1. Studies in Connoisseurship: 1923–1983, September 23, 1983–March 1, 1984; by Julia K. Murray (shown with F1916.499, F1916.118, F1917.63, F1916.410; additional jades organized by types shown in same case)
A few jades related to these plaques and beads by shape or by decoration have recently come to light in the excavation of sites associated with a late phase of the Liang-chu [Liangzhu] 良渚 culture, which flourished during the late Neolithic period in eastern coastal China. They include an angular plaque, of a different shape than the Freer pieces (F1916.628, F1917.382), bearing an arrangement of large oval eyes executed in low relief; such large eyes in further elaboration are seen on a plaque in the Freer collection (F1916.511). Other jades with comparable décor include a few ts'ung [cong] 琮 with demonic-mask motifs (F1916.118, F1916.499), sometimes in multiple registers. The mask motif may be ancestral to the ubiquitous t'ao-t'ieh [taotie] 饕餮 found on Shang 商 dynasty bronze vessels. The beads (F1917.378a, F1917.378b) probably were originally part of an elaborate necklace.
2. Liangzhu 良渚 and its Legacy, November 4, 2010–January 3, 2016; by Keith Wilson (shown with F1917.384, F1916.118, F1919.47, F1916.499, F1917.65, F1917.95, F1916.410, F1917.41, F1919.51)
China, Liangzhu 良渚 culture, ca. 3300–2250 BCE, late Neolithic period
These jade cong 琮 tubes with a square cross-section bored with a central hole are now considered an innovation of the Liangzhu 良渚 culture. Cong 琮 come in a great variety of sizes and are frequently found in Liangzhu 良渚 tombs, sometimes arranged with other jades in a circle around the body. The original meaning and function of these ritual forms remain unknown. Many of the earliest and most carefully finished examples (the result of months of laborious shaping by hand) are comparatively compact; their rounded shapes suggest the form evolved from bracelets. On two of the cong 琮 here (F1916.118, F1917.384), the haunting mask design—with its bar-shaped mouth, raised oval eyes, sunken round pupils, and two bands that might indicate a headdress—resembles the motif seen on Liangzhu 良渚 jewelry.
Much larger cong 琮, which are frequently made of lower-quality nephrite, emphasize impressive scale over meticulous workmanship. They have flatter sides, sharply angled corners, and squared collars at top and bottom—all indications that less time and attention were paid in shaping a rectangular block of jade. Simplified mask motifs on these cong 琮 would have been easier to produce as well. Such shifts might be associated with changing attitudes towards ritual objects that were intended for burial.
The cong 琮 form continued in use long after the Liangzhu 良渚 culture flourished, but later Neolithic and Bronze Age examples (such as F1917.41, F1919.51) are typically smaller and undecorated, suggesting their diminished importance in burial rituals.
Museum founder Charles Lang Freer acquired these cong 琮 largely for their aesthetic appeal: he simply liked the way they look. Freer was attracted to their intriguing shapes, smooth surfaces, and mottled colors. A century ago, when these cong 琮 appeared on the international art market, little was known about their historical, cultural, or archaeological significance. Today these mysterious tubes, along with most of the other objects in this room, are recognized as being among the most important jades from the Liangzhu 良渚 culture now outside China.
3. (Keith Wilson, "Afterlife: Ancient Chinese Jades," Gallery 19, Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Oct. 14, 2017 to Apr 15, 2018)
Liangzhu culture, ca. 3300–2250 BCE
China, late Neolithic period and Shang dynasty, ca. 3300–1050 BCE
Gift of Charles Lang Freer
What Was It For?
An innovation of the Liangzhu culture, these jade cong (pronounced tsung) tubes are the result of months of laborious shaping by hand. Various sizes are found in Liangzhu tombs, sometimes arranged with other jades in a circle around the body. While their original meaning and function remain unknown, the circular shape of many early examples suggests the form evolved from bracelets. Look for a haunting mask design, with a bar-shaped mouth, raised oval eyes, and sunken round pupils.