Chinese carvings actually owe their origin to Mesopotamia (around 3500 BC), when carved stone cylinder seals were used extensively to record ownership of property or establish authorship for documents. Carved from agate, rock crystal, lapis or other materials, the cylinder seal was the forerunner of the signet ring and other Chinese jade carvings, which are commonly found in many Asian cultures. The most common of the stones out of which Chinese carvings are made is jade, with the most valuable being emerald green. Nephrite is a type of jade and was held in great esteem in China dating back to the Shang Dynasty (1766-1045 BC). Ancient burial sites show Chinese carvings in nephrite in the form of amulets, weapons and ritual objects.
As Chinese civilization progressed, so did the number and variety of jade carvings. Ancient jade carvings produced by early Chinese culture are noted for their striking designs and highly polished surfaces. In the Zhou or Han Dynasties, small Chinese carvings of dragons and animals were found in tomb burial sites. From the Han to Song Dynasties, small, carved animals continued to be popular, as did vessels, although the quality of ritual jade carvings began to abate from that of the Zhou and Shang periods. The transition to the Song dynasty was marked by a greater emphasis on Chinese jade carvings for personal decoration and enjoyment. Small jade carvings of animals were represented with great realism, a trend which continued into the Ming Dynasty.
By the 18th century, jade carvings of miniature mountains, animals, vases, containers, and carved fruit and flowers was popular. Many centers of jade production existed at that time in China, both for official use and for purchase by wealthy merchants. By the late 19th century, the quality of Chinese jade carvings declined and many awkward shapes were introduced. Still, fine quality work of jade carvings could be found in some places, such as southern China. Today Chinese carvings in jade continue to be popular, but probably do not rival the exquisite work of earlier times.