Interpreting Chinese Jade Pendants
By Ying Zhang
As one of many forms into which raw jade materials
are crafted, jade pendants became popular during the
Ming and Qing Dynasty (AD 1368-1912), the Late
Imperial Period in Chinese history. Jade pendants are
often made in square or rectangular shapes, and are
relatively small in terms of size, because jade pendants
are designed as personal accessories. Ancient Chinese
people usually wore jade pendants using a string to
hang from the waist.
As the pendants were meant to hang from the waist
or the neck, there is a hole at the top of each pendant
so the string can be threaded through. There are two
sides of the jade pendants that craftsman would carve
on: the front side presents scenes, patterns, or objects,
while the back side is usually carved with poems or
mottos. The contents of the front and back side echo
mutually and deliver the same allegorical message.
Because of its size and the auspicious meaning it
carries, the jade pendant is very convenient to wear
and ancient literati or aristocracy were fond of the
small but exquisite pieces of jade.
During the Imperial Period the most popular designs
involved auspicious symbolism. Thematic patterns
on the front side may include a wide range of images:
scenes of landscape, stories of historical figures,
flowers and plants, rare and valuable animals, and
hermits. Moreover, auspicious blessings are conveyed
with methods of homophonic analogy, symbolization,
or metaphor. For example, the “lock” jade pendant
(pictured here) from the Lizzadro Collection exemplifies
the metaphorical principle.
The flower on the front side of the piece is called
peony, “?? mu dan,” which symbolizes prosperity,
wealth, and flourishing. The flower species peony is
also the national flower of China; its symbolization of
prosperity could anticipate a prosperous and thriving
The back side of the “lock” piece is carved
with four traditional Chinese characters, reading
from left to right: 玉堂富貴 yù tang fù guì, translates “wish the honorable household prosperity and wealth.”
Also, flowers like begonia, peony, magnolia, are
culturally associated with the meaning of prosperity
and luxuriance. In addition, the shape of the lock
indicates that the lock stores and locks the prosperity
and wealth in it. In this way, the lock shape itself
is a metaphor for the action of storing and collecting
Another pendant features língzhī (pronounced
in English "ling zhur") 靈芝, a fungal species that is
venerated as the “Mushroom of Immortality.” Pictured
here, the língzhī is bottled in a vase with beautiful
ribbons. This special fungal species, or reishi, has been
used in Chinese medicine for over 2000 years and
culturally refers to longevity and immortality. Double
dragons face each other on the top.
The back of the pendant depicts several cloud
motifs, the square seal writes “諸仙祝壽,” meaning“all the immortal divines congratulate you with the
blessings for longevity.”
Nephrite jade “lock” pendant on display at the
Museum shows a peony symbol on one side and
Chinese characters on the other side. The lock shape
indicates the storing and collecting good fortune.
Nephrite jade pendants often show a graphic image on one side and a related calligraphic message on the other.
Fourteen of the Museum’s jade pendants were interpreted to discover their meaning and symbolism. Just one small piece of beautifully carved jade can refer to literature, Chinese calligraphy, auspicious symbols and historical stories. These pendants were welcomed by the Ming and Qing people, but are also relevant to modern people. Jade pendants today are highly collectable and continue to be produced in China. The Lizzadro Collection has a wide range of different kinds of jade pendants, so be sure to take another look at the display.
Special thanks to Ying Zhang for her work in interpreting pendants and carvings in the Lizzadro Collection, we wish her all the best as she goes on to pursue her doctoral studies.