owl mask - jade carvings
Mask or other representation of transformation, likely a replica. Author’s collection.

Symbols of Transformation

Chinese nephrite jade carvings reflect the ever-present awareness and influence of transformation. The Chinese wore symbols of transformation as jewelry. Confucius (551-479 BCE) mentions them in the Book of Rites, observing how one could identify an individual by the melodious sounds their jade girdle pendants made as they walked. However, perhaps nowhere is the awareness of transformation more evident than in the small nephrite jade carvings associated with burials and the “end of life” transformation.


A bi is an ancient Chinese ritual burial object — a disc with a hole in the center, usually made from jade — symbolizing heaven. The presence of nephrite jade bi in ancient burials has led some scholars to believe they not only reflect beliefs in the afterlife but also pay homage to the importance of weaving and spinning within the culture. The historian Jean M. Green (1993) writes that the discoidal spindle whorl, the flywheel on the shaft of a hand-held spindle, is linked historically to the bi (105).

jade bi
Jade bi, 13.7 × 3.2 cm, China, 3rd Millennium BCE. Henry Walters, Baltimore, 1916, by purchase; Walters Art