Thursday, June 6, 2013


Period: Possibly Shang dynasty.
Medium: Nephrite jade.

Shown below are a small group of figures, which do not conform to what could be considered the norm in ancient Chinese art. They are unusual and confronting in design. The closest relationship we could find to any documented artefacts are with the bronze figures, heads and masks excavated from the archaeological site in Sanxingdui. The site is recognised as one of the most important ancient remains in the world. It was first discovered by a farmer in 1929 and in 1986 two major sacrificial pits were found. However, with no texts or mention of this culture in other records, little is known about this extraordinary find. It has become known as the Sanxingdui culture, and archaeologists identify it as the ancient kingdom of Shu. Radiocarbon dating of the artefacts recovered dates them to the 12th - 11th century BC.

Reading through the Introduction by Yeung Kin-Fong in Jade Carving in Chinese Archaeology, Vol. 1, he says: “Archaeologically, Shang culture may be divided into two different types – the Erligang type, the earlier, and the Xiaotun type, the later. Few in number and regarded as relics of early Shang, the jades of the Erligang period have mainly been discovered in Zhengzhou, Henan, Taixicun, Gaocheng County, Hebei and Panlongcheng, Huangpi County, Hubei. Most of the materials concerned are not yet published, and it is difficult to give a comprehensive discussion on these isolated finds at the present moment. On the other hand, jades of the Xiaotun period, regarded as relics of late Shang, were well known to people as early as in the 1930s. A great number of jades, illegally and unscientifically excavated mostly from Anyang, Henan, are illustrated in many books and monographs.”

In discussing the style of carving in the late Shang, he says:
“The fashionable motifs of surface decoration on jades of late Shang are spiral, yun-wen (deformed spirals), “scale”, segmented pattern, the distinctive “Shang eye” and animal face or toatie. These patterns are often rendered in crudely incised double lines, which were produced by means of 'gou' and 'che', and are the most significant characteristics of jade decoration in this period. The crudely incised double lines are actually two grooves known as 'yinwen' in Chinese term. They lie side by side in pairs and each is bevelled on the edge away from the groove, so that the space between them seems to stand in relief above the surface and looks like 'yangwen' (raised lines) which is seldom found in surface decoration on jades in the late Shang Period. The true 'yangwen' stands out in relief and is produced by grinding down the remaining surface beyond the space mentioned above.”

Getting back to the group of figures in our collection: When we first saw them and for a long while after, we thought they could be dated to the Zhou dynasty. However, the quality of the raised line work on them points to an earlier time, perhaps the Erligang period of the Shang dynasty or one of the cultures running concurrently.

We can only speculate as to the purpose for which they were produced.  They may be deities, perhaps a form of ancestor worship.  The differences in them may indicate the special gift that each one possesses.  The wing-like protrusions may suggest flight.  It is impossible to find a reason for the holes drilled in odd places on each figure.  The reason for their existence is every bit as mysterious as the bronzes of Sanxingdui.

Dimensions: H. 17 cm; W. 8 cm; D. 8.5 cm.

Unusual features: The ribbed headdress is reminiscent of that seen on the small kneeling figure found in the Shang tomb of Lady Fu Hao.  The protruding eyes are large and bear a resemblance to the bronze masks found in Sanxingdui.  The large ears are another unusual feature as are the wing-like projections from the shoulders.  The figure holds something with both hands - perhaps a symbol of authority.  There is a single drill hole in the back of the head.


The picture above of the spiral decoration on the robe of the figure demonstrates true 'yangwen' carving, with the line work standing in relief.

Dimensions: H. 18.3 cm; W. 8 cm; D. 9.5 cm.

Unusual features: This is the only female figure in the group, and also has the large ears and wing-like protrusions from the shoulders.  She carries what appears to be a blade in each hand, with the tip pointing downward.  The ribbed headdress slopes down towards the forehead and curls under.  Two holes drilled off-centre, one at the back and one at the front of the figure, are conically shaped and show that a hollow drill has been used.

The jade shows considerable alteration in bands of raised crystals, with several dissolution cavities visible.

Dimensions: H. 19 cm; W. 8.3 cm; D. 7.5 cm.

Unusual features: Starting at the top of the head, an impressive flange rises from between the eyes and widens as it follows the shape of the top of the head and protrudes behind it.  The back of the head has a series of curved furrows and the ears point outwards.  The most unusual feature is the mouth which has two shallow drilled holes at each corner and three larger drill holes in the middle, using a hollow drill and leaving the cores intact.  A single drill hole is off-centre to the left of the back.  The arms are hollowed out to approximately 1 cm. deep, with no hands.  The figure is in a kneeling position.

Dimensions: H. 19.5 cm; W. 8 cm; D. 9 cm.

Unusual features: The most unusual feature in this carving has to be the eyes.  The pupils protrude on cylindrical stems.  This feature is described as telescopic eyes in an art and archaeology site showing the Sanxingdui Museum and some of the special artefacts housed therein.  To the right is a picture of a bronze mask in the museum collection.

This figure also holds up a weapon in each hand, with the tips of the blades pointing upward.  The large ribbed headdress has two protrusions at the top that have a section cut out of the top of each.  It steps down to curve over the top of the forehead.  The legs have no feet, but display what looks like four claws on each side.  The back has a narrow pleated section falling from the waist, perhaps depicting a tail.

Two holes have been drilled in the figure - one in the middle of the back of the head and the other on the right hip, closer to the back. The large pointed ears and wing-like protrusions on the shoulders are similar to what is seen on most of the figures.

Dimensions: H. 20.6 cm; W. 7 cm; D. 8.4 cm.

Unusual features: The arms holding downward pointing weapons are backwards.  The wing-like protrusions are on each side of the head, where the ears are on the other figures.  A flange of scrolls protrudes from the top of the head.  This figure has four drill holes - one in the middle of the back, one slightly off-centre in the front, one on the right side and one in the left side of the neck.  The bottom of the garment has three ribs running around it.

Dimensions: H. 20 cm; W. 7.5 cm; D. 9.8 cm.

Unusual features: There are two horns, one small one protruding from the bridge of the nose and a larger one from the forehead of this strange figure.  Two branched horn-like protrusions rise from the top of the head.  All the other figures display distinctive cheek bones, similar to those of the Sanxingdui bronzes, but here they are defined by raised angular bands ending in a point on each side of the face.  Three small holes are drilled between the lips, and two raised and pitted balloon-shaped patches are at each corner of the mouth.  As with most of the other figures in the group, this one also has its arms extended grasping a weapon in each hand with the tips pointing upward.  The ears are large, wings sweep back from the shoulders and two drill holes, one in the middle of the front and the other off-centre on the right side.

Dimensions: H. 21.4 cm; W. 7.4 cm; D. 8.7 cm.

Unusual features: The ribbed headdress slopes downward and curls over the forehead.  A projection from the middle slopes towards the back.  The cheek bones are defined and form a curl at the tip on each side.The plain wing-like protrusions coming off each shoulder have a knob at the base with a hole drilled through the middle of each one.  The hands are held in front of the body and covered by something ribbed and triangular falling softly.  A hole is drilled on each side, evenly spaced, and the garment is decorated around the bottom and back of the figure with scrolling patterns.