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Liangzhu Jade - The real McCoy!

During my visits to Hangzhou and the Liangzhu Culture area north of it, the closest I came to real and ancient jade artefacts was at the local museums but always separated by bullet-proof windows from actually touching them.

In the last week of November 2005 however I had the possibility to see and touch real jade and particularly the “Mona Lisa” of the Liangzhu Culture, the Fan Shan “Big Cong” of the tomb M12 excavated in 1986.

This was made possible by my contact in Hangzhou, Mrs. Zhang, whose attention was caught during a public presentation by a local jade expert through her persistent questions about technical details which I had submitted her previously. It turned out that this person was none other than the local Howard Carter (discoverer of the Tutankhamen tomb), i.e. the well known Mr Mou Yongkang of Hangzhou.

Mr. Mou Yongkang, now in his early 80’s, is the “Mr. Liangzhu jade man” in Hangzhou and he was more than eager to show me archaeological diggings and the treasures in the Provincial Museum on the West Lake.


Part 1. Songze and Majiabang Culture tombs in Dipu Town in Anji County

For the first visit we drove, on a beautiful early winter Day, from Hangzhou about 1 1/2 hour northwest in the direction of the Mountains and Lake Taihu.


Satellite image showing the direction from Hangzhou to Dipu via Liangzhu and PingYao

The highway carried us through the Big Bamboo Sea, a forest covering much of the mountains and as the wind blows, the flexible bamboo branches undulate back and forth with a rhythm much like a large green body of water. In this scenic area, the famous treetop, or rather, bamboo-top fighting scenes between Zhang Ziyi and Chow Yun-Fat in Ang Lee's movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." were shot.


The Giant Bamboo groves on the road to Dipu in Anji County and the movie scene

The archaeological site we visited was an emergency dig located in the middle of the town and in an area where small houses had been demolished to make place for a multi-storey housing project.

During the preparation of the new foundations, cultural strata with over 120 tombs from the Majiabang (about 5000 to 4000 BC), Songze Cultures (about 4000 to 3000BC), Shang (1600-1050BC) and Zhou (1050-221BC) Dynasties were found. Dipu is at the southern edge of the Songze and just north of the younger Liangzhu Culture (3000 to 2000BC) area.


The emergency dig in Dipu


The layout record of the tombs shows them all oriented in the same general northerly orientation

The location of the tomb emplacement is only discernible from small changes in the colouring of the soil and compaction of the material. Because of the acidic nature of the soil here and also in the Liangzhu area, essentially no organic or human remains are found. During my visit workers were just priying away a collapsed, grey earthenware pot from a Songze Culture Burial and in a nearby tomb a remnant of a stepped axe in a grey, finely polished stone was recovered (See also Rawson, 10:3 p.170).


Songze tomb with workers removing, with crude tools, the remains of a ceramic pot


Further view of the race to record archaeological features before the local housing boom wipes them out

After the visit to the site, we went to the local museum where other items from this and other digs around Dipu have been stored. The most precious items found in these Neolithic tombs are slit jue earrings. They were along with discs, rings and pendants, among the earliest of all ornaments made in finely polished stones such as jade. These rings are more frequent in the north-eastern Chinese Cultures and the Zhejiang Province and the Songze Culture are at the southern boundary of their distribution.

Assembled around a table Mr. Mou started to show and explain to the archaeologists and to me the details of the Songze jue rings. These rings, in a milky, white material, were however made in agate and not in jade. The rings have a particular cross-section and the slit, about 3 to 4mm wide, was the place where the ring was inserted into the cut in the ear lobe After a slight rotation the ring was firmly fixed on the ear without danger of falling off.


Mr. Mou explaining to an attentive audience the details of their probable manufacturing sequence, the leftover tool traces and the specific shapes of a slit jue ring


Two examples of slit jue ring in white agate from the Dipu area

The use of this white and translucent agate material therefore preceded the use of jade for decorative items in the subsequent Liangzhu, Shang and Zhou periods.

Mr. Mou published, in 2003, a paper on the subject of slit jue rings with the title “Prehistoric slit jue rings around the middle and lower reaches of the Yangtze River” from which the following pictures and diagrams have been taken.


