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The Mysterious Jade Discs of China


Al Kowsky

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I stumbled on an interesting article published by Ancient Origins & authored by John Black, "The Mysterious Origin of the Jade Discs". Along with the article is a short but informative video from YouTube. These unusual artifacts are called Bi Discs by the Chinese, & they all have one thing in common, a hole in the center. The earliest Bi Discs were made by the Hong Shan culture over 5,000 years ago & have no carved decoration. Later cultures began carving symbolic motifs on the discs, some of which are very elaborate. It was the custom in ancient China to bury elite members with jade objects, especially Bi Discs. The discs could be buried on top of the corpse, underneath it, or around it. Pictured below are two photos of Hong Shan burials in N.E. China, with jade objects, including Bi Discs in the grave.

HongShanburialsites.jpg.62b73a03b7ca4f18685c25c10156a4b5.jpg

https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts/jade-discs-00943

At one time I had an extensive collection of Chinese jade artifacts most of which I sold at auction by Freeman's in Philadelphia, PA, & Heritage in Dallas, TX. Pictured below are some of the Bi Discs ☺️.

JadeBidiscHanDynastyExAWKCollection.jpg.103effe0fcddd9c1f68c5c50a6114e68.jpg

Chinese jade Bi Disc, Han Dynasty, 206 BC-220 AD, 4.125 in. diameter. Decorated with a sprouting grain pattern.

JadeBiDisc18thcen.ExAWKCollection.jpg.5138de9b52130d8d50085123b8916f36.jpg

Chinese jade Bi Disc of off-white color, Qing Dynasty, early 18th century, 2.24 in. diameter. The top view is decorated with cloud scrolls & bovine horns, & the bottom side has a grain pattern.

MingDynastyBiDisc.jpg.cc4b122df8040fbf71bf81ba75c80208.jpg

Chinese jade Bi Disc, Ming Dynasty, 16th-early 17th century, 3.04 in. diameter. Both sides are finely carved with an outer ring of stylized bovine heads & an inner ring of the sprouting grain pattern. This jade is a copy of an ancient jade disc from the Zhou Dynasty, 1046-256 BC. Collecting ancient jade artifacts was a popular hobby during the Ming Dynasty, Ad 1368-1644, however, there wasn't enough ancient jade to match the demand, so style copies like this disc were made to fill the demand. This jade is still in my collection 😍.

Pictured below is a modern jade pendant carved from Burmese jadeite that uses the central motif of a Bi Disc that is surrounded by two dragons that are gripping a pearl, 2.06 in long.

IMG_4057adj..JPG.687d8fc1093694fccd420f606f3ea9ff.JPG

 

 

 

Edited by Al Kowsky
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Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I think the objects could have had multiple values, meanings or purposes. Perhaps pending on the context or situation.

I didn't read a suggestion the jade objects had (also) a monetary function. It seems another culture did make use of donut shaped stones for money: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20180502-the-tiny-island-with-human-sized-money.

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16 minutes ago, Coinmaster said:

Very interesting, thanks for sharing. I think the objects could have had multiple values, meanings or purposes. Perhaps pending on the context or situation.

I didn't read a suggestion the jade objects had (also) a monetary function. It seems another culture did make use of donut shaped stones for money: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20180502-the-tiny-island-with-human-sized-money.

Coinmaster, There is no historical evidence that the Bi Disc was ever used for money or as a medium of exchange. The comparison you made with the stone money of Yap is very interesting never the less 🤔. On the contrary, Chinese archaeologists believe the Bi & the Cong were both used in ancestor worship. The first Chinese archaeologist to write seriously about jade artifacts in the 19th century, Wu Ta-ch'eng, linked these objects to ancestor worship. Much of his work was translated by the western scholar & archaeologist Berthold Laufer, in his book JADE, A Study in Chinese Archaeology & Religion. There is a link to a short video below that you may enjoy ☺️.

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/imperial-china/neolithic-art-china/v/jade-cong

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I am an archeologist myself, but not familiar with these Chinese objects. However, I think it's important to understand that past societies could have had different believe systems than in the present. Money was used in different ways as we now do in many societies. They could have had multiple meanings or values at the same time, even social, spiritual or religious. This is also the case with certain 12th century coins in Europe. As I understand the jade objects were appreciated as objects of value and were exhanged when someone was defeated and were put in graves. That's not 'money' as when buying a bread at the bakery, but it had value and other properties that are often related to monetary objects (it can be exchanged, counted, stored, is hard to come by, can be transported, does not spoil, etc.). The same as specific shells or glass beads in post medieval times (they were also used for juwelry) or certain axes in bronze age with high tin alloy (these were not suited for chopping wood, but are considered as high prestige and ceremonial objects and possibly exchanged as wedding gifts between tribes).

