The Mystery and Symbolism of Chinese Jade Bi
From very early on in Chinese culture it was customary for the wealthiest in society to be buried alongside objects that signified their rank and status, with the objects believed to be transported with them into the afterlife. Typically, these items included silk, ivory and lacquerware along with mysterious objects in jade - flat circular discs known as 'bi' (pronounced 'bee'). From as early as the Neolithic period at the end of the stone age and right through to the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), these mysterious discs continued to be produced and have subsequently been excavated from the tombs of emperors, kings and other nobles.
The discs were usually made from nephrite jade - a hard, strong stone, carved early on using primitive stone tools and abrasives. The earlier bi discs were typically undecorated, with a circular hole in the centre. Historians believe that they were meant to represent heaven, or the skies revolving around a central axis. Later discs featured decorative carvings in patterns associated with deities and heavenly symbols. Given the lack of tools available to create these unusual objects, it must have taken a huge amount of time and effort to produce them. As such they would only have been made for the elite and are found concentrated in the burial sites of evidently high ranking members of society.
Chinese Bi discs have an element of mystery about them as their original purpose and function is not exactly clear. However, it is believed that they were used during sacrificial ceremonies to gods and ancestors, and that they were seen as being able to ward off evil spirits. In neolithic burial sites they have been found placed on or near the chest of the deceased, accompanying them to the afterlife. During the Zhou dynasty they were also given by defeated leaders to the victors of battle as a symbol of submission.
Jade Bi discs became popular again during the Ming and Qing dynasties, produced as reproductions of the earlier artefacts, and have continued to play an important role in Chinese culture. The design for the medals for the 2008 Beijing Olympics took inspiration from the ancient bi, with an inset jade ring inscribed with a dragon pattern on the reverse side. More recent reproductions of bi are made not only from jade but also from marble, glass or metal, with their simplicity of design and decorative colours making them ideal as objets d’art in modern interiors.
It can be difficult to put a value on ancient bi discs today as prices vary greatly depending on the age, quality of jade and precision of any carving. A large, yellow jade Han Dynasty bi (shown left) was sold by Bonhams in Hong Kong a few years ago for nearly HK$ 2 million (around £200,000), while more recent discs from the Ming Dynasty are expected to fetch around £2000 - £3000 at auction, with Qing Dynasty examples slightly less.
If you don’t have that kind of money to spend then you’ll find a more affordable, beautiful selection of reproduction Chinese Bi rings amongst the Shimu range, produced from jade in various colours and with lovely figuration. They include both large and small discs, either plain or with carvings of dragons or auspicious Chinese symbols and each one is displayed on a black metal stand. They make wonderful, individual ornaments placed on a console or sideboard, with a rich history and symbolism.