Position of a slit jue earring in a Xinglongwa (5000BC) Culture tomb in Inner Mongolia and the typical asymmetric ring cross-section with tool marks in the slit


Slit jue ring with Neolithic “repair” indicating that “broken” ones were still considered valuable and wearable (From Mr. Mou’s article)


One slit jue ring in ivory from a Hemudu Culture site near Ningbo in the Zhejiang province and one in red agate/carnelean (From Mr. Mou’s article)

At the Dipu site very few items in jade have been found which would indicate that the local jade sources, exploited about a Millennium later in the Liangzhu Culture era, were not yet widely known.


Songze Culture Huang (≈10cm wide) in Tremolite jade heralding the future Liangzhu shapes and textures


Another Songze Huang in jade from Dipu showing tool marks and again a “repair” effort


Part 2. Visit to the Fan Shan Site near Liangzhu

On the way home from Dipu, Mr. Mou could not resist showing me the Fan Shan Liangzhu Culture Tombs complex in which he unearthed the famous King (biggest) of all Cong’s.

The Fan Shan site is located conveniently close to the road from Pingyao to Hangzhou.

The access, on the eastern side of the road 104, is via a small unpaved country road leading, through peach trees orchards, to a small group of buildings clustering around the Fan Shan hill.


Map showing the key Liangzhu Culture Archaeological sites with the arrows pointing to Fan Shan and Yao Shan


Satellite view of the Liangzhu Culture Triangle with the Fan Shan site located approximately 30° 23’ 43”N and 119° 59’ 04” E and about 500m east of the Road #104 from Liangzhu via Changming to Pingyao


Country road leading to the Fan Shan site and the explanatory poster. The entrance to the site is to the right at the Cedar tree

Mr. Mou explained that he started to search the area when, a little west of it and near the Pingyao-Liangzhu Road, a Liangzhu Culture tomb with jade was found. He explored the surrounding area and at the Fan Shan site, a small platform about 7m higher then the surrounding fields, he started so notice residues of brick coloured burnt earth intermingled with the yellowish soil and sand of non local origin.

After enquiring at a local farmhouse if by chance one of Chairman Mao’s crazy Great Leap Forward Iron Smelting activities had taken place there and, getting a negative answer, a preliminary survey of this and the greater Laingzhu area was started. In this survey he was helped by ancient aerial photographs taken by the US Air force during WWII when the Battle against the Japanese was in full swing and which an US Professor graciously made available to him.

However it took nearly 15 years to get official permission to start the digging. In May 1986, with very little funding, Mr. Mou and a Zhejiang Archaeological excavation team started to explore the site. The first interesting find was at about 2 meters depth in the form of several brick-walled but empty Han Dynasty tombs.


Site sketch of the Fan Shan site with the explored T1 to T6 squares, the TG 2, 3 and 4 trench, the ZT1 to ZT6 sounding holes and the yet unexplored area right or east to it. The scale marker is 30 meters


The Fan Shan Han tombs M1 to M11 in relation to the T1 to T6 exploration squares


West ward view of the exploration site in November 2005 with the Han tombs stratum earth pillar and the overgrown Liangzhu tomb sites


The view in the same direction during the excavation in the late 80’s . Area as shown above but naked during the excavation with the above Han tomb stratum pillar in the background


Left over Han Dynasty M8 Tomb Wall with greyish baked mud bricks with Saltire like surface decoration


Layout of the Liangzhu Tombs in general north-south orientation except for M13 (sacrificial pit?). M12 is the “royal tomb” and M15 and M22 are probably tombs of women as no customary male insignia Cong’s or Yue axes where present


The view in the same direction during the excavation in the late 80’s. The M12 "royal" tomb is in the front row and center of the image

According to Mr. Mou the entire Fan Shan Hill is artificial and was piled up with sand, special yellow soil and piled bricks for the sole purpose of preparing a Liangzhu Culture sepulchre site.

The archaeology team started to carefully remove the top soil below the Han Dynasty stratum and noticed telltale discolorations of the soil outlining north-south aligned rectangular pits not unlike that which he had shown me in the morning in Dipu. The digging continued and about 6m below the Han Dynasty stratum, the Liangzhu Culture tombs were found.


