Nephrite Axe Blade, China, Approximately 4,000 years old (Freer Gallery of Art)
Name three things that come readily to mind when Chinese civilization is mentioned. For me this august list includes the Great Wall, Confucianism and Daoism (ok, that’s a twinned compound entry), and jade. Jade is known as the Stone of Heaven. Jade is esteemed more than diamonds and valued more highly than gold. Jade is the pinnacle of appreciation. Jade is aspirational and defines so much of Chinese culture.
There are two types of jade, nephrite and jadeite. Nephrite is the traditional jade of China. While there is debate about whether nephrite was ever found in what was traditionally known as China proper, there is no doubt that the inventory of raw material for approximately the past two millennia was found in rivers and mined in mountains located in the western regions originally known as Khotan (Hetian) and now part of what is known as Xinjiang. The material was first offered to China’s Imperial Court as tribute by the powers that governed these regions and subsequently was delivered by Court order once the Qing Empire conquered the area in the mid eighteenth century. Jadeite, with its more brilliant, emerald-green hue, did not appear in the country in quantity until the late eighteenth century when it was brought in from Burma as tribute. Jade is not unique to China and East Asia, but in no other place has the stone taken on such importance, such gravitas as in China. Jade and China are synonymous. Jade’s place of respect, of sway, of intimacy is interwoven into the emotional, moral, spiritual, artistic, and even political fabric of Chinese culture and society.
Nephrite has long tentacles throughout the course of Chinese history. Jade was first used many millennia ago as tools because it was the hardest material known in ancient China. Its usefulness and otherworldliness brought it stature. Jade became desired beyond its functionality and began to be used in ritual ceremonies as devotions to heaven and attributed with philosophical import. Confucius ascribed jade with moral qualities. Buddhist and Daoist practices adopted jade talismans. Jade figures expressed a connection with the world and the cosmos. Jade was seen as a living spirit, a stone from beyond with life preserving powers, both for the living and the departed. Tomb jades, jade bi discs, and suits of jade armor are prevalent in the final resting places of the elite. In daily life, as beads, hair ornaments, belt hooks, and pendants, jade became fashion. Jade objects found a home in the Imperial system.
Shaping jade has always been a laborious, grueling, time-intensive process. It remained so even as technology advanced, for example when working nephrite in the later Imperial Period was aided by foot treadles turning rotary tools such as cutting discs, wheels, gouges, and drills. The patience of the craftsmen transformed raw stone into ever more intricate and nuanced designs, both large and small. In the Qing Dynasty, particularly during the Qianlong Emperor’s sixty-year reign in the eighteenth century, the creation of elaborate jade sculptures with linked chains of freely-circulating rings; delicately-thin, sculpted jade bowls; ornate wine vessels and vases; and intricate landscapes carved into brush pots, smaller stones, and even monumental boulders, exploded. Jade was everywhere. The craft waned in scope, in artistry, and in abundance during the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, but it never lost its allure.
Jade is called yu (玉) in Mandarin and comes in a variety of colors. Creamy white, mutton fat nephrite was a particularly prized color, but it can also be found in yellow, brown, gray, lavender, black, and of course the most recognized many shades of green. Jade stone ranges from opaque to translucent and from dark to light. In auctions around the world, in museums and private collections spanning the globe, in the minds of Chinese everywhere and all those who love and appreciate this stone that is so much more than the sum of its parts, jade is China’s stone.
Apprentices Using Wire Saw to Cut Jade Block, Beijing, Early Twentieth Century (S. Howard Hansford)