The Evolution of Chinese Jade making from Neolithic to Han, the Griffin winged beast Eurasian Stepp connection, and jade of the Tang Dynasty.

The Evolution of Chinese Jade making from Neolithic to Han, the Griffin winged beast Eurasian Stepp connection, and jade of the Tang Dynasty.


Jade in China has an 8,000-year history since the Neolithic time. Any stone with beauty is referred to as jade, and as nephrite is the one most available in China, has always been referred to as such. The importance of mutton fat white nephrite as jade was gradually replaced by green jadeite since its importation from Myanmar 250 years ago. Yet since before the Ming Dynasty nephrite is the only jade, nephrite will be the subject of discussion here. The distinction between nephrite and jadeite is important because they undergo a different chemical weathering pathway when buried and weathering chemical secondary products on the jade surface provides proof of period genuineness.

Throughout the Chinese history, different period has different representation of the period culture. Foundations of Chinese Art: From Neolithic pottery to modern Architecture. William Willetts. Thames and Hudson. London. 1965.  In the Neolithic time, the Hongshan and Liangzhu cultures was jade. The Shang and Zhou Dynasties was bronze, with Han Dynasty lacquer wares and silk. Grey limestone Buddha statues, cave murals, and glazed pottery statues associated with the Tang Dynasty, and porcelain during the Ming and Qing Dynasty. Only jade broke through such period boundary and became the sole representation and symbol of the Chinese culture. Yet in different period, jade also has different styles, forms, and function, distinctly associates with the period culture.  During the Neolithic time, the Hongshan and Liangzhu cultures, jade was regarded high in the spiritual realm, a medium between the ancestor kings and the shaman rulers. It deeply expressed religious beliefs and hence were important items in ritual and burial. Such spiritual association established the belief that jade has a mythical power that can protect both spiritually and morally, a belief that lasts till today. During the Shang and Zhou period, jade continued with the religious significance, but gradually became an expression of class distinction and wealth. As religious significance became less, class distinction and wealth expression became more. Jade decorated Han nobilities elaborately in life and at death. After Han, jade underwent a mark change. Absorbing Central Asian influence, jade even though remained as objects of the elites, became integrated into daily life. Jade items for daily necessities like plates for belt decoration, cups, dishes, and vases started to appear in Tang Dynasty. Significant influences also came from Buddhism and Taoism as both religions flourished in Tang China. Jade eventually lost all its religious significance and became objects of value for anyone who could afford and appreciate it, as decorative art objects and personal jewelries.  In the occasional burial use, Jade was regarded rather as wealth with minimal religious significance.

The Tang Dynasty was one of the prosperous periods in Chinese history, due to trading with Central Asia through the Silk Road. The Silk Road also brought in religious and philosophical thinking leading to the meeting and acceptance of cultures from foreign lands. Religions of The Silk Road, Premodern Patterns of Globalization. Richard Foltz. 1999. Palgrave Macmillan.  After the Han Dynasty, China underwent a chaotic, frequent warring period, starting with the Three Kingdoms (189CE -262CE), through the Sixteen Kingdoms of the five Barbarians (304CE – 439CE), and the North and South Dynasties (420 CE – 589 CE). A History of Chinese Civilization(illustrated, reprint, revised ed.). Jacques Gernet (1996). Cambridge University Press. The Sixteen Kingdoms of the Five Barbarians and the North and South Dynasties, together known as the period of the Six Dynasties (222CE – 589 CE), was confusing and chaotic, but was also the time northern non-Han tribes and kingdoms mingled and eventually integrated culturally and ethnically into the Chinese society opening China to a new page into the Tang Dynasty. No doubt such change was significant as China subsequently was converted into Buddhism, a mark change from the ancestor king and ancestor worship of the Han and pre-Han religious belief.  

Buddhism came to China during the first and second century BCE in the Han Dynasty. Before it came to China, Buddhism had already associated with a Greco element when the Seleucid Empire from the Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great formed an alliance with the Indian Maurya Empire and established the Greco-Buddhism Bactrim Kingdom (250 BCE-125 BCE) that eventually became the Greco-Indian Kingdom of Yavanas (180 BCE-10 CE). The Yuechi, an Indo-European people in Northwestern China after the defeat by the Xiongnu, moved west to the Bactrim area and eventually established the Kushan Empire (30 CE- 375 CE) (貴霜). The Silk Road served as the conduit introducing the Greco element and Buddhism into China through the activity of trading. Religions of The Silk Road, Premodern Patterns of Globalization. Richard Foltz. 1999. Palgrave Macmillan. Such influence left marks on the Chinese culture reflecting on the Tang jade as we shall later see. The Tang period is more notable for silver wares, Buddhist sculptures and glazed pottery and jade is not known as a Tang accomplishment. In known excavated sites, jade is seldom found.  Among the over two thousand relics in the most noted Tang excavation in Hejiacun in Shannsi, only twelve pieces were jade, with the remain silver and gold metal wares. Yet jade in the Tang dynasty has its own style and character, distinct from other periods and can stand out on its own.

Exploring the Chinese culture through the buried nephrites, one must realize the hazard associates with it.  Forgery is notorious in the field. Images that posted online are near 100% fake and same can be said on pictures of jade in many self-proclaimed reference books. Using fake jades to explore historic culture of China is not only misleading, but also can cause harm by distorting facts. Ensuring the nephrite jades are genuine is essential, and to do that one has to understand how these nephrites were made. With that knowledge the tool marks left behind on the jade surface can be examined to ensure the jade piece was made with period tools. Also important are the chemical weathering effect. Nephrite when buried under the soil produced secondary chemical weathering products that are distinguishable. Both the tool marks and weathering products on the jade surface are not reproducible by fake jade makers at the present time and identifying them provides some assurance of the genuineness of the nephrites. Both effects can be observed clearly under a 40X stereo microscope and will be demonstrated on all pieces presented here.

Chinese Jade carving technique from Neolithic to Han

There is no recorded account of how jade was made in China until the Ming Dynasty when Song Yingxing published his book “Tiangong Kaiwu” (The Exploitation of the Works of Nature) in 1637. The book is an encyclopedia study of Chines technology of the time on all walk of life, in it also a detail description of jade making. Jade made before the Han Dynasty has very few tools make left on the surface to be observed. The account in Tiangong Kaiwu provides some clues of how earlier jade was made. Due to the hardness of nephrite, Mohs 6 to 6.5, very few materials were available to use for jade making. One thing for sure, the most important and the principal tool used in every step from cutting to grinding and polishing was the abrasive. Abrasive is made by grinding up hard stones like flint, quartz, agate, and nephrite, mixed with water or vegetable oil to make an emulsion. Only the abrasive with a hardness Mohs scale about 7, was hard enough to cut into the nephrite. From the Neolithic time till when the electric diamond tip drills were available, abrasive combining with various tools and techniques was the main way to make jade in China.

Neolithic jade carving (Hongshan 4700 BCE-2900 BCE, Liangzhu 3400 BCE- 2250 BCE)

Jade came at the dawn of Chinese civilization and many superb jade pieces were made in the Neolithic time, in the Hongshan and Liangzhu cultures. Using a string with abrasive application, the jade material was first cut into appropriate size and shape.  It was then grinded down with stone, wood, and animal bones with abrasive, to give facial, hands, and feet features. This results in features being delineated with wide and shallow grooves instead of lines (Figure 1). Facial features are unique with bulging eyes

Figure 1. Hongshan beast.

nose. The jade surface is well polished likely with fine abrasive resulting in little to no tool mark. Few engraving lines were used on the Hongshan jade with exception on the pig dragon where the mouth and eyes were marked with lines (Figure 2).Engraved

Figure 2. Liangzhu pig dragon with line prescribed eyes and mouth.

lines link the two eyes giving the pig dragon a look as if it is wearing a pair of spectacles, unique in Hongshan beasts. There are more engraved lines used on the Liangzhu jades (Figure 3). These narrow lines are straight and fine leading to speculations of how

Figure 3. Liangzhu cong.

these lines were inscribed, with one speculation that these lines were inscribed with shark tooth. However, it is more likely such lines were made with animal bone tools. Bone tools were used in China since the Paleolithic time illustrated in the article Paleolithic Bone Tools found from South China, Chinese Academy of Sciences. March 2, 2016. Paleolithic bone tools found from South China (  Both shark tooth and animal bones have the same Mohs hardness of 5 and with nephrite Mohs hardness 6-6.5, the help with Mohs scale 7 abrasive is essential. Using the bone made awls such lines can be easily engraved illustrating bone tools were important part of Neolithic jade making in China.

