‘As there are no records about these prehistoric objects, we can only guess at their original use,’ says Ruben Lien, specialist in Chinese ceramics at Christie’s in Hong Kong. The fact that they are ‘so mysterious’, Lien says, ‘is what draws me to them’.
What is known about archaic Chinese jade, however, is that it ‘was regarded as sacred’, Lien says. The pieces made from this material ‘were highly important objects, rather than decorations’. They are ‘significant religious objects, and every piece has a story’, the specialist continues — although that story has often long since been lost to us.
In some cases, however, pieces of the story have come through. One particularly beautiful archaic jade piece, Lien explains, ‘is believed to be a hair ornament of a shaman. By inserting it upright into the hair, the shaman would be able to connect with heaven.’
Another of Lien’s favourites, from the Hongshan culture, is shaped like a dragon. Unlike the fully grown dragons more commonly seen in Chinese art, this creature looks like an embryo, and represents the evolution of life.
Archaic jades can be divided into two categories, according to the geographical zone in which they were found. ‘Personally I prefer the Eastern Chinese (Huatong) archaic jades,’ Lien says, because their familiar human or animal patterns ‘touch me in a more direct way’.
The evolution in form of archaic jades from the Hongshan culture (circa 4700 to 2900 BC), to the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC), is fascinating, says Lien. ‘If we are lucky enough to see two pieces side by side, we can see the transformation.’
A collection of archaic jades will be offered on 29 November, as part of a series of dedicated sales of Chinese ceramics and archaic jades at Christie’s in Hong Kong.