Wearing multitiered jade necklaces, he had jade pieces placed on top of his facial features, inside his mouth and fists, and even between his toes.

Some jade pieces from this burial ground, where other members of the Guo royal family were also laid to rest, are now on view at the prestigious Nanjing Museum, founded 90 years ago. These include jade necklaces extreme in their extravagance and superbly vivid jade animal figures.

The exhibition, titled An Epic of Chinese Jade, seeks to chronicle an enduring Chinese phenomenon with nearly 700 exhibits culled from 44 museums across the country.

The Chinese jade story goes back more than 9,000 years, when jade pieces were made in a northeastern corner of what would become China. From there the story's narrative meanders through time and space for the next seven millennia, before approaching its first illustrious period, which lasted between the eighth century BC and the early first century.

The jade pieces that came out of the Guo rulers' tombs are representative of what the Chinese jade carvers living at the start of that period were capable of making. Yet to better understand what at first glance may seem like a quaint fetish, one needs to cast an eye back to the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty in mid-11th century BC. Some researchers say 1046 BC was when Dixin, the last ruler of the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC), died. He killed himself in a fire that also reduced his pleasure palace to ash.

"For half a millennium, the Shang ruling class practiced a brutal form of human sacrifice, and hundreds of people could be slaughtered in one fell swoop," says Zuo Jun, curator of the Nanjing Museum exhibition. "This situation greatly changed during the Zhou Dynasty as ritualistic jade was increasingly offered to heaven in place of slaves and captives."

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