The most pronounce tool marks are found in drill holes and most drill holes are the through and through kind, likely for hanging of the jade piece. Some drill holes are drilled from only one side for the purpose of inserting a handle. Figure 4 is a hole drilled for such purposed found on the back of a Hongshan piece. Notice the shallow and irregular circular marks on the side wall of the hole.

Figure 4. Hongshan drill hole.

These marks are left by the coarse abrasive driven in by the turning bone drill. The movement of the abrasive in an emulation resulted in irregular circular marks as on the drill hole wall.  The edge of the bottom of the drill hole is depressed compared to the rest of the bottom, (red arrows) leading to a speculation at one time that the drill used was a piece of hollow bamboo. Bamboo is too soft for drilling into nephrite. It is also not strong enough to withstand the constant twisting that drilling requires. Animal long bones with the ends cut off will have a hollow center very much like that of a piece of bamboo, but hard and strong enough to withstand drilling into nephrite. Long bones when used as a drill will leave a mark with a depressed edge at the bottom. After the removal of the core left behind on the bottom a smoothing of it will result in a drill hole as in figure 4.

Some of the early drill holes on Chinese nephrite are drilled from both sides and they taper to the center presenting a puzzle as why they are drill this way. The reason is simply because the drilled used was a piece of animal long bone like the arm or thigh bone (humerus or femur) together with large amount coarse abrasive mixed with water. As the bone drill went down drilling, the friction created between the drill, abrasive, and the drill hole side wall decreased the diameter of the bone drill. The further the drill went down the smaller the diameter of the bone drill became. With the diameter of the drill smaller the drill hole also became smaller resulted in tapering to the center. The diameter of animal long bone tends to be in ratio of the length of the bone. If the drill hole is small the length of the bone will be short, and it may not reach to the other side of the drill hole. Fortunately, all animal long bones are in pair. Another bone drill of similar diameter is always available and can be used to drill from the other side. When the two sides meet in the center, a small notch is formed from the slight misalignment and the result of a drill hole tapering to the center without the knowledge or intention of the carver.    

Drill holes especially on the Liangzhu jades are mostly drilled from both sides regardless the length. For many of the shorter drill holes, the reason of drilling from both sides cannot be that the bone drill is not long enough.  When drilling with a modern-day electric drill and a steel drill bite, the drill bite goes down next to the wall of the drill hole and out directly on the other side. The drill hole is perfectly round, and the hole is straight and can be viewed from one side to the other. Drilling in the Neolithic time with a bone drill required a large amount of abrasive. Instead of the drill touching the side wall during the drilling, there was a thick layer of emulsion of abrasive mixture in between. The abrasive water mixture allowed the bone drill to move sideways during the drilling. Such movement resulted in the drill hole of antique jades not perfectly round and closer to oval (Figure 5, 6 and drill holes on figures 9, 10, and 11).  The movement of the drill also made the exit to the other side unpredictable, and not

Figure 5. An oval shape Hongshan drill hole.

perfectly on the exact opposite side. This resulted in the two sides being unevenly lopsided, with one side higher or lower, and or more forward or backward than on the other side. If the drill hole were for hanging, the jade piece would be unevenly hung.  To

Figure 6. Liangzhu three birds plaque.

compensate, the carver after the hole was half drilled, drilled from the appropriate place from the other side to ensure the two holes were evenly placed. Drilling from both sides also safe guarded human error of misjudgments of the carvers.  Figure 6 is a Liangzhu three bird disc. On the back, one of the holes was drilled initially to halfway (Figure 7).  The carver then drilled from the

Figure 7. One of the drill holes on the back of the three birds plaque.

front of the disc at the appropriate place where the hole also formed the eye of the bird (Figure 8). The two sides supposed to meet at the middle of the  drill hole. Looking from the back, the mistake of the initial hole from the back, a human error by the carver becomes obvious (Figure 7 red arrow). The three holes on the disc if were just for the eyes of the birds, they did not need to be

Figure 8. Figure 7 drill hole view from front.

drilled through and through. These holes probably had more function like attachment to headdresses or clothing as an ornament. In such case precise placement of both holes was essential and drilling from both sides was the only way to assure the correct location of the two holes on both sides. Movement of the drill in the drill hole also resulted in the hole tunnel not straight and looking from one side of the hole cannot fully view the other side. (see figure 5 and figure 8). To view the hole on the other side often the whole jade piece needs to be tilted.  Also notice the shallow and irregular circular shape drill marks on the entrance of the drill holes on figure 7 and figure 8.

Shang (!600 BCE – 1046 BCE) and Zhou (1046 BCE – 256 BCE) jade carving

After the Neolithic time, jade carving in China can be roughly divided into two periods, before and after Han. Before Han, the Shang and Zhou period, jade making was very much a continuation of the Neolithic technique. Again, the material was first cut down to size and shape with line cutting. It was then grinded down to appropriate desire shape. Such technique also left little tool mark on the surface. Lines are utilized more often to delineate features and design. These lines were made by grinding down the sides to make them stand out rather than engraved in.  Most of the Shang jades are flat with lines raised above the jade surface (Figures 9, 10 and 11). These lines are straight, uniform in width, with both sides of the line parallel. The line can expand out to

Figure 9. Shang hair pin.
Figure 10. Shang fish.
Figure 11. Shang parrot.

form a structure like the bird’s leg of the hair pin in figure 9. One can also say the same on the bird’s head and its comb as lines also expand into knobs at the terminal. The lines on figure 11 parrot expand out to form specific designs. Such line expansion is unique in Shang jades and so are the notches at the edge of the parrot crown in figure 11. Because the lines are raised, the more depressed area next to the lines accumulate amorphic silicate from weathering during burial. The greyish white amorphic silicate outlines the lines and makes the lines more stand out, giving the Shang jade as well as the Zhou jade a distinct look.

Jade carving in Zhou differs only in style and form from the Shang period. There are more round carved pieces in Zhou than in Shang. After the cutting to size and shape, the whole piece was carved by grinding leaving minimal tool mark on the surface. Like the Shang jades the Zhou jades are decorated fully with patterns unique for the period. The lines used are more raised above the surface than those on the Shang jades, into raised relief.  These lines are straight, neatly constructed, and uniform in width throughout (Figure 12, 13, 14). Since these lines are formed by grinding down the side of the lines making the side lower than the line itself, and therefore becomes a place for accumulation of greyish white amorphic silicate, the secondary chemical weathering product produced during the 3000 years burial. The combination of raised lines and greyish white amorphic silicate gives the Shang and Zhou a unique look for identification. Most fake jade makers use carved in lines instead of the raised lines because it is easier to make. Jade pieces with carved in lines and called itself Shang and Zhou are fakes.

Figure 12. Zhou ram.
Figure 13. Zhou jade man.
Figure 14. Zhou bird.

