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Detail: Ring
Western Han dynasty (206 BCE–9 CE)
Jade (nephrite)
Plugs a–e: L. 1.5–7 cm
Cicada: H. 3.8 cm
Ring: Diam. 7.4 cm
Excavated 1996, Shuangrushan, Changqing County
Collection of Changqing County Museum
(cat. #37)


Small plugs that were used to seal the nose, ears, and anus of the dead are common among burial jades in the Han dynasty. They are in the shape of short cylinders gently tapering toward one end and usually undecorated. Two small cylindrical jades with simple carvings, in the British Museum collection, are likely the only known decorated examples,[1] but supporting evidence from archaeology has yet to be found.

The practice of placing small jades in the mouth of the deceased dates from the late Neolithic period. Jades used for this purpose include beads, rings or even small fragments that are apparently broken off from larger pieces. By the Han dynasty, the practice had become standard among elite burials and jade cicadas the most favored type for the purpose. Their representations range from fairly naturalistic to simply abstract. The present example is carved in a highly abstract style, with beveled sides forming the wings and two small projections suggesting the eyes. This reductionist approach is typical of the style of the time, which is also seen in many other jades.

Burial jades used also include eye and genital covers. Eye covers are usually flat pieces in the shape of an almond and with a small hole in the center. Genital covers do not seem to have a particular shape. The examples found in archaeology are of various shapes but were almost all made from older pieces. This ring, used as the genital cover in the Shuangrushan tomb, resembles closely those of prehistoric and early Bronze Age cultures and is likely to have survived from that period.

Back: Plugs, cicada, and ring

all text & images © China Institute Gallery


1. Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to Qing, p. 318, no. 24.4.

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