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 Tube (cong 琮) with thirteen tiers of masks
New Acquisitions: 2016

Tube (cong 琮) with thirteen tiers of masks

More than a century ago, railway and factory construction in China resulted in the discovery of tombs from the Liangzhu 良渚 culture, a Stone Age society that flourished five thousand years ago. At the time, the precise age of the graves was unknown, but intriguing objects from the tombs found their way onto the international art market, chiefly in Shanghai 上海. Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) purchased scores of these early jades. Due to his astute acquisitions, we now possess the finest collection of Liangzhu 良渚 objects outside China—with a particular strength in ritual objects such as this one. In properly documented excavations, jade tubes, disks, and ceremonial tools are found in close proximity to the corpse, suggesting that they had a special role in burial rites.

Today Liangzhu 良渚 is identified as the most significant center for jade production in ancient China. It is associated with thousands of pieces of jewelry, as well as impressive but mysterious jade ritual objects that have been found in burial sites along waterways from modern Shanghai 上海 west to Nanjing 南京, nearly two hundred miles away.

Made of mottled dark-gray nephrite, this impressive cong 琮 was painstakingly drilled from both ends. Still obvious on the interior are the misaligned borings, a characteristic of Liangzhu 良渚 tubes. Thirteen tiers of abstract mask motifs ornament the object between inset rounded collars at either end. When the masks are properly oriented, with the eyes above the mouth, the piece tapers subtly from the top to the base.

Notably, the cong 琮 features an inscribed solar symbol in an elaborate frame (fig. 1) between its collar and the top of the masks. Liangzhu 良渚 jades with inscriptions are extremely rare, and we possess the largest concentration of them in the world: four bi 璧 disks (F1917.79, F1917.346, F1917.348, F1919.58) and a bracelet (F1917.385). Two of the disks were purportedly unearthed at Anxi 安溪, in Yuhang 餘杭, Zhejiang 浙江 province, near the geographic center of the Liangzhu 良渚 realm—not far from the huge walled city thought to be its capital.

The cong 琮 has been preserved in a fitted wood box with a brocade lining. A carved inscription on the lid’s burl wood panel reads Zhou zucong Taozhai zhen cang (周祖琮陶齋珍藏), translated as “Ancestral cong tube of the Zhou [dynasty] treasured by Taozhai.” A Manchu bannerman and the last viceroy of the Qing dynasty, Taozhai (Duanfang [1861–1911]) assembled the largest and most important collection of Chinese antiquities of the time. Charles Lang Freer viewed Duanfang’s collection at least twice in China and later aquired many objects, including his most valued jades, from the viceroy’s heirs. With Freer’s assistance, Eugene (1875–1959) and Agnes (1887–1970) Meyer purchased this piece in the 1910s, and it remained in the Meyer family for more than a century. Their distinctive star-shaped sticker is still on the object.

Learn more about this object in the first volume of the digital catalogue of our ancient Chinese jades, which is scheduled for release in Fall 2016.

Tube (cong 琮) with thirteen tiers of masks
China, Lake Tai 太湖 region, late Neolithic period, Liangzhu 良渚 culture (ca. 3300–2250 BCE)
Jade (nephrite)
32.7 cm
Purchase—Charles Lang Freer Endowment
Freer Gallery of Art F2016.2a-d

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