The jade making revolution of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE)

There is no written record of how jade was made in China until Song Yingxing published “Tiangong Kaiwu” (The Exploitation of the Works of Nature) in 1637 during the Ming Dynasty. “Tiangong Kaiwu” is an encyclopedia of technology on all walks of life in China from farming, iron making, textile to gun powder making and their applications. In it a detail description of how jade was made with an extensive pictorial explanation. The process involved abrasive in all steps, starting with cutting the jade material with line or saw to size and shape. Instead of grinding down by hand, a spinning wheel was used. The spinning wheel was made of iron or wood and came in various sizes (Figure 15). Mounted on a grinding table and powered by foot paddles, the wheel was applied to the jade to be carved. As the wheel spin, an emulation of abrasive was added. The purpose of the wheel was to hold the

Figure 15. Han spinning wheel carving.

abrasive, and by pushing the spinning wheel against the mounted jade, as indicated by the counterweight on the wheel on figure 15, allowed the wheel to push the abrasive cutting into the hard jade surface. Notice the various size of wheels on the table behind, and the iron pot holding the abrasive emulation on the stool next to the carver. On the grinding table are a small hammer and an anvil, likely for minor chipping. The first step was to use the larger iron wheel and coarse abrasive for initial rough cutting. By going back and forth with the wheel the excess material was carved out to the rough shape desired. Next, by using a smaller iron wheel and finer abrasive, the finer detail and pattern of design was carved out. To polish, a wood wheel covered with dried gourd was used. The final step was buffing with a wood wheel lined with animal skin. All the wheel linings are seen hanging on the wall above the spinning wheels on figure15. Much finer abrasive was used for the polishing and buffing. After the polishing and buffing with fine abrasive, most of the tool marks on the jade surface are removed except within grooves and depressed areas like within or between engraved lines, and at the undersurface of the jade piece where polishing and buffing were difficult to get at, tracks made by the wheel and tool marks can still be found.

The description of the spinning wheel was written during the Ming Dynasty with no report of when the spinning wheel was first used. However, the spinning wheel leaves unique marks on the jade surface and these are clearly seen on the Han jades making the Han jades widely different from the Shang and Zhou. Lines used on Han are no longer carefully crafted out as raised reliefs like those on the Shang and Zhou and become casually carved into the jade surface. Figure 16 is a Han beast and figure 17 is a line on the beast surface under a 40X enlargement under a microscope. The neat and orderly raised relief lines now become uneven, wavy,

Figure 16. Han beast.
Figure 17. Engraved in line by the spinning wheel on figure 16 Han beast.

and disorderly. The side of the lines are no longer parallel and some part of the line wider than others. (Figure 18). The lines are cut in negative lines, a mark different from Shang and Zhou. Track marks made by the spinning wheels are now visible under the

Figure 18. Uneven engraved line by the spinning wheel on Han beast.

microscope. Figure 19 is a Han owl. Compared to the more elaborate Shang Zhou carvings, the owl is more simple and crude. On figure 20, are track marks left by the spinning wheel showing between the red arrows the width of the wheel and marks left behind

Figure 19. Han owl.
Figure 20. Spinning wheel track marks on Han owl.

by the abrasive in between. The wheel went back and forth resulting in more than one track mark with some crisscrossing from each other’s. Because the line itself is engraved in, it is lower than the jade surface, and greyish white amorphic silicate now is inside the line rather than on both sides of the line as on the Shang Zhou jades. The whitish amorphic silicate covers up the reddish iron rich Hematite inside the line. Outside and on both sides of the line the reddish Hematite is more prominent forming a slightly raised thicken crust.

The spinning wheel not only can leave marks on the jade surface like those on figure 20. The hesitancy of the carver can result in a specific track mark like those on figure 21 Han beast. The carver continued to pedal keeping the wheel turning. By slowing pushing the jade piece forward, a halfmoon like depression can form on the track, like those formed by a spinning wheel stuck in mud (Figure 22).

Figure 21. Han beast.
Figure 22. Half-moon like track marks on Han beast

The power from the foot pedals is far greater than using hands for grinding and as a result the fast-spinning wheel and the power associates with it create a problem in controlling the carving. The speed and the power of the cutting enable the carver to work in haste resulting in carved lines become broken with chipping and extrusion into the jade outside of the lines as seen on figure 23 from the figure 21 Han beast. This is more frequently seen in circular arcs where the turning curve is tight. Such appearance on the jade surface is typical from the spinning wheel carving providing clue of the tool used. The spinning wheel also turns the neat and orderly Shang and Zhou carved raised relief lines into perfunctory.

Figure 23. Breaks on lines as spinning wheel turns during carving.

The loss of the regularity and neatness into irregularity and free hand sloppiness has been described as the Han eight cuts. Eight is referred to the Chines figure eight (八) with one side wider than the other. It has also been described as crude, rough, and free, all fit perfectly into the Han jade carving description.  The grinding table can turn to allow the spinning wheel to cut into the jade at an angle to create layers. Figure 24 is an enlargement of the area between the head and neck on the figure 16 Han beast. To carve this, the grinding table need to be tilted to allow the wheel to cut at an angle underneath.

Figure 24. Layer carving with the spinning wheel.

The extensive use of the spinning wheel to carve jade no doubt was in the Han Dynasty. But there is indication that the spinning wheel was invented in the Zhou period. Figure 25 is a bear with raised relief lines, a Zhou design pattern and with a look of a Zhou

Figure 25. Bear with Zhou pattern.

Dynasty jade bear. Under the microscope it tells a different story. On both sides of these raised lines are distinct spinning wheel marks indicating that these lines were not caved out by grinding down the sides, but with the spinning wheel cutting (Figure 26).  

Figure 26. Spinning wheel track marks on jade bear.

The underside of the bear is also not typical of a Zhou jade with unevenly cut groves of the Han and not the smooth grinded down Zhou type carving (Figure 27). In other word, this is a Zhou jade bear carved out with the spinning wheel. There are two

Figure 27. Underside of jade bear.

possibilities.  One is the bear was carved in Zhou period with the newly invented spinning wheel. Another possibility is that the bear was caved in Han in the Zhou design, an imitation of the previous period. Figure 28 shows a portion of the curve line on the

Figure 28. Track marks made by the spinning wheel on the bear.

bear. The wheel went off the track at the curve (shown by red arrows), but it did not break or chipped the jade like that on figure 23. What it shows is that the spinning wheel used on the bear has less speed and power than the one used on the Han beast and more likely that the bear was carved in the Zhou period using a newly invented less powerful spinning wheel. Also, judging from the spinning wheel was so widely used at the early Han period, the starting point probably was in an earlier period in Zhou.

The reddish-brown color on the bear is from the weathering product, probably Hematite, produced inside the surface micropores and microcracks during the time when the lade bear was buried. For the Chinese antique jade collectors there are two types of jade, the heirloom and the unearthed. The unearthed are the newly dug up and on it retained all the chemical weathering secondary products. The heirloom jades are those dug up long time ago and have been passed on in collectors’ hands from generation to generation for hundreds and may even be a thousand year. Chinese collectors have a habit of constant rubbing the jade with their hands and may employ scraper to scrap off the weathering products which the collectors consider as dirt, in an attempt to return the pre burial natural color and shine to the jade. The bear is an heirloom jade with most of the weathering products on the surface removed.  Figure 29 is the undersurface of the bear. Red arrows indicate the scrape marks left from the previous scrapping. Despite the previous owners’ effort, large amount of secondary products of clay phyllosilicates (blue circle) and iron oxides (red raised plaques) are still found on the surface.  The Hematite is inside the micropores and microcracks inside the jade surface and cannot

Figure 29. Under surface of the bear with spinning wheel marks and weathering products.

be removed by scrapping. Any jade piece labelled Han or Zhou with a natural jade white or greenish color are fakes. It is impossible to escape the natural law of Chemical Weathering when buried. Notice the wheel track marks inside the groove and the weathering product on top of the track marks.

After the defeat of Xiongnu, Han had direct access to Khotan, todays Hotan, the main source of nephrite. By using the spinning wheel, jade making in Han achieved great efficiency and far shorten the jade making time. Shang and Zhou together have a history of 1,866 years compared to Han 422 years. The amount of jade made in Han is no less than Shang and Zhou combined. The Han jades have its own beauty and character, all from the spinning wheel carving. The success of the spinning wheel in jade carving continues with little change in China for two thousand years, till the modern employment of the electric diamond tip drills.   

