Chinese Jade Pendants

by Barbara Steinberg

China’s history is not linear. It doesn’t follow a musical scale from one note to the next. Instead, power twists like a fugue, changing keys, direction, and voice. Jade is the visible notation, the reflection of China’s shape-shifting metaphors of power and the afterlife. You have to understand the visible and invisible. You have to see it with many sets of eyes.

The development of pendants from a single piece to a vertical arrangement of beads and plaques follows the history of China. In the Warring States period, Confucius (551-479 BC) described them as “hanging down (with beads) as if they would fall to the ground like (the humility of) propriety.” (1)


紅山 (Hongshan)

Between 4500 and 2500 BC. Hongshan cultures emerged in the Liao and Daling river valleys in northeast China. They have no sacred texts, so those who devote their lives to this culture dive into the vast, virgin territory of the unknown, excavating burial crypts and smaller slab graves, called cist tombs, which contained jade objects, almost exclusively. There were no utilitarian objects, which tells us the Hongshan valued religion over wealth. (2)

Hook-shaped pendants, commonly called cloud formations, have a profoundly simple aesthetic. Makers polished the ‘stone of heaven’ with the abrasive sand loess, as well as with diamond dust, until they were satisfied with the smoothness of the jade. Rotary tools drilled holes and carved grooves. The tools had to be invented, making jade-producing cultures more sophisticated than those who did not use it.

In picture 1, you may see a yellow jade hook-cloud formation. There is a little green in the pale yellow, which is slightly transparent. It was unearthed in 1982 at Bayan Han Sumu Nastai Hongshan Cultural Relics in Bahrain Right Banner, Inner Mongolia, and resides in Bahrain Right Banner Museum. (1a)


西周 (Western Zhou Dynasty)

By the middle of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1100 – 771 BC), there was a move toward adding complex, interlacing surface decorations to traditional Neolithic forms. This change might have been influenced by wars against the Chu State in Central Southern China by the Zhou Dynasty’s fourth king, King Zhau (996-977 BC). During this time, Southern Chinese ideas show up in jade and bronze. Picture 2 is a mid-10th Century BC Western Zhou huang, or arc-shaped pendant, which features two interlacing human figures showing off fine locks of hair. (3)

In the mid- to late Western Zhou, the Chinese revolutionized their rituals of ancestor worship. The ritual revolution was primarily discerned from the changing shape of bronze vessels, which dictated what foods could be offered to ancestors.

Carvers also invented new shapes for jade plaques, which told stories of interlaced tigers, dragons, and human figures. Incisions on the huang became more complex, and artists strung beads. These three elements merged to create complex pendants, which hung down from the shoulders and formed a language of vertical logic.


東周朝 (Eastern Zhou Dynasty)

When the Quanrong tribes of northwestern China invaded the Western Zhou capital of Xi’an in 771 BC, the Zhou Dynasty moved eastward to Luoyang. The Eastern Zhou Dynasty is divided into two periods: Spring and Autumn (770-475 BC) and Warring States (475-221 BC). There were seven of them: Qin, Chu, Zhao, Wei, Han, Yan, and Qi. The Qin won, and in 221 BC, their victory marked the beginning of Dynastic China.

Here are a few notable examples of elements that were put into pendant sets.

Picture 3 is a ring of pale green jade with some brown flecks and streaks.

Diameter 5.5 cm. It was sold at Christie’s Hong Kong on 19 January 1988. This disk is notable for the grooves that run from the center to the edge, forming a spiral. The design might have been made by a wound thick cord. Eastern Zhou period, 400 BC. (4)

Picture 4 is a huang dated c. 400-300 BC, made of “semi-translucent yellow jade with dark brown areas.” L: 13.5 cm. W: 4.1 cm. It was sold at Sotheby’s on 6 December 1983. (5)

Picture 5 is a pendant group of a bead and two huang, also c. 400 – 300 BC, “perforated, notched, and decorated with spirals. These arcs would have hung with their two ends downwards in a type of arrangement shown in lacquered figures and on jade beads in the shape of figures from the tomb of the King of Nan Yue.” They are in the British Museum, which also quotes Jessica Rawson. (6)

Picture 6 comprises drawings from from a Chu tomb at Henan Xinyang. You can see lacquer-painted figures wearing pendants that hang down. They include grooved jade rings, huangs, and were connected with a ribbon. They form the beginnings of a vertical logic that would develop into much more complex structures later. (4)

Picture 7 is a complete set of geometric pendant elements from the Pedro Guimarães collection. Most of the pieces are decorated with interlocking scrolls. Rings with this pattern were found at Henan Hui xian Guweicun, making it possible to give this set a date of c. 400 – 300 BC. (7)

