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Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–9 CE)
Jade (nephrite)
H. 20 cm, W. 23 cm
Excavated 1996, Shuangrushan, Changqing County
Collection of Changqing County Museum
(cat. #34)


This face-cover is made of eighteen small parts: three for the forehead, six for the cheeks, six for the chin and mouth, two for the ears, and one for the nose. Unlike other known examples, the eyes and mouth are not represented by individual pieces but instead by openings created by the curving sides of two adjacent pieces. The most unusual piece is the nose, which is carved from a triangular block of jade, hollowed out on the underside and decorated with openwork spirals. Two small holes are drilled into the lower end to indicate the nostrils. The back and side-edges of each jade are pierced with small holes, by which they would have been sewn on a piece of fabric.

Jade face-covers appeared in China in the middle Western Zhou period. Among the jades excavated from a tenth-century BCE tomb at Zhangjiapo, Chang’an, Shaanxi province, archaeologists were able to identify the parts for the eye, eyebrow, and ear.[1] These jades also have small holes pierced on the back and side edges.

Archaeological finds suggest that the use of face-covers had become an established practice by late Western Zhou times. Examples from this period often have a large number of smaller pieces assembled around the edge of the cover, in addition to such essential components as eyes, nose, mouth, and ears. They were almost all made, either completely or partially, by recycling older pieces, and in some cases, the eyes, nose, and mouth were made from jade ornaments that have corresponding shapes. Fragments with carved patterns on the surface were also used.
The use of face-covers seems to have become more extensive in the Eastern Zhou period, when stone was also used as substitutes for jade in burials of lesser significance.[2] During the Western Han period, face-covers appear to have been in decline but not completely discontinued, even after use of the jade suit grew to be the norm in burials of the elite class. Especially noteworthy among recent finds is a face-cover from Houloushan, Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, which is composed of 30 jade pieces, mostly rectangular and pentagonal in shape.[3] They are neatly fitted into five rows, forming a complete sheet of jade, resembling the head cover of a jade suit.

The custom of covering the face of the dead was not limited to early Chinese civilization; it has been found in many ancient cultures from Central Asia to the Mediterranean. The use of jade for the face-covers, however, was an exclusive Chinese practice that had to do with the esteem reserved for this special stone and the belief in its protective power.

all text & images © China Institute Gallery


1. Zhongguo shehui kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo, “Chang’an Zhangjiapo Xi Zhou Jing Shu mu fajue baogao” [Excavation of the tomb of Jing Shu from the Western Zhou at Zhangjiapo, Chang’an], Kaogu, no.1 (1986), pp. 22–27.

2. Zhongguo kexueyuan kaogu yanjiusuo. Luoyang Zhongzhoulu (Xigongduan) (Beijing: Kexue chubanshe, 1959).

3. Li Yinde, “Xuzhou chutu Xi Han yu mianzhao de fuyuan yanjiu” [Study and restoration of the Western Han jade face-cover excavated in Xuzhou], Wenwu, no. 4 (1993), pp. 47–48.

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