Chemical Weathering effect and the discoloration of the buried nephrites

It is well known that Chinese nephrites earlier than Song (960 CE-1279 CE) have a discoloration far different from the nephrite natural color. This phenomenon has long been taken for granted and no one has questioned or inquired into what gives such change. The mystery was so deep that people were at one time wondering where the black nephrite, something not found in China came from. The color change comes from chemical weathering, a natural process all underground minerals undergo. There are two types of weathering, physical and chemical weathering. Physical weathering occurs above ground from physical forces of wind, water flow, heat from the sun, cold from the frost, and so on. Chemical weathering occurs mainly underneath the soil from chemical reaction of the minerals with water as the medium. (References are on the blog “Chemical Weathering” on this site). Nephrite is a mineral of Actinolite and tremolite, two amphibole minerals.  Under chemical weathering secondary products are produced. First, the nephrite undergoes dissolution that produces a greyish white amorphic silicate that accumulates in grooves and low depressed areas giving the carved nephrite a look specific to that period (See figures 9-14 and 20). The hydrolysis and oxidation phase results in two clay minerals, Smectite and Kaolinite, and two iron oxides, Hematite and Goethite. The clay mineral Smectite and Kaolinite are greyish to white in color. Unlike the amorphic silicate, the clay minerals form phyllosilicate, a sheet like crystal. Hematite may have a color of either deep red, brownish red, or deep grey. Goethite may have a color of yellow, red to deep brown, and can be black. The clay and iron oxides first form inside the micro pores and microcracks on the surface in the form of a ferruginous gel. The color of the discoloration of the nephrite depends on which clays and iron oxides formed, and their ratio in the gel formation. Such chemical reactions require water. Since water has a limited penetration into the nephrite, chemical reactions only limit to the topical layer of the nephrite. As the continue formation of the secondary products in the micropores microcracks cannot go deeper down into the nephrite they overflow onto the surface as a ferruginous gel forming a thin semitransparent layer. On the surface the phyllosilicate clays, and iron oxides crystalize. The color of the secondary products in the micropores and microcracks, and the crystals formed on the surface are what give the discoloration of the nephrite we all familiar with. All these changes only occur on the topical 0.1-0.15 mm. Yet the appearance gives a misleading impression that the whole nephrite has changed color.  Figure 30 is a black color Shang comb. The black color comes from the weathering product, an iron

Figure 30. Shang comb.

oxide likely Goethite produced inside the micropores microcrack that is black in color giving the comb a black color appearance. Chinese carvers only choose nephrite with white or green color with no blemish for carving and for that reason the comb cannot be black in its origin color. Clay phyllosilicate crystalized on the top. Because of the ferruginous nature of the secondary products, metallic deposit can be found (Figure 31 red circle).  Notice the rough surface appearance on the comb is due to the crystallization

Figure 31. Metallic deposit on Shang comb.

of the clay phyllosilicate on the surface and not due to the breakage of the jade as nephrite seldom breaks due to its hardness and crystal structure. Chemical weathering is a long natural process. It takes at least a thousand year for the secondary products to be visible on the nephrite surface and hence the discoloration only seen on Song or earlier jades.

Chemical weathering highly depends on water and the difference in water flow over different part of the jade piece results in various degree of weathering and different secondary products produced on the same surface. The result is different discoloration can be seen on the same jade piece as on the other side of the figure 16 Han beast (Figure 32).  The Han beast is an heirloom jade

Figure 32. The other side of Figure 16 Han beast.

with most of the weathering products removed by previous owners. However, under a microscope identifiable weathering effect can be clearly detected on figure 33, the sheet like phyllosilicate clay crystal (black arrow), the more greyish brown mix from iron

Figure 33. Weathering chemicals on figure 32 Han beast.

oxide (blue arrow), and a silvery metallic shine line which is more often seen than the metallic deposit (red arrow). These metallic lines are often located at the edge of the phyllosilicate sheet, in a form of linear lined up granules with a silvery metallic reflection. Because the reflection is not at 90 degree, to see them requires holding the jade piece in hand and put the surface into the microscope focus and tilting the jade piece at various angle to examine the surface.  Another demonstration of these metallic line is on the Han bead (Figure 34). The reddish-brown color   indicates the secondary products on the bead is rich in iron. The shiny metallic granules are clearly seen at the edge of the phyllosilicate sheet in the form of a line (Figure 35 red arrow).   

Figure 34. Han bead.
Figure 35. Metallic reflection line on edge of phyllosilicate crystal sheet.

More secondary chemical weathering products can be demonstrated on the figure 36 Zhou huang. Typical of Zhou jade the lines are in raised reliefs and the Hematite in the micropores and microcracks turn the Huang into reddish brown in color. Areas between the reddish lines are lower and fill with greyish clay phyllosilicates. Their crystals may appear different depending on which type forms (Figure 37 red arrows and blue circle), as clay minerals have many forms, Smectite 22 and Kaolinite has several. When the amount of iron mix is less, they may appear white (left to the red arrows).  

Figure 36. Zhou Huang.
Figure 37. Weathering chemical on Zhou Huang.

Weathering products produced depends greatly on the weather conditions of the area and the immediate surrounding. Figure 38 is a Zhou beast huang. Unlike the figure 36 Zhou huang, the beast huang has a greenish yellow color, and the phyllosilicate on it has

Figure 38. Beast Huang.

a crusty look, also differ from those on top of the figure 36 huang (Figure 39). Notice the crack is on the clay crystal and not on the huang. Cracks on nephrite are usually on the weathering product on the surface, and  do not involve the jade itself. Jade artifacts

Figure 39. Weathering chemical on beast huang.

when first unearth were thoroughly washed with water. Water can only wash away soil on top but cannot wash away clay crystal formed from the chemical weathering process.  Clay minerals give out an odor and the clay minerals inside the jade surface continue to give out the odor specific for clay hundreds of years after unearthed. Chinese antique jade collectors have long noticed this smell that they refer to as tomb smell. This odor cannot be gotten rid of despite of years of rubbing and scraping as the clay is inside the jade surface and cannot be reached resulting in the smell lingers to today.

The ferruginous gel formed in the micro pores microcracks overflowed to the jade surface forming a very thin semitransparent layer. (WEATHERING OF HORNBLENDE TO FERRUGINOUS PRODUCTS BY A DISSOLUTION-REPRECIPITATION MECHANISM: PETROGRAPHY AND STOICHIOMETRY”. MICHAEL ANTHONY VELBEL. Clays and Clay Minerals, Vol. 37, No. 6, 515-524, 1989.) The layer is difficult to see, only at the edge especially when it is lined with light reflecting granules like those on figure 35. Inside the thin gel layer of a Han thin beast (Figure 40) Hematite inclusions can be found (Figure 41 red circle). The Hematite inclusions have been mistaken for charcoal granules. No organic material like charcoal has been found in

Figure 40. Han thin beast.

nephrite. These inclusions are inside the gel layer and not in the nephrite itself. The thin beast is an unusual piece of jade, only 2 mm thick. The carver had to be skill with experience and would not have chosen a piece of jade with black blemish on it to carve

Figure 41. Weathering chemical on Han thin beast.

the thin beast. The black dots were not on the jade when it was carved and formed after the carving when it was buried inside the semitransparent ferruginous layer. Brownish red iron oxide deposits also form on the surface (Figure 41 red arrows).  

Small, raised nodules can be found on the surface of the buried nephrite, often referred to as raised reliefs. When raised reliefs are seen they are multiple as on figure 42 Zhou jade man. These are pseudomorph formations, minerals taking the form of another mineral crystal. Figure 43 shows the magnified nodules on the Zhou jade man surface. Notice the shape of the crystal is different from those of the fibrous nephrite crystal and the surrounding clay. Therefore they should be referred to as pseudomorph after Tremolite. Pseudomorph takes at least 2,000 years to form and more often seen on the Hongshan nephrites.  

Figure 42. Han jade man.
Figure 43. Han jade man pseudomorph nodules crystal.

