Bi (jade)

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Bi (bi4) Bi disc.jpg
A Han-era bi, 16 cm in diameter.
Bi disc from the Liangzhu culture (Museum Angewandte Kunst, 2006) FFB-BiScheibe.JPG
Bi disc from the Liangzhu culture (Museum Angewandte Kunst, 2006)
A Western Han dynasty Bi, with dragon designs. Jade Bi Ornament, Dragon designs, China - Warring States period, Western Han dynasty, 4th-2nd century BC.tiff
A Western Han dynasty Bi, with dragon designs.

The bi is a type of circular ancient Chinese jade artifact. The earliest bi were produced in the Neolithic period, particularly by the Liangzhu culture (34002250 BCE). [1] Later examples date mainly from the Shang, Zhou and Han dynasties. They were also made in glass.



A bi is a flat jade disc with a circular hole in the centre. Neolithic bi are undecorated, while those of later periods of China, like the Zhou dynasty, bear increasingly ornate surface carving (particularly in a hexagonal pattern) whose motifs represented deities associated with the sky (four directions) as well as standing for qualities and powers the wearer wanted to invoke or embody.

As laboriously crafted objects, they testify to the concentration of power and resources in the hands of a small elite. [1]


Later traditions associate the bi with heaven, and the cong with the earth. Bi disks are consistently found with heaven and earth-like imagery, suggesting that the disk's circular shape also bears symbolic significance as this description explains:

It is found that these objects testify to early stages of development of cosmological concepts that remained important in Chinese culture during the Warring States and Han periods: the notion of a covering sky (gaitian) that revolves around a central axis, the cycle of the Ten Suns, and the use of an early form of the carpenter's square. These objects were handled by shamans who were the religious leaders of Liangzhu society and the transmitters of cosmological knowledge. [2]


Bi disc with a dual dragon motif, Warring States period Bi with two dragons and grain pattern.jpg
Bi disc with a dual dragon motif, Warring States period

From these earliest times they were buried with the dead, as a sky symbol, accompanying the dead into the after world or "sky", with the cong which connected the body with the earth. [1] They were placed ceremonially on the body in the grave of persons of high social status. Bi are sometimes found near the stomach and chest in neolithic burials. [1]

Jade, like bi disks, has been used throughout Chinese history to indicate an individual of moral quality, and has also served as an important symbol of rank. They were used in worship and ceremony – as ceremonial items they symbolised the ranks of emperor, king, duke, marquis, viscount, and baron with four different Guis and two different bi disks.

In war during the Zhou dynasty period (c. 1046–256 BCE), bi disks belonging to the leaders of the defeated forces were handed over to the victor as a sign of submission.

Qianlong Emperor and the Bi

In 1790 AD, the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty had an ancient bi inscribed with a message. He also wrote a poem entitled: "Verses Composed on Matching a Ding-ware Ceramic with an Ancient Jade Bowl Stand". It reads as follows: "It is said there were no bowls in antiquity / but if so, then where did this stand come from? It is said that this stand dates to later times / but the jade is antique. It is also said that a bowl called wan is the same as a basin called yu, but only differing from it in size". He also wrote: "This stand is made of ancient jade / but the jade bowl that once went with it is long gone. As one cannot show a stand without a bowl / we have selected a ceramic from the Ding kiln for it". He has also included the day, and year on the disc. The Qianlong emperor assumed the bi was a bowl stand, so he found a bowl and engraved it with messages to match the ones he engraved on the disc. This bi disc was also used for the Qianlong Emperor's funeral, and was also used for high status people's funerals as well. The bi is now kept in the British Museum's collection. [3]


The design of the reverse side of the medals given in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China are based on bi disks. [4]

See also

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Liangzhu culture

The Liangzhu culture was the last Neolithic jade culture in the Yangtze River Delta of China. The culture was highly stratified, as jade, silk, ivory and lacquer artifacts were found exclusively in elite burials, while pottery was more commonly found in the burial plots of poorer individuals. This division of class indicates that the Liangzhu period was an early state, symbolized by the clear distinction drawn between social classes in funeral structures. A pan-regional urban center had emerged at the Liangzhu city-site and elite groups from this site presided over the local centers. The Liangzhu culture was extremely influential and its sphere of influence reached as far north as Shanxi and as far south as Guangdong. Liangzhu site was perhaps among the oldest Neolithic sites in East Asia that would be considered a state society. The type site at Liangzhu was discovered in Yuhang County, Zhejiang and initially excavated by Shi Xingeng in 1936. A 2007 analysis of the DNA recovered from human remains shows high frequencies of Haplogroup O1 in Liangzhu culture linking this culture to modern Austronesian and Tai-Kadai populations. It is believed that the Liangzhu culture or other associated subtraditions are the ancestral homeland of Austronesian speakers.

<i>Ding</i> (vessel)

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<i>Cong</i> (vessel)

A cong is a form of ancient Chinese jade artifact. It was later also used in ceramics.

Mr. He's jade or Heshibi (和氏璧) was one of the most famous jades in Chinese history. In the mid-8th century BCE, Bian He (卞和) of Chu discovered an unworked piece of valuable jade and presented it to two successive kings, each of whom judged the jade to be a worthless stone and punished his apparent deception with a foot amputation. When the jade was finally cut and polished into a ritual bi it was recognized as a priceless treasure. Mr. He's jade-disk became an object of contention among the Warring States, it was stolen from Chu circa the 4th century BCE, acquired by the Zhao, and temporarily traded to Qin in 283 BCE. When the Qin dynasty was founded in 221 BCE, Mr. He's renowned bi jade was carved into the Heirloom Seal of the Realm, which was transmitted through subsequent Chinese dynasties until it was lost during the 10th century.

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The Shijiahe culture was a late Neolithic culture centered on the middle Yangtze River region in Shijiahe Town, Tianmen, Hubei Province, China. It succeeded the Qujialing culture in the same region and inherited its unique artefact of painted spindle whorls. Pottery figurines and distinct jade worked with advanced techniques were also common to the culture.


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Neolithic signs in China Marks inscribed on Chinese Neolithic pottery

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Wufang Shangdi

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  1. 1 2 3 4 Teaching Chinese Archaeology, object 3 - NGA Archived May 8, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  2. Shu-P'Ing, Teng (2000). "The Original Significance of Bi Disks: Insights Based on Liangzhu Jade Bi with Incised Symbolic Motifs". Journal of East Asian Archaeology. 2 (1): 165–194. doi:10.1163/156852300509835.
  3. A History of the World in 100 Objects (object 90).
  4. Design of the Medal for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games Archived August 12, 2008, at the Wayback Machine