Picture 8 shows two identical dragons in serpentine form from the Warring States Period (400 BC). Serpentine figures give the viewer a sense of motion, while the eyes provide direction. (8) This set is rare because it was made from the same template. The jade was originally dark green, but was altered during burial to pale brown. Alteration can take place both from body decomposition and when the jade touches water, which brings it into contact with chemicals in the soil. Dragon pendants make a sudden appearance in pendant sets in 500 BC in Henan Province and the tombs of the Jin State. (9)

Pictures 9 and 10 show a double-headed tiger huang and a double-headed dragon huang, Warring States Period. Both are from the Lau Legacy Malaysia Collection.

In picture 11 are a pair of jade tiger plaques from the Cleveland Museum of Art, 475-221 BC, which were part of a set found in Henan province. (10) This type of pendant survived into the early Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), because similar tigers were found in the tomb of the King of Nanyue. Shortly thereafter, both dragons and tigers disappeared from pendant sets, inexplicably. (11)


漢 (Han Dynasty)

During the Han Dynasty, the Kingdom of Nam Viêt occupied North Vietnam and the current Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi after the Qin Dynasty collapsed in 207 BC. It was the home of the Baiyue, an indigenous non-Chinese people. In 204 BC, Chinese general Zhao Tuo conquered the Baiyue and renamed the territory Nanyue. It was loosely associated with the Han Dynasty until 111 BC, when Emperor Wu of Han sent 6 armies by sea and conquered the kingdom. In 183 BC, Zhou Tuo was made the first king of Nanyue, and called himself ‘Martial Emperor of the South,’ until the diplomat Lu Jia convinced him to make Nanyue a vassal state of the Han Empire.


Zhao Tuo’s grandson, Zhao Mo, was a weaker character. In 135 BC, he could not fend off Baiyue forces from the Fujian Province kingdom of Minyue. Instead, he asked Emperor Wu of Han for help and got the troops he needed to win. In exchange Zhao Mo sent his son, Prince Zhao Yingqi to serve in the Han palace in its capital, Chang’an (also called Xi’an). It is Zhao Mo, who is buried in the tomb of the King of Nanyue.


Eleven pendants were buried with him. The jades were dynastic

interpretations of Neolithic styles, which also promoted the idea that the Han saw these pendants as an expression of protection and rank. The pendant in Picture 12 was made up of excellent jades, and belonged to one of the women buried with the king. The most elaborate pendant (Picture 13), probably belonged to the king himself. (12) The third plaque is a tiger pendant similar to that in the Cleveland Museum of Art, followed by a small human figure. Finally, we see an elaborate double-headed tiger huang, decorated in the style of the Han Dynasty.

Together, the elements are a poem. You must read it within the belief system of the Han, like you would a line of calligraphy. The Chinese found solutions within the box, fitting brilliance into limitations, all without abandoning their principles of humility, worthiness, and benevolence. The only way we can know how elements were arranged in the time they were made is to find them in a tomb. So archeologists stay awake at night wondering, “Where is your grave?”



(1) Confucius. “The Four Books and Five Classics” translated by James Legge, page 1170. 


(1a) The Review and Exploration of the Hongshan Cultural Relics in Niuheliang and the Prehistoric Jade Civilization in Northeast China by Da Mao.. Reference to this can also be found here 


(2) Jessica Rawson. Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, UK: The British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN: 1-58886-033-7.


(3) Jessica Rawson. Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, page 47, UK: The British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN: 1-58886-033-7.

Note: The Minneapolis Institute of Art dates this pendant to the Warring States Period (480-221 BCE) Jade dating is a notorious millennia-old war, and I agree with Jessica Rawson.


(4) Jessica Rawson. Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, page 263, UK: The British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN: 1-58886-033-7.


(5) Jessica Rawson. Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, page 267, UK: The British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN: 1-58886-033-7.


(6) Reference 


(7) Jessica Rawson. Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, page 264, UK: The British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN: 1-58886-033-7.


(8) Exhibit, “Betwixt Reality and Illusion: Special exhibition of Jades from the Warring States Period to the Han Dynasty” National Palace Museum presentation, Taiwan, To hear the presentation click on the title above.


(9) Jessica Rawson. Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, page 269, UK: The British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN: 1-58886-033-7.


(10) The Cleveland Museum of Art

(11) Jessica Rawson. Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, page 262, UK: The British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN: 1-58886-033-7.

(12) Jessica Rawson. Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, page 72, UK: The British Museum Press, 1995. ISBN: 1-58886-033-

Tags: , , , , , , ,

More articles