The jade burial suits were hand-crafted using pieces of jade, for the ceremonial burial of royalty and aristocrats during the Han Dynasty nearly 2,000 years ago in China.
Long before the Han period, the Chinese had developed a fascination with the mineral, which was mined as early as 6000 BC during the Neolithic period.
Nephrite jade was carved into small items of personal adornment, such as small discs strung onto necklaces as symbols of political power and religious authority, or into ritualistic implements, such as axes, knives, and chisels.
Because of its hardness, durability, and subtle translucent colours, overtime jade became associated with Chinese conceptions of the soul, protective qualities, and immortality in the ‘essence’ of stone (yu zhi, shi zhi jing ye).
With the rise of the Han Dynasty (the second imperial dynasty of China) in 202 BC– AD 9 AD and AD 25 AD – 220 AD, the association with jade’s longevity is apparent from text by the Chinese historian Sima Qian (145 – 86 BC) about Emperor Wu of Han (157 BC –87 BC), who was described as having a jade cup inscribed with the words “Long Life to the Lord of Men”, and indulged himself with an elixir of jade powder mixed with sweet dew.
The Han rulers believed that jade would also preserve the body and the souls attached to it in death, and were buried entirely ensheathed in jade burial suits comprised of thousands of pieces of cut and polished jade, sewn together with thread.
According to the Hòu Hànshū (Book of the Later Han), the type of thread used was dependent on the deceased status. An emperor’s jade suit was threaded with gold, lessor royals and high-ranked nobility with silver, sons and daughters of the lessor with copper, and lowly ranked aristocrats with silk.
The mention of jade suit burials in historical text was long suspected as merely legend, until the discovery of two complete jade suits in the tombs of Prince Liu Sheng and his wife Princess Dou Wan in Mancheng, Hebei in 1968.
Archaeologists have since discovered over 20 jade burial suits, and believe that the burial practice was stopped around the end of the Han dynasty in fear of tomb robbers that desecrated the tombs to retrieve the precious threads.
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