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Liangzhu Culture burial under Jade, Nanjing Museum. (Gary Lee Todd/CC BY-SA 4.0)

SCIENCE & TECH: The Mysterious Origin of the Jade Discs

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In ancient China, dating back to at least 5,000 BC, large stone discs were placed on the bodies of Chinese aristocrats.  Their original function still eludes scientists, as does the way in which they were made, considering they were carved out of Jade, an extremely hard rock.

Jade is a precious hardstone that is made of different silicate minerals and is often used to make vases, jewelry and other ornaments.  It is usually colorless, but contamination from other materials, such as chrome, normally gives it an emerald greenish color. It comes in two main types: nephrite and jadeite. Given the hardness of the stone, Jade is an extremely difficult material to work with, which makes it perplexing as to why the ancient Neolithic inhabitants of China chose this stone.

Since they were made in a period of time in which no metal tools have been found, archaeologists believe they were probably made through brazing and polishing – this would have taken an extraordinarily long time to achieve. So the obvious question here is, why would they go to so much effort?

Liangzhu Legacy: Echoes of an Advanced Civilization

The Jade Discs , often called bi discs, are round flat rings created from nephrite by the Liangzhu culture, which thrived during the late Neolithic Period from around 3300 to 2300 BC.

Archaeological findings of the Liangzhu culture reveal their mastery of silk weaving, lacquering, and mortise-and-tenon joints in timber construction. However, their true distinction lies in the remarkable sophistication of their jade artifacts, notably the cong and bi discs. These jade objects, believed to be designed for rituals, set the Liangzhu apart, with the bi discs showcasing intricate craftsmanship and laborious production processes. Many of these artifacts contained symbols relating to the sky. The Chinese word for jade is ‘YU’ which means pure, treasure, and noble.

Liangzhu Culture burial under Jade, Nanjing Museum. (Gary Lee Todd/ CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Discovered in many elite tombs spanning the Hongshan culture (3800 – 2700 BC), and continuing into the Liangzhu culture (3000 – 2000 BC), the jade stones were prominent placed on the body of the deceased: above the head, on the chest, and below the feet of 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 discs likely played a role in rituals or practices associated with the transition to the afterlife.

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The legacy of this culture lives on through over 50 excavated sites in China’s Zhejiang Province, displaying remnants of their advanced architecture, including walls, residences, docks, workshops, and tombs adorned with these exquisite jade treasures.

The Liangzhu culture was the last Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta of China. The archaeological ruins of Liangzhu were declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.  (Alchetron/CC BY SA)

The Liangzhu culture was the last Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta of China. The archaeological ruins of Liangzhu were declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.  (Alchetron/ CC BY SA )

Divine Icons or Cosmic Symbols?

It is logical to assume that the importance of these stone discs may be connected to their god or gods. Others have suggested that they are a representation of the sun or the wheel, reflecting the cyclic nature of life and death .

The presence of celestial symbols on the discs could suggest a connection to heavenly forces or the cyclic progression of life, death, and rebirth.  These symbols, which might denote stars, constellations, or other celestial bodies, could signify a belief in the continuity of existence beyond death. By placing these signs on the discs, the Liangzhu culture could have been expressing their understanding of life’s perpetual journey through various phases.

Another plausible explanation draws parallels between the Jade Discs and ancient rituals of submission and power dynamics. Historic records reveal that these discs played a role in moments of conflict. During a war, the loser had to hand over the Jade Discs as a sign of submission to the conqueror. This underscores the exceptional value placed on the discs and suggests they carried a significance that extended beyond mere adornment. It raises intriguing questions about their potential role in diplomacy, societal hierarchy, and the intricate interplay of power and ritual.

Example of a perforated Jade Bi disc with dragons. Such discs were ritual objects. (Public Domain) Right: This particular disc is a symbol of wealth, military power, and religious authority. Such discs have been found in tombs belonging to high officials and aristocrats, and required much skill and patience to produce. (Editor at Large/CC BY-SA 2.5)

Example of a perforated Jade Bi disc with dragons. Such discs were ritual objects. ( Public Domain ) Right: This particular disc is a symbol of wealth, military power, and religious authority. Such discs have been found in tombs belonging to high officials and aristocrats, and required much skill and patience to produce. (Editor at Large/ CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Some have suggested that the Jade Discs are related to the mysterious  story of the Dropa stones , also disc-shaped stones, which supposedly date back 12,000 years and were said to have been found in a cave in the mountains of Baian Kara-Ula on the border between China and Tibet. Is it possible that the Liangzhu Jade stones are related to the Dropa stones

The Smithsonian Institute shows a great interest in Jade Discs and has invested a lot into researching them. Their collection consists of more than 150 discs.

Jade discs have been a puzzle to archaeologists for centuries, but because they were made in a period of time when no writing existed, their meaning is still unknown and the question of what their significance was and why they were created remains unanswered.

Top image: Jade bi disc, China, Neolithic period. Source: Cleveland Museum of Art/ CC0

 By John Black





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