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Jade Bi-disk with Characters for "Eternal Happiness" Carved in Openwork

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Period: Eastern Han dynasty (25-220)
Medium: jade
Dimensions: overall height: 18.6 cm, diameter: 12.5 cm, diameter of the hole: 2.6 cm, thickness: 0.5 cm

Qing dynasty (1644-1911) imperial collection

Quarried from Hetian in northwest China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region, the jade is in pale green with reddish purple specks. This round jade disk is extended with an elaborate carving in openwork. On this extension, two exquisitely carved unicorn dragons are symmetrically laid to flank two traditional Chinese characters for "eternal happiness" (chang le) in vertical layout. The dragons curve their bodies with their mouths gesturing to kiss each side of the top character for "eternal" (chang). Pierced with a hole in the center, the round disk is carved with patterns of raised curls that are called "grain design" (gu wen or guli wen).   
  Along the outer rim, the craftsmen carved a poetic laudatory inscription by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795). The inscription is followed by two seals reading "Fragrance of antiquity" (Gu xiang) and "Utter simplicity" (Tai pu).   
  The Han dynasty saw technical innovations in jade carving in terms of style, embellishment, and craftsmanship. Although the Bi-disk was a common form of jade carving at that time, the disk was made more decorative and artistic through new elements such as exquisitely carved extensions and the combination of such techniques as openwork, relief, and intaglio.   
  Flat and with a central hole, a Bi-disk was a ritual object for aristocrats in ancient times. As far as archaeologists know, it was a symbol for Heaven since ancient Chinese believed that the heaven was round. Smaller Bi-disks could be worn as ornaments or placed on the stomach of the dead to preserve the body. Dating to the Neolithic Era (ca. 8000 BCE- 2000 BCE), jade Bi-disk were continually enriched in design and hierarchical significance. The higher-ranking disks were decorated with grain patterns while lower-ranking ones had crosshatch patterns.   
  The Han dynasty witnessed the improvement of the artistry of jade Bi-disks, particularly in craftsmanship. However, production declined in subsequent dynasties until the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing, when large numbers of imitations, either in jade or in glass, emerged both at markets and in imperial workshops.

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