During China’s Western Han Dynasty, a craftsperson constructed this burial suit using more than 4,000 jade tiles.
Close Caption
Photo courtesy of Xuzhou Museum and the China Institute Gallery, New York
Experts restitched the tiles using the original gold wire.
Close Caption
Photo courtesy of Xuzhou Museum and the China Institute Gallery, New York
A viewer marvels at the jade burial suit at the China Institute Gallery in New York.
Close Caption
Sipa Asia/Sipa USA/Newscom
Jade Burial Suit Dazzles Viewers
The China Institute displays an ancient burial suit crafted from precious stone

Amanda DeNatale | for Scholastic Art

Found in fragments, the oldest jade burial suit ever discovered is now intact and can be seen in an exhibition at the China Institute Gallery in New York City. The gleaming ancient jade suit is a full-body burial suit and mask composed of thousands of pieces of jade (a precious stone) strung together with gold wire. During the Western Han Dynasty, the Chinese buried deceased noblemen in this elegant kind of armor to honor their royal status. The Chinese believed that jade, when worn, had the power to protect someone for eternity.

Lavish Lifestyles

The exhibition Dreams of the Kings: A Jade Suit for Eternity, Treasures of the Han Dynasty From Xuzhou showcases a stunning collection of ancient artifacts. In the 1990s, archaeologists excavated these objects from tombs dating back to the Western Han Dynasty. This ancient period was a golden era in Chinese history that lasted from approximately 206 B.C. to 8 A.D.

During this dynasty, the wealthy led especially luxurious lifestyles. They filled their homes with vessels, jewelry, and figurines crafted from gold, silver, bronze, and jade. The elite used these objects in ceremonies and in daily life for others to admire. They even decorated their tombs with these treasures. Willow Weilan Hei, director of the China Institute Gallery, explains that “they constructed their tombs to be eternal residencies.”

Made of Jade

The ancient Chinese prized jade above other valuable materials for its important role in their culture. To the people of the Western Han Dynasty, jade symbolized both wealth and wisdom. Curators and viewers agree; one of the most exciting artifacts currently on view at the China Institute is the dazzling jade burial suit.

In 1994-95, archaeologists excavated the suit in pieces. Experts restored it using the gold wire that was still attached to the jade. Thousands of years ago, an ancient Chinese craftsperson first connected the small jade tiles using the gold wire—a luxury material used for only the highest-ranking officials—to form the full-body burial armor. Researchers restitched the 4,248 jade tiles—the most of any jade burial suit discovered so far. Altogether archaeologists have unearthed 12 jade burial suits. Scholars say this particular suit is by far the best quality. The jade used to craft the armor is known as Khotan, one of the gemstone’s most precious forms.

The historic burial suit is on view for the first time in the United States, at the China Institute Gallery in downtown Manhattan, through November 12. Once the exhibition closes, the suit will return to China, where the king who was buried in it once reigned.