Lore of the rings

By Zhao Xu | China Daily | Updated: 2024-03-02 14:58
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A jade disc with grooved concentric circles from the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC). [Photo by Nanjing Museum/Teng Shu-Ping/China Daily]

Exquisite jade discs and rings help illustrate how ancient Chinese civilizations learned to shape intractable natural resources, and in doing so, developed a thriving culture that still resonates today, Zhao Xu reports.

If there's one type of item that embodies the ancient Chinese jade story, it could well be jue, known to Western researchers as a "slit ring". The circular jadeware item features a slim opening that runs from its outer edge, across the radius, to its holed center. Believed to be an ear adornment, the oldest, dated to some 9,200 years ago, were found at a Neolithic site dubbed "the cradle of the Chinese jade culture".

Measuring 400,000 square meters, the site, known as Xiaonanshan (Little Southern Mountain), is located in the far northeastern tip of the country, on the western bank of the Ussuri River overlooking Russia. There, along with the jade slit rings, archaeologists have unearthed more than 200 pieces of jadeware, including discs, tubes and flat beads, all similarly aged.

"The discovery has helped to make Northeast Asia the place where evidence of the world's earliest jade usage is found," says Zuo Jun from the prestigious Nanjing Museum, where he was curator to a grand exhibition tracing the entire trajectory of China's jade history. "This is no coincidence: Stonework was highly developed in that region during the early stage of the Neolithic Age. And we have every reason to believe that people who were experts with stones were also good at looking for, and working with, the more beautiful ones."
And they were very, very choosy, says Zuo. "Being beautiful was not the only criteria — our ancestors were looking for a specific type of stone with a soft shine, one that modern-day geologists call 'nephrite'."

A silicate of calcium and magnesium, nephrite is not a mineral species, but rather a mineral aggregate formed by tightly interlocking microscopic crystals. This chemical structure has given the stone a sturdiness second only to that of black diamond, a remarkable trait from which metaphors of unbreakability and tenacity would be extracted some 7,000 years later.

Yet, none of the interpretations would be possible without the tenacious and ingenious efforts of those who were behind the jade discs and slit rings of Xiaonanshan. By finding ways to work the most "intractable" stone into primitive pieces of art, they had helped to not only bring out its sheen, but uncovered a charm that would hold eternal appeal for those who came after them.

"In no other region of the world has this material been worked with such skill in such a long and unbroken tradition," says Zuo. "From the very beginning, there was the realization that to fully tap into the potential of nephrite jade, one must give up the approach long adopted for the making of stone tools."
Since the Paleolithic period, stone tools had been made from rocks such as flint, shale and obsidian. All three, while dry, are very brittle, allowing stone flakes to be produced with repeated pounding. These flakes, sharp around the edges, made for ideal cutting tools.

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