Jade cicadas

China, Han dynasty, 2nd-1st century BC

The people of the Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 220) appear to have believed that jade offered some form of protection in the afterlife so that the deceased might continue to enjoy life after death in the manner in which they had lived life. The orifices of the deceased were plugged with body plugs, and eye pieces placed on the eyes, and cicadas on the tongue. Cicadas have an association with resurrection since they pupate and emerge from underground after about two years.

These cicadas are fairly realistic representations of the insect. Han-dynasty cicadas range from simple, almost unmarked pieces to quite complex representations, as here. They have prominent eyes, boldly cut wings and lobed undersides. Such cicadas were also made at this time in glass (Chinese glass having a certain turbidity which makes it green and jade-like), presumably for those who could not afford jade.

From the Neolithic period in China, objects made of jade were placed in burials in increasing number until they effectively covered the body of the deceased. Some types of jade were made explicitly to cover the head and body: tombs of the middle Western Zhou period (1050-771 BC) have been found where the facial features - eyes, brows, nose and teeth - have been covered with jades sewn on to a textile, forming a sort of veil. At the same time jade pendant sets covered the body from the neck to the knees. Full burial suits of jade, which were made to fit a body precisely, were first made in the Western Han dynasty (206 BC - AD 9). These were restricted by sumptuary laws to royalty. Meanwhile, groups of jades for the head and face only were used in conjunction with them or alone by those not entitled to a suit.

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Jade cicadas

© 2003 Private Collection


More information


J. Rawson, Chinese jade: from the Neolith (London, The British Museum Press, 1995, reprinted 2002)


Length: 6.000 cm (max.)
Width: 3.300 cm (max.)

Museum number

On loan from a private collection OA 24:9


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