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Wednesday
Mar092005

Jade in the Zhou-Li

H.Giess
FOJ March 2005

Now also in Chinese Seal Script Characters!

In the Bulletin of the Friends of Jade Volume IX of January 1995 I have presented the references to Jade in the Chinese Classic, the Zhou Li or Book of the rites of Zhou. This Chinese Classic has been translated for the first time into a western language i.e. into French by E.Biot in 1851.

The Zhou-Li is a commented ancient text describing the organization of the Western Zhou Dynasty court around 1000 BC and which dates, in its actual form, probably from the Han Dynasty period (206 BC – 220 AD).

In the section on the Third Ministry or Ministry of Spring presided by the Great Superior of the Rites, Ta Tsoung Pe, the famous passage on the use of different ceremonial Jade Items is found:

“With the round tablet Bi of bluish color, he does homage to Heaven. With the yellow jade tube Cong, he does homage to Earth. With the green tablet Gui, her renders homage to the region of East. With the red tablet Zhang, he renders homage to the South. With the white tablet in the shape of a tiger Hu, her renders homage to the region of West. With the black Jade piece in semicircular shape Huang, her renders homage to the region of North.

When searching for the original source material, used by Mr. Biot for his translation, I cam across in the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in Paris, of a copy of the Imperial Edition of the Zhou Li, printed approximately 1760 on the order of the Qing Dynasty Emperor Qian Long. (BNF, Manuscrits Chinois 2644-2651).

An excerpt of the particular section of the Zhou Li, written in the Official Regular, Kaishu or also called Zhenshu Style is shown below.

In 2004 an exposition was held in Paris with the Title “Chine: L’Empire du trait. Calligraphies et dessins du Ve aux XIXe siecle” (China: The empire of the stroke. Calligraphies and drawings from the 5th to the 19th century).

In the catalogue of the exposition, edited under the same title by Mrs. Nathalie Monnet and published by the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (ISBN: 2-7177-2258-8) I discovered that a copy of the Zhou Li has been published also in the Seal or Zhuanshu/Xiaozhuan Script. This is the most ancient Chinese calligraphic style and which is used no longer except for special effects writings. The seal script can be traced back to the first texts engraved in ox scapula bones and tortoise carapaces used during the Shang Dynasty (1400 to 1046 BC) for divinatory purposes.



The above character means “Horse” and the different variations appeared as (1) in bronze vessels (~1500BC), as (2) on Oracle Bone inscriptions (~1200 BC), as (3) in Large Seal Script (~800 BC), as (4) in Small Seal script (~200 BC), as (5) in Clerical Script (since 200 AD); as (6) Standard Script (since 400 AD), as (7) in Running Script (since 400 AD), as (8) Cursive Script (since 400AD) and as (9) Simplified Script (since 1950).


“With the round tablet Bi of bluish color, he does homage to Heaven. With the yellow jade tube …………….. in the Regular Script Edition of the Zhou Li dated 1760.

The Seal script is characterized by a constant thickness of the stroke with no distinction between the right-upward or left-downward strokes and remembering the times when the tips of writing brushes where more rigid. The first Emperor of China; Shi Huang Di (211-206 BC) imposed a variant of this Script, the Smaller Seal or Xiaozhuan script for all official documents during his reign.

The Seal script has been appreciated by generations of Chinese scholars because of its archaistic and somewhat mysterious form and is now mainly used for inscription on steles and on seals.


“With the round tablet Bi of bluish color, he does homage to Heaven. With the yellow jade tube …………….. in the Seal Script Edition of the Zhou Li dated 1760.(BNF Manuscrits Orientaux, chinois 2606-2607). The text starts in column 1 and terminates in column 4 as marked.

I have been able to convince the Chinese Manuscript Department of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France to search through the Seal Script Edition of the Zhou Li for the particular “Jade” section and make me a copy of the relevant pages. This version of the Zhou Li has been edited by Li Guangdi (1642-1718) and printed under the order of the Qing Emperor Kanxi (1662-1722) i.e. the Grandfather of the Emperor Qian Long.

However I got only the picture of the page in beautiful seal script and not the exact position of the text.

During my recent visit to Hangzhou/China I took a copy of the page to the famous Xiling Seal-Engravers Society Pavilion on the Solitary Island of the West Lake with the hope that an expert could point out the appropriate text section. The members of this society perpetuate the art of Ding Jing which early 1700 merged calligraphy and seal cutting and bought this art to an artistic climax. The proper selection of seal script characters is one of the tasks when the experts carve seals used to sign and mark documents. They have been quite surprised that a “Long Nose” i.e. a Westerner was interested in such an art and pointed out the relevant text section which I include for your enjoyment.

H.Giess
FOJ March 2005

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