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.