Cong and Bi

I was very intrigued by two particular types of Chinese artifacts discussed in class, cong and bi. They were obviously important, since the jade they were made out of is so hard to work with, they’re often so elaborate and they an abundant grave good. Yet we have no idea of their specific meaning. Archaeologists can tell that they were a ritual object, but what they may have represented remains a mystery.

A search for some more information found a page from the Smithsonian website that had a short write-up on cong. It discussed some interesting stylistic differences. Many early ones are compact but feature incredibly detailed decoration. Hours and hours of work had to have gone into their making. They featured motifs found on other special objects, such as a face or mask design. However, another style of  cong is found that is much larger but lacks the careful craftsmanship of the smaller examples. They were often made of nephrite. They would have been much easier to produce, and quality seems to have been sacrificed for quantity. If the purpose of the cong was known, this difference may reveal  some social or cultural significance or change. However, it is simply another unknown facet of the cong.

Bi also had some variation, being found in different sizes and styles. They averaged about eight inches in diameter. Earlier bi are relatively undecorated, with designs becoming more and more elaborate as time passed. Like the cong, they were elite goods. The jade they were made of was difficult to carve and would have taken hours upon hours of workmanship.Bi were usually found with cong, often in rather large numbers. While the exact relationship between the two is not known, later historic documents suggest that cong represent the earth while bi represent  the sky. The  prevalence of both these objects demonstrates the presence of specialized labor. It would have taken a great deal if time and skill to make these; it could not have been achieved by your everyday farmer.

Cong and bi are found in the late Neolithic, when Chinese society is developing many of the defining characteristics of a state. These objects are a perfect example of this. Their sophistication and complexity mark them as elite goods that only some would have access to, demonstrating marked social stratification. This also demonstrates that some people are moving away from solely subsistence labor into much more specialized labor. Although much is unknown about these objects, they reveal a lot about the social layout of Neolithic China.

1 thought on “Cong and Bi

  1. Hannah Brookhart

    It seems like there of reason to wonder about cong and bi – so many unknowns! One thing that seems consistent across archeologists is their use by the elites, like you said. The fact that they are found in a mortuary context, are made of jade, and have very intricate carvings seem to be good evidence for that claim. I am wondering about these modified cong, the ones that are larger and perhaps less intricate. Could it be that these were not made for the elites? I just don’t buy that the design would change in the way it did as a change in material culture, as you and the website suggest.
    The website you discussed says that the larger cong are made with a lower-quality mineral and could have been produced in greater quantity. These are “indication that less time and attention were paid in shaping a rectangular block of jade.” The authors of the cong page on the Smithsonian’s Museums of Asian Art site speculate that this could be due to changing attitudes toward objects used for burial. Perhaps the Liangzhu culture began to place less emphasis on the afterlife?
    As I state above, my own interpretation, which is purely uneducated speculation, these later cong may have been made to be sold to members of a lower class. Not being members of the elite themselves, they might not even know what the elite cong look like. They might have been very pleased to get their hands on cong for the burial of members of their own community (the non-elite community). It’s just a thought. It sort of reminds me of our class discussion of Upper Egypt’s household rough-ware ceramics during the Badarian.

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