S.H. is helping to close down her late friend's home. She found a framed disc carved with curling beasts mounted under glass. The material, she thinks, is bone. The outside diameter is 10 inches and the piece is about an inch thick; the center bears a 2-inch diameter hole. She thinks her friend may have collected it in Alaska, where she used to visit.
S.H. is about 3,500 miles off, however, and the material is not bone. This is a Chinese bi disc, a type of circular ancient jade artifact, found in tombs of noble emperors and aristocrats, often discovered resting upon the lower abdomen. Their true meaning is unclear, but since the beasts depicted here are "sky dragons" and the swirls that outline them are stylized clouds, this type of bi disc is usually associated with the heavens. Because they are found in tombs, archaeologists surmise they are considered conduits for communication with the ancestors. It's interesting to me that the one piece S.H. finds intriguing in her late friend's home is an artifact thought to open the portals to communication with deceased loved ones. Even though S.H. might not know what this piece is, or where it comes from, its power is compelling. This often happens with objects of great and aged symbolism.
The earliest discovered bi discs date from the Neolithic period during the Lanzhou culture (3400-2250 BCE). S.H.'s find might be a 20th century reproduction, because of the classic and enduring nature of Chinese art, or it could even hail from the Shang, Zhou or Han dynasties. Chinese artists pride themselves on keeping a tradition the same over thousands of years, so age is often hard to tell. But these objects were indeed precious: During the Zhou Dynasty, so important were these bi discs that a defeated general surrendered his bi to his captor. They have been passed down in families for generations.
S.H., the disc symbolizes communication with those departed as well as the spirits of heaven. But like many Asian symbols, this bi has a counterpoint symbol called a cong. S.H., look around your late friend's house for the object most often found with the bi disc — the cong vessel. The cong is a tube of jade or ceramic with a circular inner section and squarish outer shell — a hollow cylinder inside a square block. The square cong symbolizes the earth, and the round bi symbolizes the sky. These ritual objects were handled by Chinese shamans to evoke the revolving, covering sky, keeping guard over a central, still hollow point. And always the polarity of the earth, the cong, existed under the bi, the heavens.
S.H.'s hand-carved disc features old white jade, with an aged-looking surface. Jade is such a treasured, and, today, very valuable material that old jade is difficult to ascertain. It is a very hard stone, and because of its beauty and hard surface, it bears a carved surface throughout time.
Jade, the ancient legend tells us, is a Chinese gift from the gods, discovered by the legendary ancestor Bian He in the early days on Mount Chu. Presenting the stone to his emperor, who had never seen jade before in its incipient, hidden nature, Bian He's emperor could not see the precious jade deep in the surrounding gray stone. Bian He insisted that his emperor quarry the jade — and become rich: All the Emperor could see was common, gray stone. The precious jade was hidden inside, a metaphor for many treasures.
The emperor punished both Bian He and his son as fools and liars. In good time, three generations later, Bian He's ancestor finally convinced Emperor Wen of the existence of the encased jade. In 221 BCE, when the emperor conquered the Warring States, he ordered the jade bi disc carved to become forevermore his imperial seal.
Values for bi discs vary greatly because the Chinese rulers have treasured this type of artifact for thousands of years. A modern (20th century) reproduction might sell at auction for $500, depending on the quality of the jade. Age is difficult to ascertain, because the jade material may be ancient, itself, although the carving might be relatively recent. If "recent" means 300 to 400 years ago, S.H.'s might be a Ming Dynasty piece, and could be worth $1,500 to $3,000. A Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) bi disc, depending on the jade quality, could be worth $1,000 to $2,000. Thus, age and quality of jade as well as the precision of the carving are determinates of value.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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