Jade bi

Contributed by British Museum

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This jade disc, known as a bi, was made in around 1200 BC but is inscribed with a text written in AD 1790. Similar discs have been found in the tombs of ancient Chinese aristocrats but their original function remains unclear. This bi was owned by the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing dynasty (ruled AD 1736 - 95), who had the bi inscribed with a text he had written, commenting on the possible function of the piece and its antiquity. The Qianlong Emperor was renowned for his compositions and wrote around 40,000 texts.

Who were the Qing dynasty?

The Qing dynasty emperors were not native Han Chinese but were Manchus from beyond the northern Chinese border. As the ruler of a vast empire, it was imperative that the Qianlong Emperor demonstrated his understanding of China's history and culture. China's population more than doubled in the 1700s and the economy also boomed. Qing China was regarded by many intellectuals of the European Enlightenment as the greatest empire the world had ever seen.

The Qianlong Emperor is thought to have fathered 18 children

Reuse and recycle

Some 3,200 years ago this disk of pale beige jade with a raised central collar was worked for an aristocrat. Archaeologists have discovered similar jades in the tomb of Queen Fu Hao. She was buried in about 1200 BC in Anyang and was a concubine of the Shang King Wu Ding.

Her grave was the only unrobbed grave in the Shang capital city and as a result excavators found 750 jades in her tomb, including some antique jades. So, this jade may predate her own lifetime. The stone was probably imported, unworked, from what we call today Xinjiang province in Western China.

Nearly 3,000 years after it was made, in AD 1790, this object was in the imperial collection and was inscribed at the Qianlong Emperor’s court under his instructions with characters which he composed. The Qianlong emperor had many of his vast jade collections inscribed with poems he’d written including antiques, as well as having contemporary pieces made for his poems. Craftsmen added poems to all materials including jade, lacquer and ceramics.

The Qianlong Emperor had a passion for collecting antiques and works of art. His identifications are not always accurate, as here, but the calligraphy itself enhances the object. We know that he and a team of ghost writers compiled 44,920 ‘verses’ – but do not know what proportion of these are inscribed on objects. These verses are like colophons on paintings celebrating his enjoyment and connoisseurship.

As a result of a workshop held at the British Museum in March 2010 we discovered that the bi disc may have a matching white ‘Ding’ bowl, which is mentioned in the inscription and is now in the Palace Museum, Beijing.

The research continues, and the chapters in this objects life are still being written.

Jessica Harrison-Hall, curator, British Museum

Comments are closed for this object


  • 1. At 11:10 on 9 October 2010, Patclontarf wrote:

    I would have liked to have been told more about what is written on the bi.A translation of some of the calligraphy would have been wonderful.

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  • 2. At 18:19 on 10 October 2010, Mipanko wrote:

    I would have liked to read all the characters on the bi but your picture does not allow me to rotate the bi so that I can read the characters around the 6 o' clock position unless I turn my head upside down!

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  • 3. At 05:53 on 11 October 2010, Alex Chan wrote:

    The inscriptions with translations can be found here:[Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

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  • 4. At 06:22 on 11 October 2010, Alex Chan wrote:

    Here are the inscriptions with translations from the British Museum website (since URL's cannot be posted here). You can go the British Museum website, select the "Research" tab, and enter "1937,0416.140" to search the details of the collection.


    Inscription Translation: Prose-format paraphrase prepared by Stephen D Allee, August 2010.

    It is said there were no bowls (wan) in antiquity / but if so, then where did this stand come from? It is said that this stand dates to later times / but the jade is antique and not of modern stuff.

    It is also said that a bowl (wan) is the same as a basin (yu) / only differing from it in size; (1)
    But early dictionaries like the Shuowen and Fangyan / are not entirely certain about this. (2)

    Nonetheless, four or five stands are in the imperial collection / and one can see their excellent quality;
    All are of jade that dates to the Three Dynasties (3) / and are actually quite suitable for holding bowls.

    Of bowls and stands that had not been separated / only one set remained for me to compose a poem. (4)
    All the rest had been matched with ceramics / and were perfectly good to be displayed together.

    This stand is made of ancient jade / but the jade bowl that once went with it is long gone;
    As one cannot show a stand without a bowl / We have selected a Ding-kiln ceramic for it.

    The bowl fills the hole in the stand / and its round base makes a perfect fit;
    But whether they belong together or apart / it is hard to fully advance either theory.

    I have written a poem in five-character verse to record all the facts / and convey my feelings separately to Fengcheng (or: ?and to convey my feelings on departing Fengcheng?). (5)

    Inscribed by the Emperor, new spring of the gengxu year in the Qianlong reign period (1790).

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  • 5. At 10:10 on 19 April 2011, David12 wrote:

    The fact that the inscription fits so exactly around the disc suggests that it was first drafted elsewhere and edited. It would be wonderful to find one of the early drafts!

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