Mr. Mou standing at the exact site of the tomb M12 where, on June 14th 1986, the famous “King of the Cong’s”, together with other jade was found


Layout of the 647 items in the “royal” M12 tomb



The tomb M12 showing the jade implements in situ. The head position is to the left and close to the big cong


View of the “big” cong with remnants of red lacquer decoration of the coffin. In this tomb also a red lacquer coated wooden “sun” disc, a rounded box and a wooden goblet all decorated with small jade cabochons and inserts was found

As soon as the news of this discovery reached Heaven i.e. Beijing, more funding became suddenly available for the excavation. A total of 13 tombs and one sacrificial pit (M13) were found in two rows. Of the 3072 items identified and recovered, the big Cong, in tomb M12 containing 647 other items, is the most remarkable one. The other tombs contained between 61 to 502 items.

Of the Fan Shan site only about half of the estimated 10000m2 archeologically important subsurface has been explored and, according to Mr. Mou, more Liangzhu burials are certainly present and wait for funding to be carefully excavated.

The excavated burial sites have been backfilled and the area is quite overgrown with bamboo, grass and wild tea bushes. On the periphery light brick walls have been built and a video surveillance installed due to its archaeological importance and the danger of clandestine excavations. A difference from the nearby Liangzhu Mojao Shan site, no ceremonial functions, beside burial, could be ascribed to the Fan Shan site.

The Liangzhu jade are stored and displayed in the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in Hangzhou, the Yuhang Museum in Linping and the Liangzhu Culture Museum in Liangzhu town.

Two recent publications on the Fan Shan and the more northerly located Yao Shan site, also a Mr. Mou discovery, have been published recently and can be greatly recommended to anyone interested in Liangzhu Jades.

Fanshan (2 Volumes)
Reports of the Group Sites at Liangzhu (2 Volumes)
Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute of Zhejiang Province
9 × 11.5", Vol. 1: 378 pp, Vol. 2: 374 pp, fully illustrated in colour, text in Chinese,
Beijing, 2005, ISBN 7501017581, Wenwu Publishing House

Yao Shan: Liangzhu Yizhiqun Kaogu Baogao Zhi Yi
Yaoshan: Reports of the Group Sites at Liangzhu, Volume 1
Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute of Zhejiang Province
8.75 × 11.5", 344 pp., fully illustrated in colour, text in Chinese with English abstract,
Beijing, 2003, ISBN 750101437X, Wenwu Publishing House


Wild Camelia Sinesis, the Tea bush, flowering in November and now overgrowing part of the Fan Shan site


Part 3. Touching the Mona Lisa

After the field trip on Sunday, the next encounter with Liangzhu jade was scheduled on the following Thursday in the Deposit room of the Zhejiang Provincial Museum on the Solitary Island in the West Lake in Hangzhou.

Mr. Mou obtained the permission to allow a foreigner to inspect and touch some of the crown jewels of the Liangzhu jade culture namely the famous Big Cong and the Ceremonial Axe of the Tomb M12.

This visit nearly fell through due to a gigantic traffic jam on the access roads. These were closed because an official US delegation was checking out from the nearby Shangri-La Hotel. When we finally arrived, over 1/2 hour late, the customary security guard supervising any jade “consultation” by foreigners was quite edgy as the deadline for the start of consultation had not been met.

After receiving the written inspection request from Mr. Mou, the Curators started to bring the padded boxes with the Big Cong, the Yue Axe and selected Bi’s from the storage vault to the examination table. After donning the obligatory cotton gloves I finally was able to see and touch these items with Mr. Mou explaining the essential details of the Real McCoy’s to me!


Finally holding the Big Cong and Mr. Mou pointing out its details
(Big Cong 8cm height – 17.1-17.6cm diameter – 6.5Kg – central hole 4.9cm diameter)

This giant Cong is in a whitish, highly polished Tremolite based jade. Its surface is smooth and shiny and only the top circular surface and one side suffered environmental damage due to burial.

The Cong has two tiered corners with 8 zoomorphic decorations and headbands outlined with extremely fine lines. In the centre of each face two representations of a human figure (the shaman?) with feathered headdress riding on a mythical beast with large round eyes, a large nose and mouth from which fangs emerge, is visible. These decorations are carved in relief.

