Jade has not only been idealized and personified, but also mythologized, particularly in ancient times when jade vessels were dedicated to rituals and divination purposes. The ancients believed that jade was formed where phoenixes had landed and where there were accumulations of the essence of yang. Proper panning was conducted during moon-lit nights by naked women. It was believed that only by using yin (women were philosophized as yin) to absorb yang could pure jade, the essence of the earth and sky, be obtained. This belief influenced the Chinese for many centuries.
The ancient Chinese also believed that jade staved off corrosion and evil spirits. Many jade burial objects have been found in tombs that date as far back as the Zhou Dynasty (11th Century BC). The Zhou people began using flat pieces of jade to cover corpses. In the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220) this custom developed even further. Flat and square jade pieces were sewn by gold thread into burial suites for rulers so that their physical beings would never vanish. In 1971, the tombs of Prince Jing of the Western Han Dynasty and his wife were excavated, yielding two jade suits. However, the bodies inside had vanished a long time ago.
Myths about jade faded with the passage of time. However, many people today still believe that wearing jade is good for one’s health. Face massagers made of jade have been used since the Qing Dynasty. There are also jade pillows and seat mats. Plum Blossom Jade produced in Henan Province is black in color and has many blue, red, white, yellow and green dots, just like plum blossoms. Emperor Guangwu of the Han Dynasty named this jade a state treasure. Modern tests show that it contains trace elements needed by the human body.
The ancient Chinese valued jade very much, as evidenced by the extensive use of the material. The unearthed artifacts of the Hongshan Culture (5,000 to 6,000 years ago) fall into two broad categories: pottery and jade. The jade ware of the period includes ornaments, ritual artifacts, and divination vessels. Ritual jade battle axes and hatchets symbolized power. Divination vessels were carved in the shape of small animals, such as birds and silkworms. The totem jade of the Hongshan people is a pig with a dragon’s head.
Jade was dominant in China prior to the Bronze Age. The original ancient pictographic character for jade was composed of three horizontal pieces of jade stringed by a central, vertical stroke. Later a dot was added to the character to stand for the word, jade. The one without the dot changed pronunciation, and the three horizontal jade pieces became simply three horizontal lines. This character now stands to mean “king” or “monarch” in Chinese.