Sunday, July 14, 2013


The bi or pi is a simple form, a flat disc with a central circular hole, first used in Neolithic times, mostly in eastern China. The original use of this object was ritual. The Hongshan culture in the north-east produced small bi in round or square form with rounded corners and two holes for suspension, but they also produced larger size discs, plain round, notched and collared, which are not well documented. Although they were in use during other Neolithic cultures, it was the Liangzhu culture during which they became prominent for their size and the number found in individual burials.

The bi is believed to be the symbol of Heaven and, like the cong, was used by shamans in religious ceremonies. The large numbers found in some well-documented tombs ascribe to the fact that the bi had significant meaning throughout life and into the after-life. The high value put on jade throughout history ensured that its use was reserved for the upper echelon of society as was clearly indicated by the tombs that contained large numbers of jade objects. The famous excavation of the Liangzhu culture tomb M20 at Fanshan, Yuhang, Zhejiang province, yielded forty-two bi discs, and tomb M3 at Sidun, Wujin county, Jiangsu province, held twenty-four. Most of the discs were of poor quality stone, with the finest quality reserved for prominent positions on the body.

During the Warring States period, glass was produced and used as a substitute for jade. It has been suggested that glass was regarded as a cheaper alternative to jade, and used by the middle strata of society. However, it should be noted that five glass bi were part of the inventory of tomb goods from the Western Han dynasty tomb of Zhao Mo (Hu), Emperor Wen, the second Nanyue king. His tomb held seventy-one discs and rings, and 139 pottery discs. This could lead to the assumption that perhaps at this time a certain number of bi were necessary for the burial ceremony, and allowed the use of pottery discs to make up the number.

During the Zhou and Han dynasties the decoration on bi reached the highest form of art. They were elaborately decorated in low and high-relief depicting religious themes, battle scenes, hunting, the dragon and phoenix and other animals. The bi continued to be used to a lesser degree through the following periods of Chinese history, and the original ritual use declined. Even today, in modern history, the circular design of the bi has significance and is popularly used in jewellery.

Shown below are some of the more unusual bi in our collection.

Period: Liangzhu culture (approximately 3000 - 2000 BC0.
Medium: Nephrite jade.
Colour: Yellow-green with red-brown areas.
Dimensions: Diameter 24.4 cm; thickness 1.3 cm.

The bi has three zones of design.  The outer rim of the bi is carved with the registers seen in Liangzhu cong, with alternating anthropomorphic and zoomorphic masks.  The central zone is recessed by approximately 3.5 mm, and has six zoomorphic masks surrounding a small bi.  This small bi is divided into two sections by a shallow channel and each section is in the form of a huang with pierced work depicting a zoomorphic mask.  The central perforation has been drilled from both sides, leaving a ridge in the middle.

The following discs are also very rare.  A plaque with similar pierced work is shown on p. 74 of the book Jade.  It is also shown on p. 132 of Jades from China by Angus Forsyth and Brian McElney, as being from the Peony Collection.

Period: Liangzhu culture (approximately 3000 - 2000 BC0.
Medium: Nephrite jade.
Colour: Yellow-green with red-brown areas.
Dimensions: Diameter 19.3 cm; thickness 3 mm.

The disc is elaborately decorated with incised line work on one side and plain on the reverse side.  It is divided into two sections by a shallow plain band.  The top half depicts a human figure wearing a feathered headdress.  The bottom half has a large monster mask with large round eyes and straight mouth with two long teeth protruding.