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In Gratzer & Fishman's excellent book "The First Round Coins Of China", on page vii, the book states that, the "likeliest" and "generally accepted current theory", is that the earliest Chinese round coins were modeled after jade rings, which the book calls "Yubi". The book states that the jade rings "were used as religious objects (some scholars postulate that the round shape of these rings represented the heavens), decorations, as means of wealth storage and high value gifts". Here's my coin, which is 1 of the earliest Chinese round coins, a bronze coin cast circa 403 BC to 378 BC. It has a possible plugged hole, seen on the obverse at approximately 4 o'clock, and on the reverse at approximately 8 o'clock.

image.jpeg.df23e9793117d9780a5fa767208024b2.jpeg

China. Zhou Dynasty. Warring States Period. Wei (Liang) State. AE Coin. Cast Circa 403 BC To 378 BC. Probably cast in the ancient city Wangyuan (literally meaning "King's city"). Hartill 6.3. Schjoth 73. Gratzer & Fishman A6.4. Maximum Diameter 38.7 mm. Weight 7.74 grams. Obverse Character Yuan (literally meaning "city"). Reverse : Blank. Possible Plugged Hole.

Edited by sand
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6 hours ago, Coinmaster said:

I am an archeologist myself, but not familiar with these Chinese objects. However, I think it's important to understand that past societies could have had different believe systems than in the present. Money was used in different ways as we now do in many societies. They could have had multiple meanings or values at the same time, even social, spiritual or religious. This is also the case with certain 12th century coins in Europe. As I understand the jade objects were appreciated as objects of value and were exhanged when someone was defeated and were put in graves. That's not 'money' as when buying a bread at the bakery, but it had value and other properties that are often related to monetary objects (it can be exchanged, counted, stored, is hard to come by, can be transported, does not spoil, etc.). The same as specific shells or glass beads in post medieval times (they were also used for juwelry) or certain axes in bronze age with high tin alloy (these were not suited for chopping wood, but are considered as high prestige and ceremonial objects and possibly exchanged as wedding gifts between tribes).

No doubt belief systems change over time, & that is so with the Chinese too. In the past jade was not traded like a negotiable commodity as it is today. The imperial household & the ruling elite had control of the finest raw material & the common people were the market for lesser quality jade. The most valuable jade today is not the traditional nephrite of the past, instead it's the Burmese jadeite of fine emerald green color. Only the very wealthy can afford this emerald green material. Pictured below are photos of Uyghur jade traders from Xinjiang Autonomous Region, who do business Henan Province. The Uyghurs are Muslim & don't have the mystical attachment to jade like the traditional Chinese.

Jadetraders1-4.jpg.33a305a6b08a0c4f4a241a454a16c0e0.jpg

 

 

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5 hours ago, sand said:

In Gratzer & Fishman's excellent book "The First Round Coins Of China", on page vii, the book states that, the "likeliest" and "generally accepted current theory", is that the earliest Chinese round coins were modeled after jade rings, which the book calls "Yubi". The book states that the jade rings "were used as religious objects (some scholars postulate that the round shape of these rings represented the heavens), decorations, as means of wealth storage and high value gifts". Here's my coin, which is 1 of the earliest Chinese round coins, a bronze coin cast circa 403 BC to 378 BC. It has a possible plugged hole, seen on the obverse at approximately 4 o'clock, and on the reverse at approximately 8 o'clock.

image.jpeg.df23e9793117d9780a5fa767208024b2.jpeg

China. Zhou Dynasty. Warring States Period. Wei (Liang) State. AE Coin. Cast Circa 403 BC To 378 BC. Probably cast in the ancient city Wangyuan (literally meaning "King's city"). Hartill 6.3. Schjoth 73. Gratzer & Fishman A6.4. Maximum Diameter 38.7 mm. Weight 7.74 grams. Obverse Character Yuan (literally meaning "city"). Reverse : Blank. Possible Plugged Hole.

You're right on about the ancient symbolic meaning of the Yubi, & interesting coin too ☺️!

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'In the 3rd century B.C. it is recorded that Wu Ti of the Ch'in dynasty received 1,000 strings of jade-money carved into rings (...). Rings of bronze succeed to rings of stone, and appear to have been in use very early.'

Source: A. Hingston Quiggin, A survey of primitive money (Florida 1991), p. 241.

Very interesting book about the 'The Beginnings of Currency'! I almost forgot I have this book on the shelve..! ☺️

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4 hours ago, Coinmaster said:

'In the 3rd century B.C. it is recorded that Wu Ti of the Ch'in dynasty received 1,000 strings of jade-money carved into rings (...). Rings of bronze succeed to rings of stone, and appear to have been in use very early.'

Source: A. Hingston Quiggin, A survey of primitive money (Florida 1991), p. 241.

Very interesting book about the 'The Beginnings of Currency'! I almost forgot I have this book on the shelve..! ☺️

Coinmaster, The instance you refer to of Wu ti "receiving 1,000 strings of jade-money carved into rings" sounds like a fairy tale or folk tale. Wu ti was emperor of the Han Dynasty, not the Ch'in Dynasty, & he is considered the best emperor to ever rule China. He managed to unify all the petty kingdoms in China & greatly expanded Chinese territories. Wu ti is also responsible for making Confucianism the state philosophy in all of China, supplanting Taoism. 

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