For decades, archeologists and historians exploring the enigmatic world of the ancient Chinese civilizations were simply stumped when discovering mysterious Chinese cong relics. These oddly shaped and finely crafted objects seemingly serve no logical purpose, yet they were deposited in burials in great numbers. So, what exactly are they? What purpose did ancient Chinese cong relics serve for the Chinese, and why were they so popular? Let’s try and piece this puzzle together.
Ancient Chinese cong items are a distinctive type of ritual or ceremonial object that dates back to the Neolithic period and are closely associated with the emerging Chinese culture. These objects are characterized by their tubular shape, square cross-section and a circular hole in the center, which is often surrounded by decorative patterns or symbols.
Many of these ancient Chinese cong relics are also slightly tapered. Cong artifacts are typically made from jade—a precious stone that was highly sought after amongst the ancient Chinese—and they have been found in archaeological sites across China.
Chinese cong relics have a square or rectangular outer shape with a circular inner hole. They are characterized by their simplicity and incredible geometric precision. It is still awe-inspiring to see what ancient cultures were capable of, creating such extremely precise items that equal those made in the 21st century but without the use of modern-day equipment.
The outer surface of a Chinese cong relic is often adorned with intricate carvings, including symbols, motifs and patterns. Many of them are decorated with enigmatic faces and creatures, which are said to resemble the later taotie designs, signifying the four evil creatures of the world.
Ancient Chinese cong relics have been found in archaeological sites dating back to the Neolithic period (around 3500 to 2000 BC) and the subsequent Bronze Age in China. They are considered important archaeological finds because they provide insights into the spiritual and cultural beliefs of ancient Chinese societies. One of the foremost cultures with which these relics are associated is the Liangzhu culture, which thrived in eastern China from 3300 to 2300 BC.
Green-black-grey nephrite jade ancient Chinese ‘cong’ relic. (The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)
The earliest Chinese cong vessels were a common find in graves belonging to the Liangzhu Culture. Later ones belong to the Zhou and Shang dynasties, which emerged in close vicinity and in later centuries.
Ancient Chinese cong relics were usually discovered in burials, but the exact purpose of cong items is still a subject of debate among scholars. They are believed to have had a ceremonial or ritual significance rather than any practical function.
Some theories suggest that they may have been used in elaborate funerary rituals, as symbols of the connection between the earthly realm and the spiritual world. Sometimes, burials contained more than one vessel. For example, a burial discovered at Sidun, Jiangsu Province, revealed a buried person surrounded by numerous Chinese cong relics arranged in a circle.
Ancient Chinese jade cong dating back to the late Neolithic. (OGDL v1.0)
The symbolism of cong items is also a matter of speculation. Some researchers propose that the square shape represents the Earth, while the circular hole symbolizes Heaven. This suggests a connection between the earthly and heavenly realms.
Others argue that the carvings and patterns on these objects may convey specific cultural or religious meanings. In the end, we might never know the exact meaning and the importance these objects had for the ancient Liangzhu people. Their secrets could simply be lost in time.
But we do know that these ancient Chinese cong relics were very important to the people of their era, especially because they were made from precious jade. Extraordinary craftsmanship was employed in the creation of these ancient Chinese jade artifacts.
Jade was highly valued in ancient Chinese culture for its durability and beauty, and it was associated with virtue and immortality. Other materials, such as pottery and stone, were occasionally used to create similar objects.
This is the testament to the ingenuity of the ancient Chinese. Jade is simply too hard to be carved, and thus it has to be abraded and slowly worked into shape with special tools. It could have taken weeks and months to create a fine and elaborate cong vessel.
Jade ancient Chinese cong relic dating back to the Neolithic period discovered at tomb found at Sidun in the Jiangsu Province. (Public domain)
Imagine the effort needed to create an exquisite Chinese cong relic in 3000 BC. It was an incredible task. This certainly means that only the wealthy and the powerful individuals of that society could “afford” to have a cong vessel (or several) buried with them and taken to the afterlife. Why exactly did they go to such lengths to create these items and bury them, remains a historical mystery.
Nevertheless, these ancient Chinese cong relics—as well as the associated bi discs—provide marvelous insight into the elaborate ancient Chinese cultures and their ability to craft such advanced and high-quality items.
To create a similarly stunning cong vessel out of jade today would take many hours and complex machinery. And yet, the ancient Liangzhu culture achieved this feat during the Neolithic period, suggesting that they were remarkably ahead of their time.
Top image: Neolithic jade Chinese cong relic from Shanxi Provincial Museum. Source: Public domain
By Aleksa Vučković
The British Museum. No date. “Jade Cong and Bi” in Khan Academy. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/imperial-china/neolithic-art-china/a/jade-cong-and-bi
Various. 3 Oct 2022. “Liangzhu’s Story of Stone: Engineering and Tools” in Springer Nature.
Zhu, X. 4 March 2023. The Realm of King and God: Liangzhu City. Springer.
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