Eurasian Steppe influence

The development from Han to Tang underwent a period highly influenced by the Eurasian steppe culture with link to the west. Such influence came as early as the late Warring States (475 BCE-221 BCE) from Nomadic tribes like Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic tribes occupied todays Mongolia, Gansu, and Xinjiang. At the height of its power the Xiongnu Empire extended through the southern Siberia to the Caucasus. Xiongnu was one of the five barbarians, Di, Jie, Qiang, Xianbei with Xiongnu as the strongest confederation. These nomadic tribes were in the North and Northwest China with uncertain origin of proto-Mongols or proto-Turks. Yet there is no doubt much of the Eurasian influence on China came through these nomadic tribes. As nomadic tribes on horseback, their clothing included a belt. The period before the Tang Dynasty gold and silver were not indigenous to China. Through the gold and silver belt ornaments, harnesses and wooden decorations found in tombs in Northern China and throughout the Eurasian Steppe during the period from the late Warring States to the middle of Wester Han, such connection can be made.  “The Transformation of Cultural Exchange between North China and the Eurasian Steppe from the Late Warring States Period to the Middle Western Han, Pan Ling (潘玲): Asian Archaeology 3 (2015): 95–106”.

The influence of the Silk Road through trading and spreading cultural and religion activities from Iran and Europe to China cannot be overly emphasized. Trading brought people into close contact in a peaceful manner transferring philosophical and religious thinking west to east throughout the silk road. Religions of The Silk Road, Premodern Patterns of Globalization. Richard Foltz. 1999. Palgrave Macmillan. Chapter one. For more than 3,000 years religions like Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christian, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Manichaeism spread through the silk road with all ending up in China. Judaism and Islam still have communities in China. Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christian, and Manichaeism all faded away, except Buddhism that has taken a strong root ever since. All of these indicate a strong link between Europe and China through the Eurasian Stepp. Of particular interest is Buddhism. The link with Buddhism occurred when the Seleucid Greek Kingdom established by the conquest of Alexander the Great of Macedonia allied with the Indian Maurya Empire establishing the Greco-Bactrim Empire (250 BCE-125 BCE) in today northern Pakistan and Afghanistan resulting in the flourishing of the Greco-Buddhism. The Yuezhi, an Indo-European people, after the defeat by the Xiongnu, moved from the Gansu Xinjiang region of today’s Northwestern China, into the Bactrim area, and eventually established the Kushan Empire in the early first century CE. Kushan kept the belief of the Greco-Buddhism tradition mixing it with Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism (Figure 44. Map of Kushan Empire. Kushanmap – Kushan Empire – Wikipedia ) The frequent contact between Han and the Kushan Empire through military engagements and royal marriage arrangements opened trade and also allowing Buddhism from Central Asia eventually into China establishing the link of influence between Central Asia, Europe, and China.   

Figure 44. Map of Kushan Empire.

The Griffin and Winged beast connection

The introduction of Buddhism into China during the second century BCE also brought in art influences from Greece with the Seleucid Greco Buddhism connection. Figure sculpture with garment drapery, a Greek tradition, appeared as Buddhist sculptures in China. Such art form flourished during the Six Dynasty and Tang, and although there are obvious differences between the Greek sculptures and the Buddhas sculptures the influence from the west is no doubt there.  A History of Chinese Civilization(illustrated, reprint, revised ed.). Jacques Gernet (1996). Cambridge University Press. Chapter V. Yet the western influence in art goes back to Han. In the southern rim of the Taklamakan desert in today’s Xinjiang China is Miran, an oasis town that flourish on the Silk Road between the 2nd and 5th century CE. Miran was part of the Shanshan Kingdom, an ancient Indo-European Tocharian Buddhist kingdom on the Silk Road (Figure 45. Tarimbecken 3. Jahrhundert – Shanshan – Wikipedia ) Buddhism was introduced to through

Figure 45. Map of Miran.

the Kushan Empire. A Buddhist monastery and several stupas archeologic sites are found in Miran. Wall paintings in the stupas of Buddha and his disciples are of Indo-European,  so as an angel painting on the wall. (Figure 46 Fresco of Miran – Miran (Xinjiang) – Wikipedia). Another wall painting shows a man doing battle with a winged beast (Figure 47).  ”漢代西域藝術中的希臘文化因素; 林梅村”  Even though the head of the beast is no longer seen due to the loss of the upper part of the painting, the beast is still

Figure 46. Miran angel wall painting.
Figure 47. Miran winged beast wall painting.

recognizable as a griffin. Griffin according to the Encyclopedia of Britannica is a winged beast with an eagle’s head originated from the ancient cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean shore. “Griffin also spelled Griffon or gryphon, composite mythological creature with a lion’s body (winged or wingless) and a bird’s head, usually that of an eagle. The griffin was a favorite decorative motif in the ancient Middle Eastern and Mediterranean lands. Probably originating in the Levant in the 2nd millennium BCE, the griffin had spread throughout western Asia and into Greece by the 14th century BCE. The Asiatic griffin had a crested head, whereas the Minoan and Greek griffin usually had a mane of spiral curls. It was shown either recumbent or seated on its haunches, often paired with the sphinx; its function may have been protective”. griffin | Myth, Meaning, & Facts | Britannica  There is a different between the griffin in Europe and those found in Asia with those in Europe with mane, and those in Asia have a crest on their heads.  Figure 48 is an eighteen century French ink and ink wash drawing of a griffin. Notice both the griffins on the Miran

Figure 48. 18th century French ink and ink wash drawing of a griffin.

painting and on the French drawing have mane of the European griffin version.  Figure 49 is a Han jade griffin that has no mane and, on its head, a floating crest, the version of the Asiatic griffin. The Han griffin is an heirloom jade with most of the weathering

Figure 49. Han jade griffin.

product removed except on the more obscured areas under its wing and legs, and on its feet. Sheet like phyllosilicate clay crystals can be seen on its under body behind his legs (figure 50). On figure 51 under the griffin’s wing, within the green circle are crystal

Figure 50. Phyllosilicate sheet crystal between the leg and wing of jade griffin.

of iron oxide and clay mix. The green arrows are pointing at the edge of the semitransparent ferruginous sheet and the red arrows at the spinning wheel tracks. More obvious spinning wheel marks are on the griffin’s eye (Figure 52) with chipping of the jade from the spinning wheel as it arced through tight angles.   

Figure 51. Weathering chemicals on the jade griffin.
Figure 52. Spinning wheel track marks on the eye of the griffin.

The origin of the griffin no doubt is from the Eastern Mediterranean shore Levant area, brought in by the Eurasian Stepp nomadic tribes through the Silk Road. The griffin with an eagle head is seldom seen in China and the jade griffin in figure 49 may be the only one. Winged beasts with a lion or beast head unique to Han that can be traced to the nomadic tribes are more often seen on Han silk and lacquer wares (Figure 53). Beasts with hook beaks appeared on the gold belt buckles along the Eurasian Stepp during

Figure 53. Winged beast on Han lacquer ware.

the late Warring States and early Western Han period. The design changed to one with a beast’s head in later Han.  “The Transformation of Cultural Exchange between North China and the Eurasian Steppe from the Late Warring States Period to the Middle Western Han, Pan Ling (潘玲): Asian Archaeology 3 (2015): 95–106”. Figure 54 is a Han jade with such a change, from one with the griffin eagle head to the one with a beast head.  (Figure 54 is the other side of figure 40 Han thin beast). The wings

Figure 54. Han thin winged beast.

now are modified into two structures extending from the middle of the body. Another example is the jade Han winged beast on figure 55 with similar modified wings. Figure 55 Han beast is an heirloom jade with scrape marks and silicate remnant and

Figure 55. Han jade winged beast.
Figure 56. Han winged beast weathering chemical and spinning wheel track.

spinning wheel marks (Figure 56. Red circle and arrows). Worth noticing are the floating crests on the heads of the winged beasts on figures 53, 54, and 55 are the same as the floating crest on the head of the figure 49 griffin. It is thus reasonable to say that the griffin and the winged beast are the same, traceable back to  the Eurasian Stepp as demonstrated on figure 57, a 3rd to 4th century

Figure 57. Xianbei winged beasts on golden belt buckle.

