The History and Cultural Significance of the Chinese Bi Disc

Bi with two dragons and grain pattern

From the years 3400-2250 BC, the Liangzhu culture flourished along the Yangtze River Delta in China. Excavations reveal that the culture’s elite was buried alongside jade, silk, lacquer, and ivory objects, indicating a clear divide between the poorest of the period. 

Some of the most mysterious and interesting Chinese artifacts produced in this Neolithic period are Chinese bi discs, also called Chinese bi. Typically made using jade and glass, later examples of bi discs date from the Shang (1600-1046 BC), Zhou (1046-256 BC), and Han dynasties (202 BC–220 AD). 

Neolithic Jade Bi Disc

Lot 5: Neolithic Jade Bi Disc, John Nicholsons Fine Art Auctioneer & Valuer, £6500 (November 11, 2016)

What are Chinese bi discs?

Chinese bi discs are flat jade discs with circular holes in the center. In analyzing the bi disc meaning, some historians say it’s a representation of heaven; they’re often found with heaven and earth-like depictions. As a counterpoint symbol, jade congs (straight tubes with circular centers and square outer sections, complete with convex sides), are said to symbolize earth. 

Chinese jade Neolithic period Liangzhu Bi Disc

Chinese jade Neolithic period bi disc (image via Wikimedia Commons)

According to the Journal of East Asian Archaeology (2000), Chinese bi discs represent the cosmetological concept of “a covering sky that revolves around a central axis, the cycle of Ten Suns, and the use of an early form of the carpenter’s square.” Bi discs were handled by shamans, religious leaders of the Liangzhu society who taught important concepts of cosmetology. 

Chinese Neolithic Period Jade Bi Disc

Lot 49: Chinese Neolithic Period Jade Bi Disc, Showplace Auctions (September 27, 2020)

Typically, Neolithic bi discs are not decorated, while those from later periods in Chinese history feature ornate carvings with hexagonal patterns and motifs associated with deities, and the sky and four directions. 

As an immense amount of time and effort went into crafting these artifacts, they were found in possession (and in burial sites) of a small concentration of ancient high society. 

What were bi discs used for?

So what, exactly, where bi discs used for? While the original function and significance is unknown (hence, their mysteriousness), archaeologists have discovered them buried alongside the deceased upper class, believed to symbolize heaven and the sky, to accompany them in the afterworld. In Neolithic times specifically, they were often placed near the stomach or chest of elite individuals before burial. They were also seen as totems to ward off evil.

Chinese Neolithic Liangzhu Nephrite Jade Bi Disc

Lot 90A: Chinese Neolithic Liangzhu Nephrite Jade Bi Disc, Artemis Gallery, $5500 (Feb 13, 2020)

In China, the dragon has long been seen as a symbol of power, strength, and good luck—Emperors of Imperial China often wore items with dragon motifs to symbolize his imperial strength and power. Hence, as bi discs were in the hands of—or ceremoniously buried with—the ancient elite, they were often decorated with dragon figures, perhaps in addition to clouds and other sky or heavenly motifs. 

Bi with two dragons and grain pattern

Chinese bi with two dragons and grain pattern (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Common bi disc materials

Beyond these meaningful motifs, the material of bi discs can also be connected to elite members of ancient societies. Throughout Chinese history, jade has served to represent humans of moral quality, but also one’s rank or class. Jade items like bi discs and guis (bronze Chinese ritual vessels) were often used in ceremonies to honor emperors, kings, dukes, and other noble individuals. Later, during the Zhou dynasty, defeated war leaders gifted victorious leaders of opposition with bi discs to represent submission.

While most commonly and historically made from jade, bi discs can be found in marble, glass, and metal in 20th-century reproductions. Today, their simplicity and roundness, complete with decorative colors, make for lovely objets d’art for interior collections.

A Plain Jade Bi Disc

Lot 6121: A Plain Jade Bi Disc, Ethereal Auctioneers, TWD35000 (September 12, 2020)

Jade bi discs: Today’s worth and notable examples sold at auction

It’s difficult to determine the value of bi discs today – prices vary greatly, as Chinese rulers have long treasured these objects. A modern, 20th-century quality jade reproduction could sell at auction for up to $500. However, it’s difficult to determine the exact age of these pieces, as the jade mineral could be ancient itself, while the carving more recent. 

A Ming Dynasty bi disc in good quality could fetch $1500-3,000 at auction, while a Qing Dynasty disc could price at $1,000-2,000. According to Elizabeth Appraisals, “the age and quality of jade, as well as the precision of the carving, are determinates of the value.”

A Jade Bi Disc

Lot 6103: A Jade Bi Disc, Ethereal Auctioneers, TWD50000 (September 12, 2020)

Among some recent, notable examples of Chinese bi discs that sold at auction are two exceptional pieces sold at two separate Bonham’s 2017 sales. One is a Western Han Dynasty jade piece that sold for $10,828, while the other is a large yellow jade disc also from the Han Dynasty, with a realized price of approximately $255,000. 

LARGE WHITE JADE BI QING DYNASTY

Lot 1836: An Imperially Inscribed Large White Jade Bi Qing Dynasty, Qianlong Period, Dated to the Jiayin Year (1794), Sotheby’s (April 8, 2010)

For those looking simply to admire bi discs versus collect them, numerous museums around the world currently hold exceptional examples of these artifacts, including The British Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harvard Art Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


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