Jade was used in ritual and funerary contexts in most of the Neolithic cultures of China and into the Bronze Age. By the time of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-CE 220), jade objects had become numerous and also served secular purposes, and they were buried in tombs and displayed as luxuries. Jade's status as a luxury good continued throughout Chinese history. In addition, jade sculptures were among the exotic objects exported to the West in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The term jade is used generically for two different types of stone: true jade, or nephrite, which was imported to China from the area around the Kunlun Mountains located near the city of Khotan in Central Asia; and jadeite, which was imported to China from Myanmar. Nephrite was used in China much earlier than jadeite; the latter does not appear to have been imported until the 17th or 18th century. Most of the earliest Chinese jades were made from small pieces of nephrite collected from river beds; it was not until the supply of this material began to dwindle in the later 16th century that larger blocks of this stone were quarried from the mountains around Khotan.
The large size of this nephrite sculpture of a bixie (mythical animal) helps date it to the late 18th or early 19th century. The numerous fractures within the stone (called "cracked ice" fractures) are often found in quarried stones. The brown-black stains seen in these fractures were applied after the sculpture had been carved in an attempt to simulate the types of discolorations that naturally occur in stones collected from river beds. This artificial staining, a type of antiquarianism intended to enhance the value of the stone, is typical of Chinese jades carved from the 17th through 20th centuries.
The bixie first appears in Chinese literature as a deerlike creature, possessing a deer's agility, grace, and power. In later Chinese art, bixie are most commonly represented as leonine creatures with the horns and hooves of a deer, as in this jade. The bixie is a benevolent creature, often a guardian or protector. The precise function of this bixie is difficult to determine. Its size suggests that it was too large to adorn a scholar's desk or study, as smaller jade objects were often displayed.