CE gold buckle from Xianbei, a nomadic tribe in Northern China with an origin from Southeastern Siberia (BeltBuckleXianbei3-4thcentury – 五胡十六国 – 维基百科,自由的百科全书 ( it are winged beasts with the same floating crests on the beast heads as on the other Han winged beasts and the Han jade griffin. Griffin and the winged beast or the modifications of it are widely seen on the Han silk, bronze mirror, and lacquer wares (Figure 58). Especially on the lacquer wares such design can be said unique to Han as it disappeared subsequently.

Figure 58. Han winged beast lacquer ware design.


Two Han winged beast stone sculptures are in the collection of the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. Expedition Magazine – Penn Museum This pair of winged beasts from Hebei North China, together with the one in Musee Guimet in Paris, are the only known Han winged beast stone sculptures. Griffin and the winged beast date back to the 6th to 4th century BCE seen on this Persian Achaemenid gold plaque with a pair of horned winged beast-griffin (Figure 59).  Plaque with horned lion-griffins | Achaemenid | Achaemenid | The Metropolitan Museum of Art ( The journey of the griffin winged beast from Persia to China

Figure 59. Plaque with horned loon-griffin.

no doubt was along the Silk Road. The Buddha stature from the Kushan Empire (30-375 CE) in figure 60 Kushan Empire – Wikipedia tells us how the winged beast came to Han China. On the pedestal are two separate winged beasts, one on each side. The Greco-Buddhism connection now becomes obvious. The griffin winged beast came to Han as the protector of the religion.

Figure 60. Kushan Buddha figure with winged beasts on the pedestal.

Eventually they became guardian of the tombs of Han elites as the Penn Museum pair were. The tradition extended to the Southern Dynasty (420 CE – 589 CE). After Han and the Three Kingdoms, China eventually went into a chaotic period of the North and South Dynasties when the Northern Dynasties were controlled mostly by the nomadic tribes and the Southern Dynasties by the Hans. The capital of the Southern Dynasties was today Nanjing. In Nanjing there are more than 20 stone winged beast statures (Figure 61) Tianlu at Tomb of Xiao Luan (Emperor Ming of Qi), Jinglin, Danyang, Jiangsu, China – 南朝陵墓石刻 – 维基百科,自由的百科全书 ( Like the Han winged beast statures, they were also tomb guardians and they were the last winged beast found as the winged beast disappear in Chinese history.

Figure 61. Six Dynasties winged beast.

The Han winged beast come in variations from the eagle headed griffin to those with opposite spreading up and down wings, to beasts without wings, as in figure 62 Han beast. On the beast weathering chemical forms a hard crust on the body with areas mixed

Figure 62. Han jade beast 1.
Figure 63. Weathering chemical on Han jade beast 1.

with reddish iron oxide (Figure 63 red circle). Clear spinning wheel tracks can also be found (red arrows). Figure 62 beast can be compared to the Han beast on figure 64, a bigger version of the two measured 21 cm X 15 cm X 7 cm. The silicate crystals on the figure 64 beast are more needle like (Figure 65), and there are spinning wheel marks (red arrow). The variation of the width of the

Figure 64. Han jade beast 2.
Figure 65. Spinning wheel tracks and weathering chemical crystal on Han jade beast 2.

cut grooves and lines are also the result of the spinning wheel cutting. All Han beasts share some common features in that the winged beasts have a floating crest on their heads except the two in the Penn museum. Instead of the floating crest, the Penn Museum pair have horns like those on figure 62 Han beast 1, and a beard like that on figure 64 Han beast 2. The Penn museum pair also have a frontal rib plate like that on the figure 49 Han Griffin. These common features indicate that these beasts are all variants of the same griffin winged beast from the Eastern Mediterranean shore. The winged beast griffin came to Han through the Silk Road brought in by the Stepp nomads influenced by the Greco Buddhism of Kushan and Shanshan. With the Greco Buddhism losing its favor to Indian Buddhism and Taoism in the subsequent Shui Tang period, the griffin winged beast of Han also lost favor in the Chinese culture and ceased to exist.  

The four jade royal seals of the sixteen kingdoms and the Southern Dynasties

After the collapse of Han, China went into a long chaotic and fragmented period. First came the Three Kingdoms (220 CE – 280 CE), followed by a brief unification into Jin (265 CE – 420 CE). In 316 CE the five barbarians forced the Jin empire to move south forming Eastern Jin. The north broke into the sixteen kingdoms (304 CE – 439 CE) of small and short-lived states ruled mostly by the five barbarians, Xiongnu, Xianbei, Di, Jie, and Qiang. The five barbarians or Wu were Mongolian, Tibetan and Turkic nomadic tribes in today’s Mongolia, north and northwestern China, with Xiongnu and Xianbei having root in the Eurasian Stepp. They established small states and kingdoms, fighting each other for power and territories and at the same time adopting the Chinese culture and system.  Intermarriage and self-simulation eventually leaded to the disappearance of these tribes into Chinese history. It ended with Xianbei unified northern China into Northern Wei and the period of North and South Dynasties (420 Ce – 589 CE) began. China again unified under the Siu Dynasty (581 CE – 618 CE) under the ethnic Han with the nomadic tribes Sinicized. The melting of cultures and removal of hostile forces on the silk road brought in influences from the Eurasian Stepp and with the Silk Road ended directly in Chang’an the capital, all contributed to bringing in a golden age, the Tang Dynasty (618 CE – 907 CE). A History of Chinese civilization (illustrated, reprint, revised ed.). Jacques Gernet (1996). Cambridge University Press.

The sixteen kingdoms lasted 135 years and had 187 emperors and kings. Four jade royal seals of the sixteen kingdoms and their southern ethnic Han counterpart give us a glimpse of the cultural integration of the period. The royal titles are self-proclaimed or posthumous. The first seal is from King Jing (景王之印) (Figures 66 A, B). All four seals are the unearthed types retaining all the

Figure 66A. King Jing seal.
Figure 66B. King Jing seal.

weathering secondary products on the jade surface. On figure 66C are the weathering products on the King Jing seal. Within the red circle are crystals of pseudomorph mineral crystal and reddish iron oxide is at the lower part of the photo. Multiple pseudomorph formation can be seen without the microscope on the seal on figure 66A as raised reliefs.

Figure 66C. King Jing seal weathering chemical.

Figure 67A and B is the seal for Emperor Gao (高帝之印). All four seal knobs are statues of men with no clothing in various posture, highly unusual for Chinese seals. Figure 67C is the weathering secondary products on Emperor Gao seal showing clay phyllosilicate crystalizing to form a pattern.

Figure 67A. Emperor Gao seal.
Figure 67B. Emperor Gao seal.
Figure 67C. Emperor Gao weathering chemical crystal.

Figure 68A, B is the seal of Emperor Shun (順帝之印} and 68 C Shows weathering chemical on the seal surface. A crack is noted through the iron oxide phyllosilicate crystal. Often cracks are only on the weathering chemical. After frequent rubbing and scraping from collectors over generations, most of the chemical from weathering is removed and the cracks are gone with the removed chemicals and can no longer be seen. This leads to the belief by the collectors that jade has a mythical power of healing itself and heals itself of the cracks, a lasting belief till today..

Figure 68A. Emperor Shun seal.
Figure 68B. Emperor Shun seal.
Figure 68C. Emperor Shun weathering chemical.

The facial features of all four men on the seals use raised lines like those on the Zhou jades (Figure 68 D). There is no sign that spinning wheel was used to make these lines except what is shown on figure 68E, on the mouth of Emperor Shun seal. Within the red circle are metallic granules, and red arrows pointing to the edges of the phyllosilicate sheet. The mouth is a groove with raised edge. The width of the groove is uneven with some part wider than others, a  feature not usually found on Zhou grinding down carving technique. A break (blue arrow) is also seen on the edge of the groove, also unusual for Zhou jade. The carver and the technique used may not be Chinese.

