One of the most intriguing Chinese Neolithic jade culture is that of the so called Hongshan period (≈3500 to ≈2000BC) considered by many as the source from which the later jade cultures of the Liangzhu period and of the Yellow River Dynasties took many of their inspirations.
The Hongshan Culture itself is the successor of much older Neolithic Cultures such as the Xinglongwa (≈ 5000BC), Zhaobaogou (≈4500BC) and Chahai (≈4000BC) ones which blossomed in what is now the Liaoning Province of the North East China and the eastern areas of Inner Mongolia.
The Hongshan Culture area (in yellow) in North Eastern China
Some of the Hongshan Culture area is now occupied by desert but studies have shown that it was previously flourishing grassland with a spare forest cover.
First Hongshan jade surface finds occurred in the early 70's and mainly by chance. More systematic archeological excavations were carried out between 1983 and 1985 at the Mangniu River site near Niuheliang in the Liaoning Province and revealed an extensive temple site with sophisticated earth walled structures with plaster facing showing pigs and dogs and many shallow and deep tombs.
In this temple area fragments of sculptures of the emblematic pig dragons, in low fired clay, where found.
Excavations of still older Xinglongwa urban sites revealed that people were buried in tombs located inside domestic houses and that entire pigs where interred with the remains of the deceased indicating the particular status this animal had then and the local successor cultures.
Jade seems to have had a particular role and position in the Hongshan Cultures as it is the principal and often the sole type of burial good. All the types of jades appear to have been of decorative nature either being worn directly on the body or sewed onto cloths or attached to wooden utensils.
Essentially no jade artifacts were found in excavations of houses indicating the important symbolic value of them. The jades found have a variable surface finish. Some of the seem to have been hastily shaped and worked, just for the burial, whereas others are highly polished and show traces of wear indicating that many generations have worn them before they were laid into the grave of either the last owner or of a particular important member of the family or tribe.
The most prominent and emblematic Hongshan Jade objects are the “Zhulong” or “pig dragon” and its large derivate, the so called “Crested pig dragon” or “Large C dragon” of the Sanxingtala site. The association with a pig, known to be revered in the Honghsan Culture, is given by the flat ended snout, big round eyes and flat ears.
The Zhulong jade dragon found its way also into the later Liangzhu Culture of the lower Jiangtse Delta area and was also reproduced as late as in Shang Dynasty times.
Scholars of Chinese Culture consider this Hongshan symbol of a pig as the origin of later representation of the Chinese Dragon.
Other typical Hongshan Jade artifacts are represented by birds with spread wings, cicadas and similar insects and open work flat pendants of rectangular or square profile whose retained surfaces are scoped out as broad and smoothed groves.
Other Hongshan specific jade artifacts are small seated statuettes of horned shamans or goods as also that of women not unlikely to similar ones found in European Neolithic sites.
Many of the objects are made in the typical Hongshan yellowish green jade with a smooth and very subtle surface structure either made deliberately or caused by a long period of wearing. The reproduction of the animals show an extraordinary command of the material and the techniques of carving. The Liaoning Province is rich in multicolored mephrite jade.
A typical feature of Hongshan jades are the distinctive way holes where made. This hole type is described as the ox-nose hole. It has twin tear drop shaped orifices leading diagonally onto each other with reducing depth bore and is not encountered in other Neolithic jades.
During one of my recent trips to China, I have found a book of the series “China Ancient Jade Collection” published in August 2005 (ISBN 7-80158-626-3) and which carried extensive pictorial material on Hongshan jades artifacts as assembled by a private collector, a Mr. Xu Qiang of Shenyang, Liaoning Province. Mr. Xu is a director of the Liaoning Film Studio and got interested in ancient jades by his grandfather.
He seems to be quite active in the Hongshan jade scene and is preparing two further books on Hongshan jade appraisal and interpretation. As many of his Hongshan jades have been collected outside controlled archeological digs and sources, it cannot be excluded that the one or other object in his collection is of possible later reproduction.
I have scanned the relevant pictures and enclose them for your enjoyment. For further reading on the subject I can recommend you the relevant Hongshan jade section in “Jades from China” by A. Forsyth and B. McElney of the Museum of East Asian Art in Bath, UK, 1994 and “Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing” by J.Rawson, The British Museum Press 1995.
The pictures are grouped in themes so to allow you to compare the stylistc elements recurring in each group. Note the predominance of the raised globolar eyes and how these Neolithic artists have been able to aptly underscore, with few ridges and grooves, the essence of the shape of an animal.
THE HONGSHAN JADE COLLECTION BOOK by XU Qiang
INSECTS, GRUBS and CICADAS (3 to 15cm in size)
PIG, RABBIT, CAT and TORTOISES
BIRDS, FALCONS and OWLS (5 to 25cm in size)
ZHULONG's and CRESTED PIG DRAGONS (3 to 30cm in size)
CLOUD PENDANTS (5 to 30cm in size)
HORNED GOODS and WOMEN STATUETTES (6 to 18cm in size)
MASK PENDANTS (4 to 8cm in size)
OTHER HONGSHAN JADE ARTIFACTS