Disk (bi) with knobs, feline, and dragon


Disk (bi) with knobs, feline, and dragon, Eastern Han dynasty, 100-220, jade (nephrite), China, 22 high x 15.2 x 0.7 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.155)

Disk (bi) with knobs, feline, and dragon, Eastern Han dynasty, 100–220, jade (nephrite), China, 22 high x 15.2 x 0.7 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.155)

This jade disk, or bi, has a flat, circular body. It has a round hole at the center and a complex, openwork design on top. The jade material is almost translucent and in a pale greenish-white color. Both front and back are carved identically. The circular body is decorated with repeating raised dots, known as “grain pattern.”

Disk (bi) with knobs, feline, and dragon, Eastern Han dynasty, 100-220, jade (nephrite), China, 22 high x 15.2 x 0.7 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.155)

Top of the disk (bi) with knobs, feline, and dragon, Eastern Han dynasty, 100–220, jade (nephrite), China, 22 high x 15.2 x 0.7 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.155)

Look carefully at the beautiful and elaborate design on the top. Do you see a dragon and a cat-like animal, or feline? The dragon face appears on the top right. Covered with scales, it is immersed in sweeping curves, which is how ancient Chinese artisans depicted clouds. The feline is forward-facing with round dots all over its twisted body.

Disk (bi) with knobs, feline, and dragon, Eastern Han dynasty, 100-220, jade (nephrite), China, 22 high x 15.2 x 0.7 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.155)

Top of the disk (bi) with knobs, feline, and dragon, Eastern Han dynasty, 100–220, jade (nephrite), China, 22 high x 15.2 x 0.7 cm (Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC: Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1916.155)

Beginning in the Neolithic period (c. 7000–1700 B.C.E.), Chinese artisans produced plain perforated disks, or bi. Their origin and purpose is not entirely known. According to early Chinese texts, they are symbols of heaven. During the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 C.E.), the disks became more elaborate than their Neolithic predecessors. On some luxuriously fashioned examples, like this one, artisans would extend the circular shape of the disk by adding fantastic serpentine creatures. These intricate designs contrast with the simplicity of the disk itself.

Both dragons and felines were considered auspicious symbols in the Han dynasty. Dragons, in particular, were believed to bring good luck and represent peace, courage, and wisdom. They came to be associated with imperial power. This disk, with such a remarkable design and exceptional quality of jade material, is extremely rare. Similar disks have been found only in royal tombs.

 

Freer Sackler Smithsonian LogoThis resource was developed for Teaching China with the Smithsonian, made possible by the generous support of the Freeman Foundation

 

Discussion questions:

  • Let your eyes wander all over the image for at least thirty seconds; use the zoom feature. What five adjectives would you use to describe this work of art?
  • Why do you think the artisans that crafted this jade selected a feline and a dragon as the design?
  • Compare and contrast this work in jade with a work in jade from the Neolithic period: https://asia.si.edu/object/F1956.16/. Why do you think artisans working thousands of years later would produce a similar work of art?

Additional resources:

See this object on Teaching China at the Smithsonian

Alfred Salmony. Carved Jade of Ancient China. Berkeley, 1938. pl. 64, no. 1.

Masterpieces of Chinese and Japanese Art: Freer Gallery of Art handbook. Washington, 1976. p. 33.

Christine Minter-Dowd. Finders’ Guide to Decorative Arts in the Smithsonian Institution. Finders’ Guide to Work in the Smithsonian Institution Washington, 1983-1984. p. 39.

Hai wai i chen [Chinese Art in Overseas Collections]. Taipei, 1985. p. 74.

Thomas Lawton. China’s Artistic Legacy. vol. 118, no. 258 London, August 1983. p. 135.

Thomas Lawton, Linda Merrill. Freer: a legacy of art. Washington and New York, 1993. p. 229, fig. 162.

Jessica Rawson. Chinese Jades from the Neolithic to the Qing. Exh. cat. London. p. 310, fig. 3.

Edwards Park. Treasures from the Smithsonian Institution., 1st ed. Washington and New York. p. 340.

Joan Hartman-Goldsmith. Early Chinese Jades at the Freer Gallery. vol. 27, no. 4, Winter 1981-1982. pp. 446-449, fig. 6.

Cite this page as: Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art, "Disk (bi) with knobs, feline, and dragon," in Smarthistory, June 1, 2021, accessed October 15, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/disk-bi/.