A very rare jade cong, Late Liangzhu culture, circa 3000-2500 BC

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Lot 3080. A very rare jade cong, Late Liangzhu culture, circa 3000-2500 BC; 2 ½ in. (6.5 cm.) wide. Estimate HKD 3,000,000 - HKD 4,000,000. Price realised HKD 3,700,000. © Christie's Images Ltd 2018

The cong is of square cross section with rounded square corners and slightly tapers from top to bottom. The sides are divided into two registers with two different stylised mask at each of the four corners. Carved from a stone of glossy ivory-white tone.

ProvenanceAcquired in Hong Kong, August 1994.

The squared cylinder “cong”: An enigma from China’s Neolithic Southeast
Dr. Jenny F. SoChinese Art Historian-Consultant

An iconic product of China’s Neolithic southeast, the squared cylinder (traditionally called “cong”) in the current catalogue merits special attention (lot 3080). Its significance as the quintessential ritual and status symbol and the most outstanding artistic creation of China’s Neolithic southeast has been widely acknowledged. But even after the dedicated research of scholars and a wealth of controlled archaeological discoveries, the questions surrounding it remain essentially unanswered.  

How was its unusual squared cylindrical shape conceived? Why does it exist in a wide range of sizes, from monumental objects up to 50 centimeters tall to small beads, and all sizes in-between, like this cong? Why do they almost always carry one or two images—a human-like face with small circular eyes, and an animal-like large oval-eyed image? What do these images mean? What relationship is implied when they are stacked one over the other in tiers? Reliable answers to these intriguing questions cannot be found in the total absence of written documentation from the Neolithic period when writing did not exist; only tantalizing interpretations have been offered. 

However, controlled archaeological excavations since the 1980s have provided some answers. We now understand that this shape originated as a cylindrical bracelet decorated with images, and how efforts to highlight each image by pulling it out from the curved wall created the characteristic four corners of the cong (fig. 1:1–2)But this does not explain why, by 2500–2200 B.C., the low one- or two-tiered bracelet-like cong became tall multi-tiered versions up to 50 centimeters high that could not possibly be worn on the arm. Nor does it explain why the oval-eyed image disappeared in the process, and only the human image remained (fig. 2). 

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fig. 1:1

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fig. 1:2

A jade cong found in Sidun site, Wujin County, Jiangsu province, now in the collection of the Nanjing Museum

fig. 2 A jade cong found in Sidun site, Wujin County, Jiangsu province, now in the collection of the Nanjing Museum. © Wenwu Publishing House

Archaeology also tells us that jades decorated with these images were made in astounding quantities that were buried with just a few select individuals in graves within ritual settings. The most notable are graves at Fanshan and Yaoshan in Yuhang, Zhejiang province, first revealed through publications in the late 1980s. Faced with this overwhelming material evidence, scholars have ventured explanations for the artifacts, their imagery and meanings in ritual and burial, using texts compiled in the last centuries B.C., over two thousand years after these artifacts were made. Scholarly opinions question the credibility of these text-based interpretations given the huge temporal distance between the creation of the object and the texts, composed at a time when ancient prototypes were virtually unknown, and survivals from the past were often regarded as raw material that may be reworked at will.

Archaeology also tells us that jades decorated with these images were made in astounding quantities that were buried with just a few select individuals in graves within ritual settings. The most notable are graves at Fanshan and Yaoshan in Yuhang, Zhejiang province, first revealed through publications in the late 1980s. Faced with this overwhelming material evidence, scholars have ventured explanations for the artifacts, their imagery and meanings in ritual and burial, using texts compiled in the last centuries B.C., over two thousand years after these artifacts were made. Scholarly opinions question the credibility of these text-based interpretations given the huge temporal distance between the creation of the object and the texts, composed at a time when ancient prototypes were virtually unknown, and survivals from the past were often regarded as raw material that may be reworked at will.

