Nephrite Jade Carvings from Ancient ChinaNephrite Jade Carvings from Ancient China

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Nephrite Jade Carvings from Ancient China

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A Chinese ink drawing attributed to Guo Xu (1456-1528) shows the form of a man bowing with reverence to a tall rock. Perhaps twice his height, the stone's eccentric shape reminds the viewer of ancient burlwood. Shown bowing in respect, Mi Fu (1051-1107), an "eccentric" Chinese poet, painter, and calligrapher, believed rocks had souls and thus deserved respect.

Like fossils, the visual characteristics of carved stones can teach us about ancient worlds. In particular, the unique physical properties of nephrite have contributed not only to the value of the finished work but also to the subject matter and messages of the pieces themselves. This article will explore the stories told by nephrite jade carvings in Ancient China.

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 Museum, 1931, by bequest. Licensed under CC0 1.0.


The cicada is one of the most popular subjects for nephrite jade carvings (and most clearly tied to the afterlife). Cicada imagery in jade parallels the early Chinese people's belief in and respect for spiritual transformation. Much like the burial experience itself, cicada larvae live underground. They dig tunnels and subsist on tree root sap for as long as 17 years. Afterward, they emerge, shed their old skins, grow wings, sing their vibrant songs, reproduce, and die.

During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), the Chinese set thin, flat, jade cicadas on the tongues of the deceased. They also placed other jade "plugs" elsewhere on the body — a testament to life, death, and metaphysical transformation.

cicada tongue amulet
Jade tongue amulet in the form of a cicada (hanchan), 5.1 x 2.4 x 0.3 cm, China, Han Dynasty. Gift of Charles Lang Freer. National Museum of Asian Art. Licensed under CC0 1.0.

Hongshan Pig Dragons

Excavations at Hongshan Culture archaeological sites (4500 BCE-3000 BCE) in northern China have indicated that pigs were raised in these settlements. Thus, they may have inspired the unusual features of the Hongshan "pig dragon" nephrite jade carvings. Much like the bi, the basis of the form is a circular body, where a stylized dragon head and tail meet around a central hole. Dragon imagery frequently appears in nephrite carvings and is believed to represent life force and power.

pig dragon - jade carvings
Pig dragon, likely a replica. Author's collection.

Other Creatures in Nephrite Jade Carvings

Many other animals and mythical creatures appear in nephrite jade carvings.

Though not as sacred as the dragon, the frog was thought to bring health and good fortune.

one-legged frog carving
"Spittor" or one-legged frog, likely a replica. Author's collection.

Similarly, the Chinese unicorn symbolizes good luck and prosperity.

Chinese unicorn - jade carvings
Unicorn, likely a replica. Author's collection.

The mythical dragon turtle or bixi combines a dragon and a turtle. Bixi occupies a prominent position in feng shui because of its positive association with traits such as courage, determination, and fertility.

dragon turtle - bixi carving
Dragon turtle with unicorn horn, likely a replica. Author's collection.


Green, Jean M. Unraveling the Enigma of the Bi: The Spindle Whorl as the Model of the Ritual Disk. University of Hawai'I Press, Asian Perspectives. Vol 32, No. 1 (Spring 1993), pp. 105-124

Deborah Kelley-Galin, Ph.D.

Deborah Kelley-Galin is an independent researcher whose works focus on art as embodied cultural forms and repositories of history and knowledge. She holds a Masters Degree in Humanities from California State University and a Doctoral Degree in Art History from the University of South Africa where she worked under the supervision of Dr. Ania Krajewska.

As an active board member of the London Centre for Interdisciplinary Research, Deborah is actively engaged in international arts and humanities programs while teaching courses in the field of Humanities through the Colorado State College Community College System. An accomplished archaeological illustrator, many of her works can be found in publications focusing on the rock art located throughout the American Southwest.

Deborah lives with her family in the rustic town of Mancos, Colorado, located just outside Mesa Verde National Park. Many of her archaeological illustrations and other works of art can be viewed in the Mesa Verde National Park museum as well as that of the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument located nearby in Dolores, Colorado.

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