Figure 68D. Emperor Shun facial features.
Figure 68E. Emperor Shun seal weathering chemicals and tool marks.

The fourth one (Figure 69A, B) is the seal from Emperor Gong (共帝之印). The word 恭 is written as 共. Both words have a common pronunciation and used interchangeably in this instance. The seal also features a naked man bearing a sword and shield. Figure 69C shows the sheet like ferro phyllosilicate crystals.

Figure 69A. Emperor Gong seal.
Figure 69B. Emperor Gong seal.
Figure 69C. Emperor Gong seal weathering chemicals.

The four seals are similar with distinguishable differences. Bothe Emperor Shun (Figure 68 D) and Emperor Gong have round eyes and pointed ears (Figure 70), Emperor Gao (Figure 71) and King Jing (Figure 72) have round eyes with a center pupil and

Figure 70. Emperor Gong, s round eyes and pointed ears.
Figure 71. Eyes with pup[ls and rounded ears of Emperor Gao.
Figure 72. King Jing’s facial features, eyes with pupils and round ears.

round ears. Both Emperor Shun and Emperor Gong seals are one cm tall and larger than the Emperor Gao and King Jing seals. All these may indicate that there were two or more carvers, or groups of carvers. It is impossible to contribute the seals to a particular emperor or king. Of the 187 emperors and kings of the Sixteen Kingdoms many of them have the same title. Each of the emperor and king on the four seals has two to three individuals with the same title among the profusion of emperors and kings of the period, making contribution of the seal to a particular emperor or king impossible. Most of these emperor and kings belong to the five Wu, or barbarian nomadic tribes. The facial features of the four statues on the seal knobs are not Chinese. Also, no nude statue has been found in any Chinese jade carving except these four. Naked body statues are more known in Greece. Greek statues emphasize on the beauty of the human body. But no such indication in these four jade carvings. Only reference can be made are from the scantily clad Buddhist Miran monks ( Figure 73) Miran Stupa shrine MIII fragment – Miran (Xinjiang) – Wikipedia , and on the  mural of the Mogao cave (Figure 74). Mural_in_275th_Cave_of_Mogao_Caves.png (507×458) (  The

Figure 73. Monks on Miran wall painting.
Figure 74. Mogao cave mural.

naked statues probably are tradition of the nomadic tribes with Buddhist belief from Miran and the Shanshan Empire. The script on the seals is Chinese making these seals hybrids of the nomadic tribes and the Chinese culture. The Six Dynasties period which includes the Sixteen Kingdoms and the South Dynasties, is a period of adaptation and simulation of the five barbarian nomadic tribes into Chinese culture, and eventually sinazation of these tribes leads to the disappearance of these nomadic people into the Chinese history. The four seals reflect the cultural as well as ethnic simulation of the time.  A History of Chinese Civilization(illustrated, reprint, revised ed.). Jacques Gernet (1996). Cambridge University Press.  

Jade of the Tang Dynasty.

Very few Tang Dynasty jade is known. Among the over two thousand relics in the most noted Tang excavation in Hejiacun in Shannsi, only twelve pieces are jade, with ten pieces of plates for a belt, a bracelet, and a long cup.  All others are silver and gold metal wares. A question remains that these twelve jade pieces are rather imports made outside of China and not Tang. To find out the reason of such decline in Tang nephrite jade, Deng Shuping (探索歷史上的中亞玉作; 古宮學術季刊, 第三十三卷, 第三期), traced the Tang court official record and found during the Shui Tang period, only jade-made finished products were imported, and no raw jade material coming into China. China does not produce nephrite and has been importing nephrite from Yutian, today’s Hotan, since the Shang Dynasty. (See figure 45 map). During the Han Dynasty Yutian was under direct Han military control and nephrite material flowed into China without any obstacle. Topping this with the invention of the more efficient spinning wheel for jade making, resulted in the profusion of nephrite jade production during Han. The rise of the northern nomadic tribes during the Sixteen Kingdoms gave the control of the Silk Road to the nomadic tribes. Yutian only sent finished made jade products to Tang and no raw nephrite material. The lack of raw nephrite material is the reason why so few Tang jade is found.  

The Han spinning wheel was used to make the Tang jade and tool marks of the wheel are frequently found on the surface. The traditional belief that jade should have its natural color and luster, especially back to a mutton fat white, leads to all unearth jade in China undergoes extensive cleaning including using ultrasound instrument. But ultimately some secondary weathering products should remain on the jade surface as nothing can escape the natural law of weathering. Lack of evidence of weathering chemical on the jade surface only indicates that the jade piece is recently made and does not undergo the thousand years burial. The jades found in the Hejiacun excavation in Shannsi show little chemical weathering effect in pictures. One reason may be that these relics were buried inside two large clay pots and that limited the exposure of the jade artifacts to water resulting in less weathering effect as oppose to if they were buried directly in soil. Yet weathering effect can still be seen on the long cup from the excavation, now in the Shannsi History Museum. ( 忍冬纹八曲长杯-馆藏精品-陕西历史博物馆 (陕西省文物交流中心) ( ). Known Tang jade from excavation is few making comparison to known Tang pieces difficult. The Tang jades presented here will be based on tool marks, weathering secondary products effect, pattern of design base on culture, and religion of Tang.

The Queen jade box

Tang Dynasty is noted for silver and gold metal wares, a tradition introduced through the Silk Road from Eurasia and with the silver making technique also came with the Eurasia artistic influence. Often found on the Tang silver are scrolling foliate and grape tendril vines, typically as on the lot 546 Tang stem cup Tang Dynasty Masterpieces of Early Chinese Gold and Silver from Dr. Johan Carl Kempe at Christie’s NY, 12 September 2019 – Alain.R.Truong ( . Figure 75 is a Tang jade box. On it

Figure 75. Tang jade box.

are cloud designs with a scrolling effect, a resemblance of the scrolling dendrite on the Tang silver. The design is an adaptation of the Eurasia silver combine with the more tradition Chinese cloud pattern, a hybrid adaptation. In the center within a circle is the word queen 后. The design is by inlaying silver wire into the nephrite, combining the silver metal technology with the traditional jade making. Grooves according to the design pattern were first made by cutting into the jade. Straight rigid bend at the turns indicates a thin wire was used to fill the grove (figure 76 blue arrow). For the metal wire be able to be pressed into the groove, the

Figure 76. Metal inlay on jade box.

wire needs to be malleable and to achieve that silver needs to be alloyed with gold. As the wire was pressed into the groove metal overflew onto the jade surface (Figure 76 red arrows). Inlaying metal into stone is not an easy task as the metal will not stay resulting in peeling off of the metal due to stone and metal expands and contracts at a different rate at the change of temperature. Inlaying silver and gold into jade will not be seen in China until the eighteenth century, when Emperor Qianlong (1711- 1799) introduced the technique from the Mughal Empire in Hindustan, today’s north India and Pakistan. The Tang Queen jade box is the only piece of jade inlayed with silver before the eighteenth century.  What technique used to inlay the silver alloy into the Tang jade box and the inlay alloy does not peel off staying on for 1,600 years is a mystery.

Few tool marks are left on the jade surface and what can be found shows the use of the spinning wheel. Figure 77 is the bottom of the bottom half of the jade box. Around the raised ridge are clear marks of the spinning wheel (blue arrows) and as the wheel tracking around the ridge (red arrow). Spinning wheel marks in the form of skid marks can also be seen on the jade box lid at the edge (Figure 78). The jade box is very thin, about 2 mm in thickness. It is unlikely that the spinning wheel can cut it down to such a thin shell. The lack of tool mark and the smoothness of the shell indicate that the jade box was grinded down with abrasive by continue polishing.  

Figure 77. Spinning wheel tracks on bottom of jade box.
Figure 78. Spinning wheel track marks on jade box lid.

Weathering effect can be seen on the outside of the jade box in a thin layer of silicate crystal as on figure 76. Highly likely the origin color of the jade box is mutton fat white and the weathering chemicals in the microcrack and micropore make it appear brownish yellow. More weathering effects are observed on the inside of the box. On the lid are three different types of mineral crystals (Figure 79). On the inside of the jade box are hair like crystal structures, some red and some black  (Figure 80). Such hair

Figure 79. Weathering chemical forming silicate crystal on the inside of the jade box.

