Ritual implements (cong and bi)

Enlarge this image. Ritual implement (cong), approx. 3300–2200 B.C.E. China; Jiangsu province or Zhejiang province. Nephrite. C0urtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60J603.

What is this object? Where does it come from?

Cong (pronounced tsong) are unusual jade objects found among the graves of the Liangzhu culture in the eastern province of Jiangsu, around Lake Tai, near present-day Shanghai. Cong are tubeshaped objects consisting of a circular tube shape with protruding square corners. They appear in short segments (like this piece) or in longer pieces with decorative sections along the length of the object.

What was it used for?

Cong tubes, along with the bi discs (see image below) that are often found with the cong, are some of the most enigmatic objects in ancient Chinese culture. They are the principle jade objects found in Liangzhu culture sites. Many interpretations have been given. Later Zhou and Han texts refer to the ritual use of cong and bi  representing the earth and the heavens, but we can’t assume this was their original meaning. Some scholars have suggested that the round/square shape may have developed from a bracelet shape. While it is unclear what their function is, cong are found in the tombs of people who must have held some important position or rank within the society.
Ritual implement (bi disc), approx. 3300-2200 B.C.E. China; Jiangsu province or Zhejiang province. Nephrite. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B60J957.
Cong often carry minutely incised decorations showing mask-like faces. In this case, there is a small face on the corner of the cong, made up of two round eyes and a curved, oval shape suggesting a nose or mouth. Above the face are two rows of incised lines. Some scholars have suggested that these splitface designs might have influenced the later design of taotie masks on the bronzes from the Shang dynasty (approx. 1600–1050 BCE).

How was it made?

Jade is extremely hard and cannot be carved. It must be worn away with using drills or saws. Jades such as this would have taken a long time to create. Some scholars have suggested that these jades were heated, in order to be worked with such fine lines. Others have suggested they were ritually burned as part of the burial process. Burning or heating might account for the lighter color of some jade cong.
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