Height: 4.800 cm
Width: 4.000 cm
On loan from a private collection OA 21:1
Room 33b: Chinese jade
Jade ornament for a weapon hilt
China, Eastern Zhou period, 6th-5th century BC
Jade sword fittings of the Eastern Zhou period (770-221 BC) were part of a tradition that began in the later Western Zhou (1050-771 BC). The use of jade, with its associations of immortality, to ornament weapons may well have been intended to enhance the force and protection afforded by the weapon. Over time, such weapons may have been thought to confer resistance to death and decay, and thus preferred over those with decoration in other materials for use in burials.
The ornament is in the form of a slightly tapered cylindrical drum. A hole for attaching a blade hilt or similar item is drilled up the middle, slightly off centre. The sides are divided into three registers by narrow ridges incised with fine striations.
Fully-developed swords of the late Eastern Zhou and Han periods might have had four or even five jade fittings, such as a round pommel ornament, an approximately triangular hilt decoration, a trapezoidal chape on the scabbard to prevent the weapon tip piercing the body, and slides on the scabbard for the attachment of a belt. Jade sword fittings may have followed the use of gold, as gold hilts for iron blades have been found in tombs in Shaanxi province. Gold was not a material particularly prized by the Chinese - jade and bronze always ranked higher in their hierarchy of valuable materials in early times - and the use of gold was probably introduced into China from Central Asia. The jade workers copied the finely worked gold decoration, technically much harder to achieve by carving in hard stone, than using the lost wax method to cast it in a soft metal. The very fine scroll work on this ornament is particularly reminiscent of gold work. The small striations and stippling are obviously borrowed from work in a soft metal.
J. Rawson, Chinese jade: from the Neolith (London, The British Museum Press, 1995, reprinted 2002)