Figure 80. Hair like crystals on the inside of the jade box lid.
Figure 81. More hair like crystal on the lid.

like structure can also be found on a spot on the edge of the lid (Figure 81). The nature of these hair like structure is unknown. Some of the Actinolite variations have hair like crystals (Figure 82) Actinolite Portugal – Actinolite – Wikipedia .  Hopefully, science will one day resolve some of the weathering chemical mystery.

Figure 82. Actinolite variation hair like crystals

Fish dragon transformation.

In Chinese mythology a fish at the end of a waterfall leaps the dragon gate and transforms into a dragon. The origin of the legend is not known though the legend appears in the Tang Dynasty and not known in Han. It may have come from the Hinduism trinity that Vishnu the second person in the trinity, creator and protector of the universe, is also a large fish gifted with a horn, and the mythical significance of the fish comes to Tang through Buddhism.   The Fish in Brahmanism and Buddhism (Illustrated). (  The fish dragon transformation reflects the aspiration that a commoner in the Tang society can through study and the royal examination, transformed into a bureaucratic official achieving power and wealth. Figure 83 is a Tang fish dragon. The

Figure 83. Tang fish dragon.

carver was skill enough to put the center of gravity of the fish dragon on one foot, a skill seldom seen. Notice the dragon head retains some of Han winged beast features with the floating crest and horns. The fish dragon is an heirloom jade with most of the weathering chemicals removed. Remanent of clay silicate can still be seen (Figure 84 blue arrows). As all jade made after Han used the spinning wheel, tracks of the spinning wheel are seen on the surface (Figure 84 red arrows).

Figure 84. Fish dragon weathering chemicals and spinning wheel track marks.

Figure 85 is another fish dragon, also an heirloom jade. On the surface, scrap marks from previous owner’s attempt to remove the weathering chemical are clearly seen (Figure 86 red circle). In spit of the effort, silicate crystals are present (Figure 87 blue arrows) as well as spinning wheel track marks (Figure 87 red arrows).

Figure 85. Tang fish dragon.
Figure 86. Scrape marks on fish dragon.
Figure 87. Weathering chemicals and spinning wheel track marks on fish dragon.

In the Tang society ordinary citizens are fish. To be respected one has to be promoted into the upper society as a bureaucratic official, an equivalence to the fish becoming a dragon. For the fish to become a dragon legend has it that fire from the sky must come down to burn off its tail. Tail burning becomes a congratulatory phase and officials receiving a promotion will have a tail burning banquet given by his colleagues as a celebration.  Figure 88 is a Tang fish dragon with Its tail on fire in the process of

Figure 88. fish dragon burning tail.

losing its tail, a sign of promotion and good luck. The tail burning fish dragon is also an heirloom jade with previous chemical removal. Large amount of iron oxide can still be detected in a crusty plaque form (Figure 89 blue circle) and iron oxide in the

Figure 89. Weathering chemicals on burning tail fish dragon.
Figure 90. Hematite crystal in burning tail fish dragon mouth.

micropores and microcracks is what give the reddish-brown color of the fish dragon. Crystalized iron oxide is in its mouth (Figure 90). Without analysis it is difficult to say exactly what these crystals are. One possibility is that they are Hematite Variants. Photographs of mineral No. 46395: Hematite var. Kidney Ore from Alston Moor, Cumbria, England ( Figure 91 shows spinning wheel marks on the jade surface.

Figure 91. Spinning wheel tracks on burning tail fish dragon.

A pearl inside the mouth of a dragon is first seen in the Shui Tang period, with an origination of the pearl from the Gandhara Buddhism. Stone Buddha statues of the Kushan Empire Greco Buddhism are decorated with necklaces with a clasp having two human or dragon figures holding a central pearl.   犍陀罗“龙珠”及其在中国的新发展|中国龙珠图像考① (   The concept of a pearl inside the mouth of a dragon followed Buddhism to China and a dragon with a pearl in its mouth appeared in a Tang architecture arch. 犍陀罗“龙珠”及其在中国的新发展|中国龙珠图像考① ( (Figure 18-2 of the reference)  The pearl in dragon mouth has since stays in Chinese art and dragons are frequently depicted chasing a pearl.  Figure 92 is a Tang fish dragon with a pearl in its mouth. The spinning wheel track marks can be seen under the phyllosilicate from weathering (Figure 93 red arrow). 

Figure 92. Fish dragon with a pearl in its mouth.
Figure 93. Fish dragon with a pearl, weathering chemicals anf spinning wheel track marks.

Jade plates for belt are well known in the Tang Dynasty. Of the 12 pieces of jade from the Hejiacun excavation in Shannsi 10 are plates for a belt. Figure 94 A, B is a jade belt buckle. The front is a dragon head, and the back has an extension for attachment to sew on the belt, unlike the Han type which uses a hook making it detachable from the belt. Figure 95 shows weathering chemical and spinning wheel track marks on the jade surface.   

Figure 94A. Dragon head belt buckle.
Figure 94B. Back of belt buckle.
Figure 95. Belt buckle weathering chemicals and spinning wheel tracks.

Buddhism and Taoism

Elephant is revered in Buddhism. Queen Maya of Sakya dreamed of a white elephant that signifies royal dignity and authority, foretelling her pregnancy with Gautama Buddha. Elephant is not mention in Tang Dynasty in relation to Buddhism except this Tang jade elephant head (Figure 96A B). The elephant wears ornaments not unlike those seen today (Figure 97  Erawan – Cultural depictions of elephants – Wikipedia ). Figure 98 shows weathering chemicals and spinning wheel tracks (Figure 98 red circle) on the jade surface.  

Figure 96A. Tang jade elephant.
Figure 96B. Back of the jade elephant.
Figure 97. Buddhas elephant
Figure 98. Spinning wheel tracks and weathering chemicals on jade elephant.

Bat is an animal both revered by Buddhism and Taoism. In Chinese the word bat has the same pronunciation as “Fu” 福 that has a meaning of blessings including wealth, health, longevity, bureaucratic position, and fertility. Bat becomes synonymous with Fu and is regarded as an animal that brings good fortune. Tang Buddhism also believes that Lohan, or the highest ranking of Buddha’s followers are transformed from bats. Figure 99 is a Tang jade bat.  Figure 100 shows weathering chemicals and spinning wheel track marks on the jade surface.   

Figure 99. Tang jade bat.
Figure 100. Jade bat weathering chemical and spinning wheel track marks.

Tang Dynasty is noted for its painted ceramic demon tomb guards to wear off evil spirits (Figure 101). Figure 102 is a Jade demon worn by the deceased as guardian and protection from evil spirits. Figure 103 shows weathering chemicals and spinning wheel track marks.

Figure 101. Tang painted ceramic tomb guardian.
Figure 101. Tang jade tomb guardian.
Figure 103. Tang jade tom guardian weathering chemicals and spinning wheel track marks.

2 thoughts on “The Evolution of Chinese Jade making from Neolithic to Han, the Griffin winged beast Eurasian Stepp connection, and jade of the Tang Dynasty.

    1. Several of the readers ask for authentication of their antique jade, a service I do not give. Here is some information about Chinese antiquity relics. In the 1950’s China underwent a destructive Cultural Revolution to get rid of the old culture and to go into the new Chinese culture as defined by the Communist party. The Red Guards confiscated all the antique relics from centuries of collection throughout the country. Like the Soviets before them, they sold the relics to the Western countries. If you bought antique Chinese relics before the 1950’s to the 1980’s, you have a good chance of having a genuine Chinese antique. After the 1980’s China produces fake antique jades at a national industrial level, and they may even provide you with an official certificate even though it is against the law to export antiques. If you bought after the 1980’s, especially those with a certificate, you likely having a piece of fake. My advice is look at them under the microscope and decide yourself.


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