Experiments have also demonstrated that heating the nephrite to 900°C or higher will also cause it to turn opaque and white. The resulting surface becomes dehydrated and softer, suggesting to scholars that Neolithic jade workers might have deliberately heated the material to make it easier to carve. However, heated nephrites usually display a dull and finely crackled surface, quite different from the shiny, smooth surfaces of this cong. Other mineralogists believe that its opaque white color represents pristine and unaltered material, indicative of an as yet unidentified or now-depleted source. A mine discovered in the 1980s at Liyang Xiaomeiling west of Lake Tai was once considered a likely candidate for this ancient source, but results of mineralogical analysis do not support this possibility.

 

This glossy ivory-white nephrite was the primary raw material used for jades in high-status burials at Fanshan and Yaoshan (c. 3000–2500 B.C.). There, it was used almost exclusively for one or two-tiered cong and a wide variety of ritual regalia decorated with this dual imagery. The material disappeared from use soon after 2500 B.C. Why was it considered special enough to be the primary raw material for elite burials? What were the reasons behind its limited lifespan? Is its opaque ivory-color indicative of nephrite in pristine, original condition, or is it a result of alteration in burial or human manipulation?  

Even though archaeology confirms the cong’s spiritual and ritual role in the Neolithic southeast, there is no consensus regarding the meanings behind the shapes, imagery, and the ivory-white material used to create them. After decades of dedicated studies by scholars and scientists, the material as well as the exceptional artifacts it produced remain shrouded in mystery. But this does not prevent artifacts like this cong from commanding our attention as exceptional survivals of the highest artistic achievements of an ancient world, rare glimpses into a spiritual and material world that would otherwise have been totally lost to us today.  

Selected References
Francesca Casadio, Janet G. Douglas, Katherine T. Faber, “Noninvasive methods for the investigation of ancient Chinese jades: an integrated analytical approach.” Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, Feb 2007, vol. 387, no. 3: 798–99.
Janet G. Douglas, “The effect of heat on nephrite and detection of heated Chinese jades by X-ray diffraction (XRD) and Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR).” Proceedings of the Conference on Archaic Jades Across the Taiwan Straits (Taipei 2001): 543–554.
Liangzhu bowuyuan, Beautiful jades: selected highlights from the collection of the Liangzhu museum, Beijing and Taipei: Wenwu chubanshe and Zhongzhi meishu chubanshe, 2011.
Jenny F. So, Early Chinese Jades in the Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Art Museums, forthcoming 2018).
Jenny F. So, Antiques preserved: meanings of the jade cong in ancient tombs, Wu Hung, Zhu Qingsheng, Zheng Yan eds. Studies on Ancient Tomb Art Vol. 2, Changsha: Hunan meishu chubanshe, 2013: 1–17.
Jenny F. So, Ancient jade bracelets: types, distribution, development, In Yang Jing and Jiang Weidongeds. Proceedings of the conference on ancient Chinese jades and traditional culture. Hangzhou: Zhejiang guji chubanshe, 2012: 275–81.
Teng Shu-p’ing, Study of excavated Neolithic jade and stone congGugong xueshu jikan, vol. 6, 1988.1: 1–65.
Ts’ien Hsien-he, Mineralogical study of ancient jades).” Tang Chung ed., East Asian Jade: Symbol of Excellence, II. Hong Kong: Centre for Chinese Art and Archaeology, CUHK, 1998: 230–231.
Wen Guang, Chicken-bone white and ivory-white ancient jades, Gugong wenwu yuekan, no. 134, 1994.5: 116–29.
Wen Guang, Alteration of ancient jades, Gugong wenwu yuekan, no. 132, 1994.3: 92–101.
Zhou Zhengyu, Chen Ying,Liao Zongting, Yuan Yuan., A Petrological and Mineralogical Study of Liyang Nephrite.” Acta Petrologica et Mineralogica, vol. 28, no. 5 (2009.9): 490–94.

NoteA Liangzhu jade cong of similar form, material and also carved with two registers of masks at the corners, with the top register representing a man, and the bottom register representing a monster mask, but of larger size, is currently in the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, and illustrated in Liangzhu wenhua yuqi, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 17, no. 18 (fig. 3). Another example similar to the present lot with linear designs but with only one register of masks on a Liangzhu jade cong, is also in the Zhejiang Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology and illustrated in Liangzhu wenhua yuqi, Hong Kong, 1989, p. 30, no. 39.

Christie's. Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Hong Kong, 30 May 2018