Chinese history stretches back for thousands of years; a history full of wars, revolutions, inventions and clashes of culture. It is no wonder than that some knowledge will forever be lost in time or mysteries yet to be uncovered, even in our technological advanced age.
One of the most enigmatic mysteries is a curiously modern-looking object that had been found in 5000-year old graves: the bi-disc.
Nobles of the Neolithic cultures in the Yellow River valley where buried with a great number of grave goods: pottery, jewellery and jade objects. A flat, disc-like jade stone with a round hole in the middle was reverently placed near or on the chest of a deceased person. Other smaller bi-discs were aligned with the body. But why? What did this stone signify?
(Eastern Zhou–Western Han dynasty (770 B.C.–A.D. 9) Bi Disc at the MET Museum)
Jade stone has been known and used in China since the beginning of its civilisation. Only soft jade (nephrite) was found and used in China until the import of hard jade (jadeite) from Burma a thousand years ago. These jade stones were naturally coloured red, white, brown and green, but a polished and cloudy coloured emerald green was and remains the most populair colour.
Jade is considered the most precious stone in Chinese history and culture. The philosopher Confucius linked the stone to wisdom, purity and many other desirable virtues. This meant that jade became associated with Confucian teachings and moral qualities a person should strive to obtain. Beside that, it was an imperial gem and more valuable than gold!
Wearing jade was considered aesthetically pleasing, a status symbol and a magical way to increase one’s lifespan. Drinking from a jade cup or smoking opium from a jade pipe are just a couple of examples on how immortality could be gained. Even after death, a person could live forever in the afterlife when buried in a jade suit.
Now we know why a jade object would be placed in a grave, but what about the shape of the object?
Archeologists speculate that the round shape of the disc might symbolise the power of the sun, the heavens or the afterlife. It was used in daily life as a symbol of rank and status. A defeated warlord would hand over a jade bi-disc to the victor as a sign of submission.
The round shape would have been very difficult to create. The discs were made even during the Neolithic period, the time before iron was used. Nephrite is a very hard stone and would have been handled with abrasive sand, primitive drills and some kind of saw to create round and flat shapes, an amazingly time-consuming process! The earliest discs were found unadorned, but later examples were often decorated with raised patterns, shapes and mythical animals. Can you imagine the immense effort and craftsmanship it took to create these objects?
Later imperial dynasties did not know anymore what the original meaning was behind the bi-disc and often used them as ceremonial and decorative objects. The Qianlong Emperor (1736 - 1795 AD) even speculated an antique disc in his possession was a stand for a lost jade cup! He thought the disc could not fulfil its original aesthetic goal if not placed with a bowl or cup, so he added a new one. Interestingly enough, this decorative technique is what we continue to do in our own, modern interiors by combining bi-discs with other objects!
Nowadays, the bi-disc has lost its mysterious ritualistic or ceremonial origins, but the object endures. In Western cultures we do not have any cultural attachments to jade, but we love the colours and want to incorporate them in our decorations. Unfortunately, real jade is very expensive. We remake these bi-discs in a cheaper form of jade or completely different stone because the round shapes will remain aesthetically pleasing in our interiors over the centuries! We can even place real bi-discs together with other round objects resembling bi-discs made of wood (old wheels) or stone (mill stones)!
In conclusion, we might never know the original meaning behind the bi-disc, but for the past centuries they have evolved into interesting, decorative objects in interiors! The timeless shape makes sure these discs will fit into every kind of style! Do not hesitate to add a bi-disc or two to your interior!
- June 16, 2017
- Margret Ressang