Discover the Story of the Jade Pig-Dragon

Dig into the history and significance of this unusual creature from the National Palace Museum, Taipei

By Google Arts & Culture

Jade Pig-dragon (BC 3500-BC 3000) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

How old is the jade pig-dragon?

This beautifully carved jade object dates back as far as 3000 to 3500 BC, making it more than 5000 years old. 

Where does it come from?

It originates from the Hongshan civilisation, with its round form recalling the jade chueh earrings of the Xinglonghua culture. Hongshan culture is noted for its fine jade objects, often carved with animal themes and motifs. 

Where does it get its unusual name?

There has been much debate about the correct name for these objects, with some calling them pig-dragons and others bear-dragons. Pigs were important farm animals and bears objects of worship by ancient inhabitants of north-eastern China – so either is possible.

However, it is also clear that the form takes on the shape of a dragon, mythical creatures of great importance in some ancient Chinese cultures. 

What does the shape mean?

Whether the bodies are based on pigs or bears, they are always curved. In this way they are very similar to the pictographic representation of the Chinese dragon character. The pig-dragon has ears that resemble a bats, as well as a wrinkled nose and an arched mouth.

The complete form gives the impression of an animal embryo. It is possible that prehistoric people believed the embryo represented a pure form of life force. So, the curved shape of this and other pig dragons may have been designed as symbols of vitality.

Who were the Hongshan?

The jade pig dragon is a superb piece of evidence of the Hongshan culture a civilization based in regions of northeastern China, as well as in modern day Mongolia and Liaoning Province.

The civilization began in the Yellow River Valley from about 3800 BC. They were a sophisticated people who built impressive ceremonial sites. It’s at these sites where many of the jade pieces from the time have been discovered. 

Jade DragonThe Palace Museum

Why is jade important?

The English word ‘jade’ translates into Chinese as yu, which actually refers to a number of different minerals including serpentine and bowenite. Technically, jade is a calcium magnesium silicate but the presence of copper gives it a beautiful grey-green tint.  

It is found in the metamorphic rocks of the mountains, and was first worked in the Hongshan area about 5000 years ago. However, these jade sources have long since been exhausted. 

Archaistic jade ring (1200/1499)British Museum

The philosopher Confucius described jade as: "Soft, smooth and glossy, it appeared to them like benevolence; fine, compact and strong - like intelligence". It has always been highly prized in Chinese cultures, often above silver and gold, being worked into ornaments as well as ceremonial weapons and ritual objects. 

Jade was also often worn by kings and nobles, becoming associated with high status. So, it’s fair to say that whoever originally owned the jade pig-dragon was a person of some importance. 

See if you can find the pig-dragon

Take a look around the National Palace Museum in Tapei and see if you can find the pig dragon.

Ornament in the shape of a hoof, (4700-2920 BCE, Neolithic period (approx. 6000-2000 BCE))Asian Art Museum

Are you jade green with envy?

Then you can find out more about this enigmatic material here

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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