Funny enough this is the piece I picked during my AP Summer Institute as the Prehistoric piece I was most afraid of and then, of course, it quickly became my favorite.
Art Historical Background
Since I teach this image by breaking down FFCC, that is how I am going to do the Art Historical Background:
First off, I focus on the material: jade. Interestingly enough, jade is too hard to “carve” with a knife, so it must be abraded with coarse sand and water. I am not an artist so sometimes I have difficulty understanding artistic processes. I always look for videos that can illuminate it for me; here is a video from youtube on making jade art pieces: Asian Art Museum: Working Jade. The man in the video is using modern tools, image if you will the Neolithic period…how much MORE difficult it was and then look at the precision they were able to obtain on the Jade cong. HOLY SMOKES!
We have to then also define what is a cong (pronounced “ts-oh-ng”). A cong is a tube with a square cross-section and a circular hole” (British Museum). We can see that each side is decorated with a repeating pattern of lines and circles, and it is symmetrical on all sides. That’s really all I can say without crossing into content (see below).
These jade congs (and bi) have been found in burials scattered around the individual and show minimal signs of wear. This tells us that their function was strictly ritualistic and funerary. We take it for granted that people are buried with stuff when they die but those actions demonstrates a complex set of beliefs, including an afterlife. Although we do not have an written records or depictions of their funerals they must have been decently elaborate affairs with ceremony, ritual, and faith
We also see a disparity in the burials of this time period: not everyone is buried with these objects. We can clearly see that this is not an egalitarian society; some are “deserving”of these ritualistic materials when many others are not. Again, we cannot tell the significance of these jade congs: is it only for the wealthy or noble class or does it have some other social symbolic significance? At a minimum, there is definitely a divide in the “have and have nots.”
FYI: the Anthropomorphic stele is another images in the Prehistoric 250 that is funerary in nature.
Ah, here is where speculation abounds! What can the markings on the side mean? Why have a hole in the center if it was never carried? Does this symbolize something related to the afterlife? Until we have writing, we can only guess…educated guesses of course!
Scholars have hypothesised that the repeating pattern of lines and circles make a face. (I honestly have NOOOOO idea where they see that because I did not and do not lol). However, I am going to trust those people with a Ph.D. after their name on this one.
In addition to “seeing” a face, scholars have suggested that these faces may represent deities or spirits. This part is most likely extracted from their funerary function. Khan Academy says: “these faces are derived from a combination of a manlike figure and a mysterious beast.” Ok…I’ll take your word for it!
We are in Neolithic China where a settled civilization has formed in the river valley. Jade production flourished in Neolithic China, specifically during the Liangzhu phase (notice that is the period of our jade piece). As we saw with the form, jade is extremely difficult to shape into an art piece, therefore that tells us that these artists are highly trained and specialized. This job professionalization points to an organized and stratified society in which some members are “released” from the burdens of farming to create luxury goods and there are those who “deserve” those luxury goods.
- Freer Sackler, The Smithsonian Museum of Asian Art: Ancient Chinese Jades
- Khan Academy: Jade cong (5:09)
- Khan Academy: Working jade (3:48)
- The Metropolitan Museum: Ritual object (cong)
- Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 15th edition, pg. 466
- Khan Academy: Chinese jade, an introduction
- Khan Academy: Ritual instruments (cong and bi)
- Elizabeth Childs Johnson: Speculations on the Religious Use and Significance of Jade Cong and Bi of the Liangzhu Culture
- Khan Academy: Jade cong and bi
- The Metropolitan Museum,Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Neolithic Period in China
- BritishMuseum: Jade cong
- Asian Art Museum:Ritual implement (cong), approx. 3300–2200 BCE
- China Blog: Jade Cong King: A Tribute to Mother Earth
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Chinese Jade
- Art Beyond the West, 2nd edition, by Michael Kampen-O’Riley, pg. 105