On the bottom edge of the cong several irregular rounded depressions are visible. Mr. Mou thinks that these are areas were material was lost during the initial shaping of the cong. These notch-like depressions are also highly polished and additionally carefully decorated with fine lines where they intersect the area occupied by the zoomorphic faces.


View of the top of the King of all Cong’s (M12) with some weathering attack due to burial


Side view of the Cong with two images of human figures riding a beast and revealing the smooth and highly polished surfaces as well as the notches near the bottom


Localized white and red coloured weathering of the Tremolite jade


Detail of the reddish coloured weathered front


Typical notches on the bottom edge of the Cong


Position where the line decoration from the “eyes” is carried over into the notch area. This attention to detail is extraordinary as these surfaces are not visible when the cong is resting on its base



The relief carving of the human figure with a feather headdress riding on the beast



Blown-up picture of the human figure (a shaman?) riding the beast in the exposition hall of the Provincial Museum


Liangzhu Bi with sawing traces


Web-like weathering of a Liangzhu jade Bi. This kind of aging structure is yet unmatched by “copiers”


More weathered Liangzhu Culture jade Bi’s


The ceremonial Yue axe unearthed from “royal” tomb M12 of Fan Shan. Beside the blade, also the top and bottom fittings are in highly polished and exquisitely crafted jade. See also Rawson jade p.137 ff for a similar example


Millimetre sized shaped pieces of jade used as a decorative inlay on the wooden axe handle


Extremely elaborated working of the fitting of the axe handle showing a specially carved recess or socket for the wooden shaft. The mating surfaces are flat, have sharp corners and thus allow for a nearly gapless joint with the wood


Human figure decoration in raised carving in the upper corner of the blade. The whitish surface alternates with patches through which the original greenish jade is still visible


Spots on the axe blade where the underlying translucent greenish jade can be seen in transmitted light. The white surface layer has a stretched appearance thereby revealing the original material below



The monster head carved in relief, some brownish aging stains and the hole for fixing the blade with two crossed strings to the handle


After an exhilarating inspection of Liangzhu jade, a final picture at the entrance of the Zhejiang Provincial Museum in company of Mr Mou and my contact/interpreter Mrs. Zhang


Note: All the images have been highly compressed to allow rapid loading on the homepage. Please contact me if you need copies with a higher resolution.


H.Giess March 2006

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Reader Comments (5)

Truly a fascinating and interesting article. Beautifully illustrated as well.
Many thanks for keeping us informed about your discoveries!

Alan White
March 19, 2006 | Registered CommenterAlan White
Thanks Herbert. It is amazing to see and hear of these things first hand so to speak. The images of the tombs and jades in situ are so important in our understanding.

Interesting to see that cong standing vertical. In laufer's and other books thay are described as lying horizontal beside the body.
March 23, 2006 | Registered CommenterBrian Matheson
Orientation of congs
The Liangzhu congs are quite squat and therefore
their uprigth standing in the grave is less problematic then when you have 5 to 10" long units. I recommend you the two books on FanShan which have all the details where and how the items are located. As these books are quite recent, they are scientifically more reliable then some older publications. In the M12 Tomb there were 6 congs of which the big one and two others where found vertical and three others horizontally orientated. For the big cong it was a natural position. In other FanShan tombs the relation vertical/horizontal is also 50:50. I recall one Liangzhu tomb picture M3 at Jiangsu Wujin Sidun (see Rawson p33) in which a large number (more than 30) of tall congs were found. In this case they where nearly all horizontal and laid down like a frame around the corpse. But again, as in the "royal" M12 FanShan tomb, a large squat cong piece #85 was found vertical near the head appearing thus as the "reference" cong and thus certainly in the "everyday" or "altar" orientation. Another one, #29, and also more squat one was vertical near the feets.
March 25, 2006 | Registered CommenterHerbert Giess

What an exciting!!! trip you had and you article was most informative.

Thank You
October 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBill Wilkey

What an exciting!!! trip you had.

Your article was most informative.

Thank You
October 25, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBill Wilkey

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